This Is Your Brain on Marketing

Up close and personal with fMRI

The future of market research has no room for bad teeth. Or Englishmen.

It’s 8:15 p.m. at the Rolling Oaks Surgical Center in Thousand Oaks, Calif., deep in the Valley north of Los Angeles. I’m with a group of advertising executives, a neuroscience professor, and a laboratory technician, gathered around MRI computer equipment and monitors. We’re here at night because MRI centers can run almost around the clock, with the bulk of that time used by physicians ordering tests on their patients. A young girl in a hospital gown had just concluded a test even as our group was preparing to begin its work.

Beyond us, in a room observable through a thick glass window, is Bill Rosenthal, the COO of Los Angeles-based ad agency Ignited, lying on his back inside the giant donut ring of a functional magnetic resonance imaging machine. (fMRI is technology that can create a picture of brain activity by increasing blood oxygenation.)

That was supposed to be me in Rosenthal’s place as the lab rat, but it turns out to be very hard to get selected as a subject of fMRI research—a technology behind advertising’s latest “it” trend, neuromarketing. Rosenthal had been recruited as a volunteer by account executives from Ignited, an investor in Illuminare Labs, the startup neuromarketing research firm conducting the fMRI test—which Ignited plans to partner with on future client research. He took my place because of the orthodontic wire behind my lower front teeth (the last vestige of a bout with adult braces), which disqualified me from being exposed to the power of the Philips imaging machine’s magnets.

Also nixed was my Yorkshire-born colleague, Stevan Keane, whose utter disinterest in U.S. car models meant he didn’t pass a prescreening questionnaire needed to qualify him as an American male planning a car purchase in the next few months. (fMRI surveys are generally restricted to a small pool, so one outlier who doesn’t fit a target customer profile could unfairly skew results.)

Even out here beyond the glass, the throbbing hum of the equipment driving the fMRI machine’s massive magnets is impressively loud. Rosenthal wears headphones, his face hidden behind a pair of image-projecting goggles. On one of the screens we can see what he’s watching—a video presentation that begins with logos for Japanese cars, followed by alternate views of different models of those cars, followed by commercials for those same models. Rest periods are built into each sequence; between sets of logos, for example, his screen goes black to allow his brain to quiet.

On the technician’s monitor is a grid of sliced views of the brain, horizontal cuts of successive layers of the organ, periodically speckled with colored pixels—a real-time view of Rosenthal’s brain lighting up and quieting as extra blood flows to the cognitive areas reacting when they see an image, then flows away during each rest.

The test isn’t for a real product. Instead, it’s part of the proof-of-concept product development (basically, a testing of tools) for Illuminare, which hired its first CEO three months ago, and whose founders and advisors include renowned neuroscientists and radiologists from UCLA’s Geffen School of Medicine.

Illuminare is banking that its experts and proprietary analytical tools will help establish it at the forefront of the world of commercial neuroscience research.

It’s a world still in its nascent stage, despite all the ink spilled on it and the fact that traditional research firms are scooping up some of the companies in the category—like Berkeley, Calif.-based NeuroFocus, purchased by Nielsen in May 2011.

Clients such as Procter & Gamble, McDonald’s, Viacom, L’Oréal, and Starcom MediaVest have all reportedly used research from neuromarketers. Marketing guru Martin Lindstrom highlighted the category in his 2009 New York Times best-seller buy•ology, and filmmaker Morgan Spurlock climbed inside an fMRI in his documentary POM Wonderful: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold.

In fact, despite numerous articles positioning neuroscience as the savior of market research—and the death of traditional research—there’s no clear agreement on what actually qualifies as neuromarketing. Or, for that matter, what qualifies as valid research versus junk science. (Nor is there any research backing up claims that EEG has already become the de facto standard in the field.)

The Advertising Research Foundation, for example, through its NeuroStandards Collaboration Project, is attempting to define both the category and the research protocols and has secured the cooperation of seven companies in developing an independent peer review process for their work. ARF’s Horst Stipp, a retired TV researcher who spent 41 years at NBC before joining the foundation, says there are no firm estimates of how many companies are even claiming to provide neuromarketing research.

Illustration by Bryan Christie

The test we’re watching was designed by Dr. Marco Iacoboni, an Illuminare founder, and professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the UCLA Medical School, who runs the Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation Lab at the university’s Ahmanson-Lovelace Brain Mapping Center. It was founded two decades ago as one of the first dedicated academic medical research institutes to use fMRI to study the brain. Research Iacoboni conducted in 2006 on viewer reactions to that year’s Super Bowl ads eventually led to a broader interest in finding commercial applications for their efforts.

While Iacoboni and the other UCLA researchers have used a variety of tools, including EEG, in their work, they see fMRI as the leading edge of neuroscience technologies. “EEG can tell you when something happens in the brain with millisecond temporal precision, but that information is generally useless when it comes to understanding what people think and feel,” Iacoboni says. “What people think and feel is dictated by where in the brain it happens, and EEG has no way of telling you that. The temporal precision of fMRI is good enough that I can tell you what you reacted to in a commercial.”

As Iacoboni notes, EEG only measures surface electrical activity—but that’s also its main advantage over fMRI since the equipment used to detect it (at least with current technologies) is much more portable. Multiple neuromarketers have developed simple caps containing electrodes that study subjects can wear while sitting at home in their dens watching TV, for example, instead of the artificial environment of an imaging center.

“EEG became more popular because it’s cheap,” Iacoboni adds. “But you also get cheap data with it.”

Iacoboni is careful to point out that even with the ability to peer below the surface using fMRIs, “brain regions do a multitude of things, not just one.” But some associations between stimuli and brain region, he says, are stronger than others, particularly when it comes to marketing messages—and the key with fMRI is that it can hone in on those regions much more specifically than an EEG can because of the 3-D view it provides.

“We use an expression that you’ve probably heard before, which is ‘location, location, location,’ because we can tell what’s happening and where it’s happening. And we can tell you what that really means,” says Illuminare’s CEO, Jim Smith, a veteran ad executive who was general manager for Lord Dentsu Y&R in Los Angeles, as well as co-founder of Ground Zero (since merged into Wong, Doody, Crandall, Wiener). It’s his task to turn the work of the academic experts—who also include John Mazziotta, chairman of the UCLA Medical School’s neurology department and director of the school’s brain mapping center; and Dieter Enzmann, chairman of UCLA’s radiology department—into services appealing to potential customers.

Smith says they expect customers to extend well beyond the ad industry. (News reports suggest political consultants, package designers, and the movie industry have already turned to neuromarketers for data.)

“This is data you cannot access with traditional tools,” says Iacoboni. In classic focus groups and telephone survey research, he adds, “people can tell you things because of social pressure that they don’t really mean.”

One of Iacoboni’s favorite examples of this is the fMRI study he performed on Super Bowl ads. Exposed to ads that played on a female actress’ sex appeal, including one from, women who were tested dismissed it verbally as exploitative.

What was happening deep inside their brains, however, said otherwise. “Actually, they really enjoyed it,” Iacoboni says. The areas of the brain that encode reward lit up on the fMRI in the women studied; so did the areas indicating empathy—meaning despite what they said, these women saw the actress as someone they identified with and wanted to emulate.

“Sometimes we don’t even really know what we really like,” Iacoboni says, “because a lot of things we like are so entrenched it’s very difficult to access them.”

Entrenched in that they reside in some of our most primitive recesses—areas seemingly unaffected by tools in the advertising kit since the creative revolution of the ’60s. Take humor, which sometimes doesn’t seem to register with those primitive realms. When Iacoboni did his Super Bowl study in 2006, he showed subjects ensconced in the fMRI machine Super Bowl ads before they aired. One of the ads in the study, which ended up widely praised when it aired, was a FedEx commercial with a cave man story line; it included a punch-line ending in which one of the cave men stomps out of the cave in disgust after being reprimanded by a superior for not using FedEx—only to be stomped by a giant dinosaur foot when he did. Funny, right? But deep inside the brains of Iacoboni’s subjects the area that showed the biggest spike in activity when the foot came down was the amygdala—the area that generates our response to threats and fear. Intentionally or not, FedEx hadn’t amused its audience but terrified it.

This view into the subconscious can even seem to echo age-old psychiatric theories about what’s happening inside our heads, developed long before such tools were available—like Freud’s theories about the “systematic unconscious,” which he later refined into the idea of the id, describing it as “filled with energy reaching it from the instincts.”

“If you actually step back,” Iacoboni says, describing recent models of brain activity based on brain mapping studies, “you say, ‘Well, this sounds like the same thing Freud said 100 years ago!’”