Market research is all in your head: MRI machines and media
Deloitte predicts that the marketing and advertising industry will likely have brains on the brain for 2012. Technology called functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) that provides a real-time, non-invasive window into the activity of living human brains will be used for market research and media creation. In 2012 an increasing proportion of all MRI machines and MRI hours will likely be spent fine-tuning products, services and marketing messages144.
Fifty years ago, advertising executives relied primarily on their own instincts and industry knowledge to create an ad campaign. Twenty years ago, market research was conducted by polling thousands of consumers and interviewing smaller focus groups. But there have always been two big problems with asking people what they want to buy: they might not always tell the truth; and they might not know themselves.
Traditional MRI machines can cost millions of dollars, and are the size of an average car. They use very strong magnets to affect the atoms inside our bodies, causing certain atoms’ nuclei to spin and produce magnetic fields that can be interpreted by sensors, eventually producing a detailed picture that is particularly good at imaging soft tissues. For example, MRI can show damage in knee ligaments that an X-ray cannot.
fMRI machines are essentially identical to the MRI machines one might see on a TV show, but have a different purpose and way of working. Our blood has very slightly different magnetic properties when oxygenated or deoxygenated. As areas of our brains become more active, they use more oxygen, and it shows up on functional MRI images. In 1991 scientists were able to show that an fMRI taken of the brain over time could show areas of activity within the brain. Because certain brain functions are relatively localized to one area, neuroscientists believe fMRI can show that activity in certain regions correlates with specific emotions and types of thinking. This isn’t mind reading, so it cannot determine whether a subject is thinking of a black cat or white dog; however, it can show that a photo of an adorable puppy activates the emotional pleasure centers of the viewer’s brain.
The first study of using fMRI for market research purposes, known as neuromarketing,145 was published in 2004. It showed that a relatively small number of subjects (only 67, in this case) were needed to provide statistically significant data that shocked the ad world. An initial blind soft drink taste test revealed that the subjects had a modest preference for Brand A, and the parts of the brain that showed activity were not surprisingly those associated with the physical mechanisms of taste. But when specific brand logos and imagery were shown as the subjects tasted the soft drinks, they instead preferred brand B by 3:1, and the activated brain areas were those associated with memory, presumably of all those ads they had seen. Put simply, the test showed that advertising actually works – and why146!
There have been criticisms of the concept of analyzing brain images to study consumer preferences. Some suggest that results should be treated cautiously147, some point out the very real limitations148, and others dismiss it as a fad and go so far as to call it “iffy technology.149”
But the advertising and marketing communities do not seem as skeptical. Major market research firms are investing in neuromarketing companies, or acquiring them outright150. There are a large (and growing) number of firms that offer neuromarketing research services151. Long established brands of baby food, soup and cookies are redesigning their packaging, and even their flavors, based on neuromarketing studies152. Movie studios are still doing advance screenings – but now, while the audience is watching the big screen, scientists are watching their brains on small screens. Movie trailers are being tweaked with neuromarketing insights; and scripts, characters and scenes are sometimes being determined by daily MRIs, rather than by reviewing daily footage153.
Being able to optimize packaging, ad campaigns and actual media content through use of fMRI is likely to be a growth market, and is even contributing to the push for newer and more powerful MRI machines. A normal MRI machine costs about $1 million and produces magnetic fields around one to two teslas, the international unit that denotes the magnitude of magnetic flux density. But the effect fMRI relies on becomes much more detectable with higher field strengths, and work is ongoing on machines of eight to 12 teslas154.
Most fMRI work has looked at the brain and how it perceives media or advertising at a single moment in time, with an eye to improving the media or the marketing. New studies are indicating another possible application for fMRI data: improving the human brain itself.
The adult human brain is not as static as once thought: it is not set in stone at age 14. Instead, due to a process called neuroplasticity, the human brain can be like a muscle enlarged through exercise. Certain regions can become larger or denser through increased use, or become smaller or less dense through lack of use. The most famous example is that the hippocampus – a region of the brain responsible for spatial sense – grows over time in people who become taxi drivers155.
In a recent experiment, students who had more than a certain number of friends on a popular Webbased social networking site turned out to have well-developed brain regions that are associated with sociability. The result was highly statistically significant156, although the researchers cautioned that they couldn’t be sure which was the cause and which was the effect. Did using the social network make those areas bigger, or were they already bigger in those subjects, causing them to have more friends157?
Another study using MRI images, published in late 2011, provides some evidence that there may indeed be a causal link. In an animal study, primates had their brains imaged before and after being placed in social groups of certain sizes. Those placed in larger social groupings demonstrated superior growth in areas of the brain associated with social cognition and social success158. To quote the researchers: “Social network size, therefore, contributes to changes both in brain structure and function.”
Social media is not the only form of media that has been shown to affect or at least be correlated with brain structures. Recent studies suggest that brain activity and possibly structure could be altered by as little as one week of playing video games159, and TV watching in children has also been shown to be correlated with changes in brain activity160.
It is important to note that the use of fMRI in analyzing media and advertising is in its infancy. However, based on the increased frequency of scientific papers161 and published corporate studies, as well as the unique insights offered by these reports, it appears that fMRI and neuromarketing will likely be a key tool for 2012 and beyond.
The implications are intriguing, with media articles suggesting that one could deliberately harness the putative ability of social networks to re-shape human brains to enhance social, and perhaps selling skills. Some companies still ban their employees from using social networks at the work place, believing it will lead to lower efficiency. Could we one day see companies requiring employees to be on social networks a certain number of minutes per day, in an effort to make them better salespeople?
Best practices suggest that MRI and fMRI work best as part of a broader package. They do not replace traditional focus groups or years of experience or insight from a marketing executive. Also, they can be combined with other biological measurements like eye-tracking software, blood pressure readings, pulse measurement and EEG to provide a more complete picture of the human reaction.
fMRI is not cheap, but it is important to stress that the use of this technology for marketing purposes does not appear to be having any negative impact on the cost of machines for the health system; i.e., demand is not driving up the price. Nor are marketing uses of MRI machines diverting hours from required health care uses.
The most important caveat is that the links between brain structure, brain activity and media or marketing impacts are poorly understood at this time. Correlation and causation are confounding factors, plus the science is still in its early stages. We will learn more over the next five years, but in 2012 the media industry would be well advised to explore this new window on the human brain – but to also remember that it may be a pretty foggy window.
Deloitte Canada, as referenced in videos, podcasts, or online materials related to TMT Predictions 2012, refers to Deloitte & Touche LLP, the Canadian member firm of Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Limited.
144There is no public data on the exact spending of time or dollars on fMRI. But interviews suggest that growth is significant and accelerating.
145Neuromarketing also includes other research tools, such as EEGs, galvanic skin receptors and respiratory measurement (similar to those used in polygraph, or lie detectors) and eye tracking. But fMRI appears to the fastest growing and most influential at this time.
146Neural Correlates of Behavioral Preference for Culturally Familiar Drinks, ScienceDirect, 14 October 2004: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/pii/S0896627304006129
147Neuromarketing the Neurology of Facebook, The Neurocritic, 24 February 2010: http://neurocritic.blogspot.com/2010/02/neuromarketing-neurology-offacebook.html
148fMRI: “The Wonder Machine”? Common Questions and Misconceptions about fMRI Research, Psychology in Action, 9 November 2011: http://www.psychologyinaction.org/2011/11/09/fmri-the-wonder-machine/
149Making Ads That Whisper to the Brain, The New York Times, 13 November 2010: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/14/business/14stream.html
150Nielsen to Acquire NeuroFocus, Neuromarketing, 20 May 2011: http://www.neurosciencemarketing.com/blog/articles/nielsen-to-acquire-neurofocus.htm
151Neuromarketing Companies, Neuromarketing : http://www.neurosciencemarketing.com/blog/companies
152Neuroscience Explains the Emotional Buy, Brand Packaging, 11 July 2011: http://www.brandpackaging.com/Articles/Cover_Story/BNP_GUID_9-5-2006_A_10000000000001076137
153Rise of Neurocinema: How Hollywood Studios Harness Your Brainwaves to Win Oscars, Fast Company, 25 February 2011: http://www.fastcompany.com/1731055/oscars-avatar-neurocinema-neuromarketing
154High field functional MRI, European Journal of Radiology, 5 August 2003: http://www.ejradiology.com/S0720-048X(03)00243-2/abstract
155Navigation-related structural change in the hippocampi of taxi drivers, PNAS, 2000: http://www.pnas.org/content/97/8/4398.short
156Normally, to obtain a statistically significant result from a poll or a focus group, one would need to survey hundreds or even thousands of people. Interestingly, the Royal Society study was done with only 125 subjects, and all published results were statistically significant with p-values from 0.05 to 0.01. fMRI seems to be chosen not only because it can deliver insights that other technologies don’t, but also because it may require fewer subjects.
157Online social network size is reflected in human brain structure, The Royal Society, September 2011: http://rspb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/early/2011/10/12/rspb.2011.1959
158Social Network Size Affects Neural Circuits in Macaques, Science, 4 November 2011: http://www.sciencemag.org/content/334/6056/697.abstract
159One week playing violent video games alters brain activity, CNET, 2 December 2011: http://news.cnet.com/8301-27083_3-57335738-247/one-week-playingviolent-video-games-alters-brain-activity/ and The neural basis of video gaming, Nature, 2011: http://www.nature.com/tp/journal/v1/n11/full/tp201153a.html
160Children’s Brain Activations While Viewing Televised Violence Revealed by fMRI, Kansas State University and The Mind Science Foundation, 2005: http://krex.k-state.edu/dspace/bitstream/2097/838/1/MurrayMediaPsyc2006.pdf
161Connecting the dots, Nature, 2009: http://www.nature.com/neuro/journal/v12/n2/full/nn0209-99.html