In an attitude that most of us would find chilling, Francis Crick, the Noble Laureate who co-discovered the structure of DNA, referred to it as ‘the astonishing hypothesis’.
He wasn’t talking about genes, but the proposal that all human feelings, actions and thoughts – right down to the level of consciousness, itself, are the products of neural activity in the brain. In truth, science continues to struggle to explain consciousness, which seems to precede matter in any serious consideration.
The results of such thinking expose the human to some of the most pervasive and well-funded exploitation in our species’ history; and this at a time when individual human rights are being eroded and, often, erased altogether.
Vast sums of money are spent influencing our consumer behaviour. One of the best examples, and known world-wide, is the annual American Super Bowl whose 30 second giant adverts have been a frontline battleground over the years for such clashes as Apple vs IBM personal computers and, more recently, the ‘cola wars’, in the form of Coke vs Pepsi.
Vast sums of money are to be made selling us flavoured, fizzy water, and the average costs of having a 30 second advert at the world’s most viewed sporting event have risen from $37,500 for the first one in 1967 to an eye-watering $7 million in 2022. We will return to the ‘cola wars’, later, as they now feature as a case study in large-scale doubts being aimed at this emerging pseudo-science…
The field of neuromarketing purports to offer a method of applying the science of Neurobiology to test and quantify our consumer preferences. Apparently, we are not always rational creatures… Who knew?
Technology that extracts, and possibly changes, the mind’s layers of preference and choice is expensive and very specialised. The idea of the ‘wired brain’ has long been the domain of sci-fi.
Neuromarketing or ‘consumer neuroscience’, studies physical and electronic changes in the brain to predict and manipulate our decision making. In decades gone by, it was considered a frontier science, but claimed successes over the past few years have bolstered its reputation and seen vast investment from companies who have most to gain.
But the most recent findings from ordinary human-based consumer research – which is fighting back – have confounded this. We live in interesting times in the battle for the dwindling money in our pockets.
“Neuromarketing” loosely refers to the measurement of physiological and neural signals to gain insight into our motivations, preferences, and decisions, which can help to fine-tune marketing programmes for advertising, product development and associated pricing.
The two primary tools for scanning the brain’s electrical activity are Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) and EEG. Magnetic resonance imaging uses strong magnetic fields to track changes in blood flow across the brain, and is administered while a person lies inside a machine that scans them over a small period of time – a bit like a photocopier scanning its target piece of paper but a bit more intimidating. It’s a familiar device in images of advanced tech in medicine.
An EEG (electroencephalogram) reads brain-cell activity using sensors placed on the subject’s scalp; it can handle large volumes of data in a short time, but is less effective at pinpointing exactly where the activity occurs or measuring it in the deep, subcortical regions of the brain, where the more interesting activity takes place.
An fMRI machine can look deep into the brain but is cumbersome, and it tracks activity over the course of only several seconds, which may miss key data. One of the deciding factors is that fMRI machines are many times more expensive than EEG equipment, typically costing millions versus about £20,000 for the alternatives.
Tools for measuring other physical indicators that ‘track’ brain activity – called ‘proxies’ – tend to be more affordable and are easier to use. Eye tracking uses our focus ‘fixation points’ to measure attention and can even indicate ‘arousal’ using pupil dilation.
Facial-expression coding which reads the minute movement of muscles in the face can measure emotional responses; and also heart rate, respiration rate, and, again – via skin conductivity – arousal. We may surmise that arousal is related to craving and many companies could love to link it to their products.
Some of the neuromarketing approaches claim to, effectively, ‘reverse the process of evolution’; drilling into our motivation from the outer brain layers that control our rational behaviour, down through the powerful emotional regions and, even lower, to the ‘reptile’ layers of the inherited instincts – the latter have changed little in the recent development of mankind. At that level, we appear to be ‘hard-wired’ lizards and intent on staying so.
It’s sobering to relate modern politics to such a model. Instructive, too…
It is fascinating that from the perspective of the law, neuro ‘science’ can operate freely within what even psychology regards as ‘moral territory’. For example the ‘lizard’ brain would equate with the powerful but unruly ‘id’ in Freud’s model of human behaviour – something even the most experienced psychologists approach with caution. The unchallenged nature of such intrusion by marketeers into what and who we are should worry us all…
The attraction of this market-led descent of consciousness into the primaeval, is that companies sponsoring such work can readily relate to it. If I’m a purveyor of a new fizzy drink, and have risen to the top of my management pyramid, I might easily understand why removing evolution’s constraints at the personal and social levels of consciousness – so that I could get my product to be not only acceptable but craved – would be a good idea.
Interest in consumer neuroscience took off in the mid-2000s, when business school researchers started to demonstrate that advertising, branding, and other marketing tactics can have measurable impacts on the brain. It’s currently on a high, but the exciting claims are not always being backed up by scientific results. Perhaps the big lizards in big marketing aren’t getting all their own way. Our human complexity may be our saviour, yet.
Pepsi is famous for funding a massive marketing campaign to knock Coke off the world’s top spot.
In 2004 researchers at Emory University served Coca-Cola and Pepsi to subjects in an fMRI machine. When the drinks weren’t identified, the researchers noted a consistent neural response, apparently in favour of Pepsi. But when subjects could see the brand, their limbic structures (brain areas associated with emotions, memories, and unconscious processing) showed enhanced activity, demonstrating that knowledge of the brand altered how the brain perceived the beverage. In simple terms, people in the test related more to the better-known Coke.
This reversed the prevailing ‘drill down to the lizard’ focus, and shows that our higher ‘selves’ could ‘reach down’ and correct the world of ‘craving’. This continues to be a hot topic…
Four years later a team led by INSEAD’s Hilke Plassmann scanned the brains of test subjects as they tasted three wines with different prices; their brains registered the wines differently, with neural signatures indicating a preference for the most expensive wine. In fact, all three wines were the same.
We can’t expect the newly graduated high-flyer to take a moral stance when she begins that hi-tech marketing job. Protecting the human should be the work of government, who need to be more on our side than ever before.
Sadly, the trends are the other way. Britain’s exit from the EU – one of the few institutions that has formulated punitive policies for corporate violators – is currently being celebrated by our right-wing government’s planning a bonfire of former European regulations protecting the individual’s rights and employment protections; exactly at a time when they need to be strengthened.
The fundamental crisis in all of this is the voting public’s lack of understanding of the heart of these complex issues. As long as that prevails, there is little hope that democracy will function as it is supposed to: to protect the people.
Power knows how to manipulate. When you’re hungry and your children are cold, you don’t have time to learn that.
©Stephen Tanham 2023
Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye, a journey through the forest of personality to the dawn of Being.