The Neuroshopping Network: direct-to-mind marketing

In a future presented in Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report, crime is prevented by catching would-be criminals before they commit the act. The process used in the science-fiction story, neuroimaging, works by detecting activity in different parts of the brain. As you might have guessed, the different physicals regions of the brain are more active than others during specific activities. These differences  can be observed through brain scans.

There are many types of scans which are being heralded in crime detection. Some can indicate which individuals have a greater tendency to exhibit certain behaviors, such as the tendency to become aggressive. There needs to be additional studies before we can even consider using brain scans regularly for new purposes because there isn’t a clear idea about how scans correlate with criminal actions. We also know from common sense that simply because someone can be aggressive doesn’t mean that he or she is going to be a criminal. Consequently, the promise of these tools is currently greater than the utility.

fMRI brain scan

If you follow the news carefully, you may have noticed a recent firestorm of controversy over whether functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), one of the most powerful techniques of neuroimaging, can be used as better lie detectors. Results are inconclusive so far and favor not using the technique, but the debate will not abate anytime soon.

Still, the remarkable power of neuroimaging is undeniable. A research article published last week in the prestigious American journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences used fMRI to record brain activity of speakers and listeners during the act of verbal communication. The article found something called neural coupling occurring during active communication. In simple terms,  brain scans showed that the listener’s brain activity mirrors that the brain activity of the speaker. Detectable neural coupling happens only when the listener understands the speaker. So, if you’re speaking in Bangla, I can act like I don’t understand a word you’re saying, but my brain will leave tell-tale signs of my bluff. Will this be useful for crime detection? Maybe not right now. For one, my guess is that we don’t really know what happens if the listener concentrates on not paying attention to the speaker.

Now, let us switch gears and focus on a corporate setting. Suppose you’re a customer given the choice between an established soft drink and a new one being tested prior to product launch. Companies now rely on focus groups, surveys, and other tests to try to gauge customer preference. These do the job, but are notoriously unreliable.

But what if you didn’t need to verbally respond? What if the company could detect your preference for their drink or a competitor’s advertisement by scanning your brain? In addition, what if the company knew exactly which part of the brain the product appealed to and could make it even more irresistible? Companies wouldn’t need full-scale roll-outs or even smaller pilot projects to determine if they had a customer-base.

That is the goal of neuromarketing and it is being heralded as the next big advance in marketing. In theory, through neuromarketing it should be possible to tailor-design products so that a customer is compelled to buy it (and in case of food products consume in large quantities). Quite a fearful thought, but I doubt that will worry shareholders of the companies as their profits soar.

Let us now break down the central requirements for successful neuromarketing. The key steps are finding out which parts of the brain are involved in making the purchasing decision by observing subjects,  feeding this data into a computer to generate a mapping template, and successfully predicting the likelihood that a naive subject will make a purchase solely by comparing his or her brain scan.

A few years ago, a landmark research study published in Neuron entitled “Neural Predictors of Purchases” showed that at least the underlying assumptions of neuromarketing are not outlandish. In those series of experiments, researchers found, quite amazingly, that there are distinct brain circuits involved in the act of shopping.

In other words, different parts of the brain get activated when you consider buying an item and during the actual purchase. And we should be able to know without asking you just by scanning your brain. At least for the data used in the study, the model is predictive. What that also means is that with a sophisticated fMRI machine it may be possible to make an informed guess about whether or not you’re likely to buy something way before you do. No need for you to be polite or to lie. Just sit back while the companies ask your brain and let your mind do the talking!

But why should we stop there? After all, a customer does need to leave the sofa, go to a computer or a brick-and-mortar shop and make a purchase. There are just too many opportunities for the customer to change his or her mind before the actual transaction is made.

There is a way to get around customer indecision, lethargy, and changes in preference and although it requires a leap in science and technology, it is definitely within the realm of the possible. I propose to call it neuroshopping and here it how it goes:

You are sitting in your living room wearing an iShop helmet device with sensors monitoring synaptic activity in various parts of your brain. These signals are being fed into a computer that has access to your bank account information. You’re watching products flash by in 3D on the Neuroshopping Network. As soon as brain scans show that you’re interested in purchasing a product, a computer makes an automatic purchase on your behalf.

Perhaps, you repent later and you return some of your purchases, but if you’re anything like I am, you’re too lazy to return even the items you don’t need or can’t afford. The company makes a profit because it has connected directly to your impulses and has reduced marketing to the simplest essence – telling you that you need something and getting you to purchase instantaneously without giving you a chance to rationalize or second-guess your decision. (Bye bye

Quite honestly, as I mentioned earlier, a major stumbling block right now is the technology. A decent fMRI machine costs around one million dollars per Tesla. It also requires dedicated staff to run and costs in the hundreds of thousands of dollars every year to operate.

I was trained as a scientist, not as an engineer. But I do know a little bit about the short history of personal computers. I’ll wait for those with the “know-how” to make it happen. I keep thinking to myself: give it some time. Technology always gets cheaper.

The bottom-line is that one day that you will impulsively spend even more than you do now. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Image courtesy of Erik1980 and licensed under GDFL by the creator. If you also have time take a look at this interesting one-paragraph short story by Surekha Pillai.

© Text, 2010-2012


9 thoughts on “The Neuroshopping Network: direct-to-mind marketing

  1. Even if imaging gets cheaper, wouldn’t it still require the consumer to wear a helmet and stand still for at least a few seconds to get a image?
    Unless in the near future, we are looking into a scanner that reads brain images instantaneously. But that is not the case for quite a few years to come,afaik.

    1. Absolutely. It will take at least a few decades for the technology to get to the point where we can conceptualize neuroshopping.

      I also didn’t mention the 500-pound gorilla in the room. Right now for any purchase there is a signature or a digital signature. Will there be brain signal signatures that authorize purchases and will they be individualized and theft-resistant? There are just so many legal and ethical implications!

      I wanted to throw a provocative idea out there which wasn’t implausible.

      Thanks for reading.

  2. Interesting post.

    A friend of mine filed patent for detecting lies through neuroimaging. –

    He was working on it 5 years ago and I remember him mentioning that the consequences can be really scary, not to mention unethical.

    However, as a marketer, I’m licking my chops as I am trying to imagine using an application like this to by-pass what to my mind are the 4 stages of any purchase cycle – Awareness, consideration, preference and finally purchase. Being able to move the consumer from preference to purchase means that there is no opportunity for any sort of dissonance, dissent or opinion.

    Cut to a market research scenario where you are trying to judge how aesthetic/useful a product is. It removes the necessity for multiple double-blind studies and hours and hours of panel discussions and time spent behind one-way mirrors observing how consumers behave around a product. A tool like this can potentially save months of testing.

    But yes. Neuromarketing sounds scary and a prelude to a Big Brother/Minority report type of world.

    1. Hey Yogesh, thanks for the comments. It looks like your friend has done some pretty cool work. The neuroimaging technology for lie-detection has hit a roadblock for now because of lack of legal uptake, but intelligence agencies won’t mind using anything that gives them the edge.

      Your comments also gave me another idea. What if analysts could use this technology to test out products independently with market panels to cut through some of the launch-hype offered by a company?

      Food for thought, my friend!

      1. Another scary application. What if your employer uses this to see how much money you are ACTUALLY happy with?

        People who are content will never get raises 🙂

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