Books: An Orwellian vision of neuromarketing

Brain-scanning as the key to understanding consumer motivation? Cilla Snowball prefers the intuitive approach.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Buy-ology: How everything we believe about why we buy is wrong
Martin Lindstrom
Random House

As we sit on the brink of a particularly unpleasant downturn, most of us are starting to give a lot more thought to the things we buy. We count our pennies and give careful consideration to the way we spend them. Or that's what we'd like to think...

As Martin Lindstrom points out in Buy-ology, our purchase decisions aren't as rational as that, and they never have been. Walking through a supermarket, we pick products from the shelves based on thoughts and emotions of which we are largely unaware. In a split second, we are drawn to a particular brand of shampoo or toothpaste without really knowing why.

For the person doing the buying, this doesn't present much of a problem. After all, life is too short and too busy to stand in the cereal aisle weighing up the merits of different boxes of cornflakes. Better to go with your instincts, grab one and move on.

For the companies doing the selling, however, it presents a big problem. And for anyone working in market research, the problem becomes almost maddening. People tell you that they'll definitely buy your new brand of furniture polish, but when they see it on the shelf, they don't. They said they wanted it, but, deep down, they didn't. As a result, most new-product launches fail.

Lindstrom believes he has the solution. By using the latest in brain-scanning technology, he has looked inside peoples' minds and seen the truth - the real motivations behind why we buy. What he has discovered, he claims, is as radical as Columbus finding that the world was round, not flat.

Unfortunately, this book isn't quite as groundbreaking as that. The subtitle claims to explain 'how everything we believe about why we buy is wrong'. In truth, it shows 'how everything we suspected about why we buy is right'.

Consider this question: how do peoples' brains react to the sound of Nokia's ubiquitous ring-tone? The brain-scans indicate that activity within the ventrolateral prefrontal cortices revealed a negative emotional response. In other words, people find Nokia's ring-tone annoying. Human reactions to an intrusive ring-tone in a meeting or on a train would tell you that, just as easily as a brain-scanner.

The discovery that imagery relating to the Apple brand inspires the same reaction in peoples' brains as religious imagery is interesting, if not astonishing. And it comes as no surprise to find that sponsorship dollars paid to be associated with US television programming are wasted if the links between the sponsoring brand and the programme aren't established properly. The findings confirm what we intuitively know.

The book goes on to predict that the mysteries of marketing will be unravelled by the rigour of neuroscience. Companies will start using brain-scanners to develop more irresistible products, and advertising agencies will in turn pinpoint the part of the brain they want to stimulate with their campaigns. It's an Orwellian vision where the art of persuasion is replaced by the science of manipulation.

Lindstrom is right in predicting that neuromarketing is here to stay. But I think, and hope, it will point to a very different future. It won't unravel any great mysteries. In fact, it will serve to remind us how mysterious people really are. We're complex and sensitive; we're driven by feelings and emotions.

The best things in life can't be developed in a laboratory, and a lot of them are in this book: the lovely feeling of an iPod in the palm of your hand, the wonderful anticipation of waiting for a pint of Guinness, the way the smell of Play-doh takes you back to your childhood.

So rather than becoming technical and systematic in the way we approach people, we will need to become more imaginative. We'll need to try harder to astonish, amuse, fascinate and delight them.

Although this book doesn't fundamentally change the way we think (thankfully), it is continuously thought-provoking. Lindstrom knits together facts and stories from his experiences around the world. He incorporates the findings from an eclectic range of studies - from the work of Damasio and Heath to BBDO's 2007 study of human rituals. And the whole piece is meanwhile enlivened by his energy and enthusiasm.

The book doesn't quite live up to the cover, but next time you're in a bookshop you might think about buying it. Who knows, you might even buy it without thinking.

Cilla Snowball is chairman and chief executive of the AMV group.

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