The Big Game: What Corporations Are Learning About the Human Brain
Posted by Adam Benforado on February 2, 2008
This post was originally published on February 4, 2007.
As I stake out my position on the couch this evening – close enough to reach the pretzels and my beer, but with an optimal view of the TV – it will be nice to imagine that the spectacle about to unfold is a sporting event. It shouldn’t be too hard: after all, there on the screen will be the field, Brian Urlacher stretching out his quads, Peyton Manning tossing a football, referees in their freshly-starched zebra uniforms milling about. Yes, I’ll think to myself, this has all the makings of a football game.
The Super Bowl isn’t about sports; it’s about making money. And with 90 million or so viewers, there is a lot of money to be made.
With CBS charging an estimated $2.6 million for each 30-second advertising spot, it’s no surprise that corporations don’t mess around with guessing what the most effective approach will be for selling their products. They call in the scientists.
For the second year in a row, FKF Applied Research has partnered with the Ahmanson-Lovelace Brain Mapping Center at the University of California, Los Angeles, to “measure the effect of many of the Super Bowl ads by using fMRI technology.” The research involves “track[ing] the ads on a host of dimensions by looking for activity in key parts of the brain areas that are known to be involved in wanting, choosing, sexual arousal, fear, indecision and reward.” As the FKF website explains, why this research is useful to Fortune 100 companies is that it
shows clearly that what people say in focus groups and in response to poll questions is not what they actually think, feel and do. fMRI scans using our analytical methods allow us to see beyond self report and to understand the emotions and thoughts that are driving (or impeding) behavior.
Looking beyond the spoken word provides immense and actionable insights into a brand, a competitive framework, advertising and visual images and cues.
As it turns out, “brand” lives in a particular place in the human brain:
[W]hen [FKF] did an academic study on the impact of iconic brands, such as Pepsi and Coke and McDonalds, [they] found that the same part of the brain lit up over images of sports logos – say, for the NBA or NFL. There is a clear connection in the human brain between the anticipation of eating that you get from, say, the Coke logo and with the NBA logo.
For someone like me, who has always wondered why I feel so hungry reading the sports page, this is interesting stuff. For a corporate CEO, this is extremely interesting – and actionable – stuff. For everyone else . . . this is a reason to be concerned.
Corporations are using science to figure out how our brains work so they can sell more products and what they are finding is that our brains don’t work the way we think they do.
Anticipating this worry, FKF has an Ethics tab on its website:
We are committed to the highest level of ethical behavior in conducting our work. We are determined to be diligent in carving out a new field, and being a leader and advocate in ensuring the best interests of our subjects, the public, and our clients are protected. . . . We believe that wide dissemination about how people make decisions will empower all concerned – both consumers and purveyors of information. Such information, freely discussed in a democracy, will allow us to understand better how marketing is affecting us, discredit manipulation, promote communication, and help illuminate a process that fundamentally shapes the lives of human beings.
Sounds good – in fact, it sounds like situationism, and I have no reason to think that the founders of FKF, or the university scientists with whom they work, aren’t upstanding citizens with good moral compasses. It’s just that I’m still uneasy.
Corporations don’t exactly have a good track record when it comes to learning counterintuitive information about human decision making and then using it responsibly. Rather, the best approach for maximizing shareholder profit is to discover some seemingly-illogical detail about the human brain, use that knowledge to sell more widgets, and then convince the public that their naïve (and incorrect) beliefs about how they make choices are, in fact, correct.
Take big tobacco: as Jon Hanson and others have documented, after figuring out that nicotine was addictive and could compel people to buy Marlboros, cigarette companies made a concerted effort to both up nicotine concentrations in their products and convince people, through advertising, that they were rational actors who were not easily manipulated. From the perspective of an entity that is charged, through our legal rules, with making money (and not with doing social good), it makes little sense to alter peoples’ situations to get them to be better consumers and then tell them that you are doing it and that it matters.
Why, that would be as silly as announcing a weak-side blitz to the quarterback before the play. Sure, it would be the nice, ethical thing to warn decent gentlemen like Manning and Rex Grossman of the imminent threat, but it’s not part of the game we’ve developed. Football is a game where you can get blind-sided.
As corporations and our brains make certain, so is watching football.
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(To read about the results of a brain-scan study of men and women watching the 2006 Super Bowl by UCLA neuroscientist Marco Iacobini, click here. To listen to a recent one-hour NPR (On Point) program on “The Changing World of Advertising,” click here.)