FEATURE1 June 2010

This month we... had our brain scanned

Our reporter James Verrinder dons a hat with wires attached to experience the power of neuromarketing first hand.


Regular readers will have noticed a gradual increase over the past few years in the number of neuromarketing-related stories in the pages of this magazine. We’ve heard all sorts of opinions about the things brain-scanning techniques can potentially do for market research – will it replace some aspects of traditional MR, as some have predicted, or is it a valuable addition to a researcher’s toolbox?

The debate on this question raged at the Research 2010 conference, where speakers argued that neuromarketing studies can’t stand on their own and that the size and cost of the equipment presents problems to agencies. I was sitting next to the MD of a neuromarketing agency who found all this a little frustrating. UK researchers should look to the US, he said to me afterwards, where the adoption of neuromarketing is a few years ahead and most blue-chip clients use it to test adverts, product packaging or store layouts.

We decided that Research really should see first hand what neuromarketing is all about and, as luck would have it, NeuroFocus invited us to a demonstration of their technology. Naturally we said yes, but I didn’t just want to watch, I wanted to be in the scanner.

After a bit of negotiation, my place was secured.

The mission is simple
A couple of days in advance I received an email containing a list of things I was not to do ahead of the demo. These included not wearing any hair gel, not drinking more than the legal limit for driving the night before and not having any caffeine in the two hours before I was to be hooked up to the scanner.

So I arrived at a private club in London’s West End at 9 o’clock on a Monday morning sober, dishevelled and in need of some sort of stimulant to get me going for the day. Fortunately, they decided that one coffee “wouldn’t hurt” as it was only a demo, which meant I could relax and prepare myself.

Relaxing was hard though – journalists from the New Scientist, various trade titles and two separate BBC teams had come to see the demo, which meant they were all going to be seeing what went on inside my brain.

With dozens of eyes on me, irrational fears started to appear. Even though I knew the machine would not flash images from the depths of my mind on to a screen for the audience to see, it didn’t stop me wondering if there might be a spark and fizzle of wires, followed by the projection on to a screen of a photo of Cheryl Cole, my PIN number and a detailed diagram of the perfect Crystal Palace team (as devised by me and a friend over the weekend).

As I looked at the cluster of wires that were to be attached to my cranium I started visualising the scene from The Green Mile in which the condemned man gets frazzled in the electric chair. These thoughts made me a little nervous as the time came for the bits and bobs to be attached to my head.

“As I watched, a few muffled laughs could be heard from the audience. I hadn’t realised that they could not only see what I was watching, but also a live feed of my brain activity”

One of the first things I noticed was how small the whole set-up was – the wires and other technical bits were easily stowed in a container the size of a briefcase. First of all I was given a cloth hat, a bit like a shower cap, covered with connections for attaching leads to. Normally they would attach 68 leads “or more”, I was told, but as this was just a demo I only got 16. On the plus side, the leads were held in place by a rub-in conditioner so whatever else might happen, at least I’d have clean hair. Finally a baggy brown hat was put over the top, serving no scientific purpose but protecting the details of NeuroFocus’ technology from prying camera lenses. Then two cables were attached to my forehead and suddenly I could see my brainwaves on the laptop in front of me.

After blinking and grinding my teeth a little to calibrate the machine for the ‘noise’ created by movements of the head, I was shown an advert for beer to make sure everything was working properly. This seemed to go down fine with my brain, so we were ready for the full demo.

Watch closely now
First up was a car safety ad featuring a couple and their child in a living room. Dad is sitting in an armchair pretending to drive a car, but he loses control and suddenly it’s all real, with mum and daughter jumping in to form a human seatbelt and stop him from being hurled into the fireplace.

We then looked back at which frames had caught my attention the most. Predictably, the first was the close-up of the mum. Quentin explained that this was expected as the human brain has a thing for faces. They grab our attention and stay in our memory, and we are emotionally drawn to them. The nice cosy family shot was another that my brain seemed to like. Again, this is a natural reaction. Lastly, as you might expect, the crash scene caught my attention as everything went into slow motion and the mother and daughter rushed to save the dad.

Next was the trailer for Alice in Wonderland (which I had seen already and didn’t much like the look of). As I watched, a few muffled laughs could be heard from the audience – I hadn’t realised that they could not only see what I was watching, but also a live feed of my brain activity. They were clearly amused at how emotionally engaged – or not – I was with the trailer.

When the time came to show which shots had grabbed me the most there was another laugh from the crowd as it was demonstrated that my attention shot up at the sight of the green certification screen at the start. I suppose the prospect of a new trailer – with luck the new Predator movie – set off a little spark upstairs, but from that point on nothing grabbed my attention, stuck in my memory or tugged at my heartstrings. This came as no surprise to me. I would probably have more emotional attachment to a wet fish than Tim Burton’s latest offering.

A couple of stills showing my high points were then shown, which consisted of close-ups of the Mad Hatter’s face and Alice falling down a hole, although I was surprised to learn that these images had appealed to me at all.

After that my baggy brown hat came off, the leads were unhooked from my shower cap and I was away in search of a mirror to rub in the remnants of the conditioner and claim my free hair wash before heading back to the Research office. The whole process was a lot faster and simpler than I’d imagined.

One thing I found out was that, as a viewer, it’s hard to say which bit of an ad or trailer or image you connect with. But the funny hat with the leads hanging off it will be able to reveal something vaulable about how you responded to it. I now know from personal experience that neuromarketing can give researchers answers to questions that respondents would either struggle to answer or have no answer to at all.