Mon, Jan 16, 2012 - Page 10 News List

FEATURE: How ad men are reading your mind

The Observer, LONDON

A man stares at a billboard in Times Square in New York City after thousands of revelers gathered in the area to celebrate New Year’s Eve on Dec. 31 last year.

Photo: AFP

The world’s biggest companies have got a new way of convincing you to buy their products — by getting inside your head. Brands including Google and Facebook are turning to mind-reading technology to help them develop products and create advertisements that people like.

Traditionally, focus groups have been used to tell marketeers what they think of ads. Unfortunately for advertisers, some people don’t tell the truth.

Faced with the prospect of consumers hiding their emotions — perhaps a middle-aged man reluctant to reveal that he shed a tear at a sentimental Christmas advert — a new breed of “neuromarketer” has emerged, armed with medical technology to probe consumers’ brains for genuine responses.

“We put a cap on your head that measures your brain impulses,” said A.K. Pradeep, a pioneer of neuromarketing science and chief executive of NeuroFocus, one of the biggest players in a booming industry. “We measure all parts of your brain continuously. Second by second, we measure how much attention you’re paying. We get [to learn] what emotions you’re experiencing and what memories you’re memorizing.”

Pradeep says watching people’s brains via caps covered in electrodes or magnetic scanners that are normally used by hospitals to detect cancer is better than direct questioning because, “when you ask people to tell you how they feel, the very act of thinking about a feeling changes the feeling.”

NeuroFocus grades ads against the emotions the advertisers wished to evoke on a scale of 10 (perfect; don’t change a thing) to zero (requires major surgery). Low-scoring ads are sent back with suggestions of changes to make them more appealing.

A spokesman for NeuroFocus, which was bought last year by global advertising giant Nielsen for US$5 billion, said the company has worked with Google, Microsoft, Intel, Facebook, PayPal, Hewlett-Packard and Citigroup, but refused to provide details of adverts or products involved.

Gemma Calvert, a former Oxford University neurologist who founded rival company Neurosense, said neuromarketing has “completely changed our understanding of the brain” and is now so advanced that she is “able to predict how customers will behave.”

She said Neurosense, which monitors blood flow to detect activity levels in different parts of the brain, worked with GMTV to provide evidence that consumers were more receptive to advertising early in the morning. The company’s Web site also lists clients including McDonald’s, Unilever and Procter & Gamble.

“Neuroscience has completely changed our understanding of the brain. This information is not a flash-in-the-pan,” Calvert said. “We are trying to find out what aspects of the images [in ads] are having effect on the reward system — and making them [the brand] more likable.”

For example, she said, if research showed a chocolate bar’s crunchiness made it appealing, she would advise manufacturers to make it more crunchy.

Calvert said one restaurant asked her to determine the best aroma to tempt customers.

“One client was interested in pumping a fragrance into a restaurant to change the way people perceived the food they were going to eat there. Certain fragrances encourage different eating habits; we were trying to determine which are the most effective,” Calvert said.

She said the research has led to brands changing their logos, packaging and even theme tunes

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