Lessons from Neuromarketing

To be honest, the only time I usually read about an MRI is when some famous athlete gets one done. But now, similar technology is being used in marketing. Many marketers and researchers are using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to study the brains of people to see how they think when they are watching advertising or making a purchase. There are many lessons one can learn from such experiments. Don't worry. As a liberal arts major, I haven't learned most of them, but here are a few I did pick up.

1. You can't take your popcorn with you into the MRI machine.

I bet you've often wondered: If I ever need to have an MRI done, how can I make it more fun? Here's a simple answer: movie trailers. These days, movie studios are actually using fMRI machines to study the brains of people who are watching movie trailers. By studying the blood flow in the brain, researchers can tell exactly which parts of the brain are active when watching the trailer, unless the person is watching a trailer for "Jackass 2," in which case no parts of the brain are active.

Researchers can in effect watch your brain while you watch the movie trailer. Judging from some of the movies coming out this summer (another "Fantastic Four" movie anyone?), it would seem that the researchers might be getting the better deal.

2. There's nothing like having a captive audience.

First, there were movie trailers. Why not TV shows next? After all, the average length of an MRI is about an hour, which is also the length of most television shows. One of these days, I suspect you'll be able to watch TV shows whenever you need an MRI.

Admittedly, when I first read about the movie trailers, I didn't realize that these new viewers were being studied. I just assumed that marketers had discovered one last part of life that had no commercials, and they pounced. Eventually, I assumed, the TV people would take over as well. "Sure, our overall ratings are down, but among 18-49-year-olds trapped in MRI machines, our ratings are up over 100%!" I guess I was wrong ... for now.

3. You can't escape commercials even while fast forwarding.

NBC recently hired a Boston company called Innerscope to study how people react to the commercials that they skip on a DVR. At first, of course, they react with pure, unmitigated bliss, at least until they realize that the programs aren't much better than the commercials they are skipping. Eventually, though, as The Boston Globe recently reported, viewers pay much more attention to the skipped commercials than anyone expected.

Frankly, this doesn't surprise me, because you still have to watch the commercials while fast-forwarding. Whenever I've used my parent's DVR, I find I pay much more attention to commercials than I normally would. They may be going by quickly, but I still have to be extra alert, lest I don't hit the stop button in time and miss any of the show. With a little practice, though, I'm sure I'll soon be able to speed through the ads without absorbing any commercial messages at all.

4. For cheapskates, spending money can be painful. Literally.

My father always talks about how it hurts him to spend money. I always assumed he was speaking metaphorically, but maybe all this time he really has been feeling pain.

A Carnegie-Mellon research study that appeared in the journal "Neuron" showed that the insula, a part of the brain that processes pain, becomes more active when people are asked to spend too much money on a product. In the study, 26 people were given $20 and shown a series of products while in an fMRI machine. They could either spend the entire $20 or keep whatever they didn't spend. The study indicated that as the price went up on a product, the subjects actually experienced pain.

The authors have done another study showing that tightwads essentially are much better at anticipating this pain of paying. Others, meanwhile, feel no pain at all when spending money, or at least very little. Although it's a long way off, some speculate that one day there could even be a pill that controls this part of the brain, so that spendthrift people might be able to control their spending.

If there is such a pill, that's a business I want to be in. (I'd make the pill shiny.) I find it's always a good idea to be in any business where your main customers are people who can't control how much money they spend. Good luck, though, getting the tightwads to pay for a pill to make them more spendthrift.

  • http://JoeLavin.com

    A periodic humor column, disguised as a blog. New columns published on Tuesdays or not as the case may be.



  • I've written for Slate, The Boston Globe Magazine, Salon, McSweeney's, WBUR Radio, The Christian Science Monitor, The Globe and Mail, and many other publications. Thanks for dropping by. I hope you enjoy my Internet column.

  • ©1995-2009 Joe Lavin