Just what I’ve always wanted

Written by Science

You think, and therefore you are. You think about fast-food, and therefore you shamelessly gorge until your arteries beg you to stop. And if a large retailer could scan your brain at will, they’d capitalise on this fact with ruthless abandon. What’s more, soon they will be.

Neuromarketing is a very real thing. It’s been around since the early 1990s, pioneered at Harvard of all places, and the key point is simple: over 90% of human thinking and emotional response occurs in the subconscious, that nebulous area of our being that we have no direct control over. Therefore, it would reasonably be beneficial for any company to try and manipulate these thought patterns in such a way that you become more inclined to buy a bottle of Coke or fancy yacht, for example.

Over 90% of human thinking and emotional response occurs in the subconscious, that nebulous area of our being that we have no direct control over

This all sounds very nefarious and space-age, but it’s a very real thing being used all the time. Advertising agencies will regularly combine sets of images and sounds to better invoke triggering responses in plebs like myself, ideally without me catching on. Anything that will extract a positive emotional response in a consumer increases the likelihood of them choosing your product over others, and companies are well aware of this. It’s like having the greatest focus group in the world. Rather than asking you what you associate with the word ‘perfume’, for example, I could simply scan your brain and determine every single factor you thought of, then subtly bombard you with them and watch as you purchase my entire stock.

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A well-known study into this effect was published in 2004 with quite the interesting result. 67 participants were fitted with brain scanners and given both Coke and Pepsi to drink in a blind test, and asked to choose which tasted nicer, with half the subjects choosing Pepsi. However, when they were all told that they were drinking Coke, three-quarters said the Coke was nicer. This would indicate that although Pepsi should theoretically have an equal market share to Coca-Cola based on taste merit alone, there must be other reasons for more people drinking Coke that are unrelated to taste factor.

And of course today this is a very rapidly evolving technology. The science-based consumer research company NeuroFocus recently showed off their new Mynd product, consisting of a portable wireless electroencephalogram (EEG) scanner that fits on the head like a skullcap. This allows the wearer to capture their brain’s synaptic activity and transmit that data stream to another device such as a phone or tablet via Bluetooth. NeuroFocus plans to gift Mynd devices to consumers around the United States and pay them to wear them whilst watching TV or go shopping – the potential use for that data is almost limitless. They could analyse you and work out which celebrities invoke the best response when endorsing a product, for example, or find the exact length of time into an advert that you flick to another channel in the vain hope of finding something entertaining on daytime television.

This could of course be scaled up into huge operations in order to determine these factors for the average human being with a large enough sample size, and where do we go from there? I suppose any concept of individuality would gradually be eroded and we’d all become part of some faceless hive mind, a series of remarkably organic-looking puppets being casually manipulated by our corporate overlords.

I imagine most people will find this idea rather unnerving. The notion that a third-party conglomerate operating out of some obscure European tax-haven knows your own mind better than you do could potentially be unsettling if you weren’t as cynical as I am. Yet as we’ve become further and further integrated with our various smartphones and watches and toasters, this kind of data mining has already been going on for years. It’s merely the accuracy that improves. One has to hope that the utilisation remains somewhat benign, as far as relentless capitalism goes.

Last modified: 7th December 2015

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