Debra Goldman’s Consumer Republic

Would that clients had half the faith in advertising that its critics do.

Since long before The Hidden Persuaders hit the best-seller lists, debunkers of advertising have tried to expose how the industry’s evil geniuses invade consumers’ brains, bending behavior to marketers’ will. And the critics are still at it, even as doubts about advertising’s effectiveness mushroom within the profession.

The latest example came last week in the Web pages of Salon, where an article by Matthew Blakes lee titled “Madison Avenue and Your Brain” claimed to reveal how “new advances in neurosciences are explaining why people just do it, exactly as they’re told to, when that commercial comes on.”

If only. Advertising people would gladly be mind-bending evil geniuses if they could, so the source of this supposed power is worth checking out. Unfortunately, there’s not much there.

According to Blakeslee, neuroscience has figured out that it all comes down to dopamine, a brain chemical associated with pleasure that has been linked to addiction. Deep in our brains lurk structures such as the dorsal striatum and the amygdala, which, when diddled by the sights and sounds of advertising, start pumping out dopamine. The resultant experience of pleasure then encourages us to take out our wallets.

No one in advertising will be surprised to learn that the sight of a beautiful woman starts the dopa mine flowing, as does the perception of something new and unexpected. In essence, neuroscience tells us that advertising succeeds by appealing to basic human nature. Which you probably already knew.

If nothing else, Blakeslee asserts, neuroscience provides a “deeper explanation” for consumer behavior. Actually, it doesn’t even do that. Neuroscience may account for advertising that works, but it cannot explain advertising that doesn’t. Every brand of beer that has ever been quaffed has used babe bait in its ads at one time or other. But only some of these brands have prospered, and neuroscience does not offer a clue as to why. Surely if we bought stuff under the urging of dopamine, every ad that tickled our amygdalas would make the cash register ring. Which, to advertisers’ regret, is not the case. Actual consumer behavior is apparently a complex process in which the social meaning of brands interacts with the pleasure centers in our reptilian brains.

Unfortunately for the industry, the same neuroscience that is useless to advertisers may be a huge boon to lawyers. Public-interest groups are taking aim at the fast-food industry over the problem of obesity, but thus far the odds are not great that they will be as successful as the anti-tobacco forces were—in part because there is no proof that food advertising makes people fat. But, as Blakes lee notes, neuroscience could provide the smoking gun.

He cites a study released this year by the Brookhaven National Laboratory. In an attempt to show that eating is an addictive behavior, the experiment recruited 10 “food-deprived” volunteers, who were then tempted by their favorite dishes. The food was warmed beforehand (the better to increase its aroma), and the subjects were even allowed to taste it, as tiny morsels were pressed to their tongues with cotton swabs. Sure enough, brain scans showed that this stimuli set the dopamine flowing, and the subjects reported an increase in hunger.

Such results shed a provocative light on the possible relationship between the ubiquity of food in our society—it’s there for the seeing, smelling and tasting almost everywhere—and the obesity crisis. But to link this experiment, which enlisted three senses in the cause of temptation, to the impact of a Big Mac billboard urging you on to the McDonald’s at the next exit seems a bit of a stretch. Yet Nora Volkow, who led the study, makes just that link. “This is why [fast-food] advertisements are so compelling, and why we are having an epidemic of obesity in this country,” she told Salon.

When contacted, Dr. Volkow admitted that she knew of no brain-scan study that has measured the impact of visual stimuli alone—a much fairer test of advertising’s power. But she offered a “guarantee” that such an experiment would elicit the same kind of biochemical reaction in the brain as the Brook haven study.

Would she, or some like-minded colleague, repeat this assertion in court? Would a jury buy it? Chances are very good that we are going to find out.