Manipulating the Brain for Profit

Marketers and advertising agencies are coming to realize that they have been speaking to only the most superficial part of the mind, the conscious part.  “If pitches are to succeed,” says A. K. Pradeep, the founder and chief executive of NeuroFocus, “they need to reach the subconscious level of the brain, the place where consumers develop initial interest in products, inclinations to buy them and brand loyalty.” (See, “Making Ads That Whisper to the Brain.”)

For many years now, marketers have known that the emotional impact of the message is what leads customers to act.  So far, however, finding the messages that actually work has been hit or miss.  Now, according to The New York Times, “volunteers in NeuroFocus marketing tests wear a fabric cap that houses EEG sensors and an eye-tracking device while they look at a commercial, use a Web site or view a movie trailer.”  This allows “researchers to connect the volunteers’ brain patterns with the exact video images or banner ads or logos they’re viewing.”

It had to happen, and now it’s getting easier and cheaper to do.  Should we worry about it?  Will there be anyway of guarding against abuses?  Or does anything go in our freewheeling “free market economy”?

Consumer advocates, who call it “brandwashing,” worry that it has effects on individuals they won’t be informed about.  This may not matter so much if it’s a question of whether you buy Toothpaste A or Toothpaste B, Dr. Pradeep comments, but “if I persuaded you to choose President A or President B, the consequences could be much more profound.”  He adds, “The fact that we can use this technology to do this doesn’t mean we should.”

His company’s clients include American Express, Clorox, General Motors, Campbell Soups and MTV Networks.  Other companies have equally impressive rosters of clients.  Pradeep says his company will not work on political campaigns, nor will it ever “use subliminal techniques — like embedding stimuli that last 30 milliseconds or less — that people can’t consciously register.”

But other companies do, and it is a sure bet that more and more will.  NeuroFocus may stay clear of political campaigns, but already other firms are learning how to do that better and better.  Skeptics say that the technology is unproven.  Moreover, there are other factors that influence our behavior.  The technology does not make us into robots.

But, inevitably, it will become more and more effective, and a real cause of worry.  Unless there is regulation, it is sure to influence our behavior increasingly in ways we won’t be able to detect.