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.

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