I’m in a ballroom inside New York’s Marriot Marquis at the 75th annual Advertising Research Foundation conference, meeting with A.K. Pradeep, founder and CEO of NeuroFocus, a Berkeley, CA-based research firm that analyzes brain waves to reveal what consumers really want. It’s your typical conference smorgasbord of presentations and product announcements, chockablock with booths rented by companies with neuro-y names like EmSense, Innerscope Research, Lucid Systems, Sands Research, and undisputed market leader NeuroFocus. I’m here to try and convince Pradeep to cooperate on a Fast Company feature story.
The only thing more secretive than neuromarketing firms are their clients, fearful of being accused of brainwashing–tapping that mythical “buy button” in your brain to trick you into buying more stuff you don’t need–or giving competitors an edge. I approached neurofirm after neurofirm, but none would or could produce any name-brand clients to go on record and offer any detail. Finally, months later, a publicist for NeuroFocus implied the company might be able to help, and told me Pradeep would be in Manhattan. I figured a face-to-face might speed things along.
With so many high-level geekdom congregating in one place, much of the conference talk bordered on the arcane: testing protocols, “wet” versus “dry” sensors that can affect the quality of brain wave reception, adoption of an industry-wide standard, but none of this does justice to the high stakes. With upwards of a trillion dollars a year spent on marketing of some sort–much of it wasted–these companies claim to have found a better way. As 19th century scribe, Gaston Bachelard, author of The Poetics of Reverie, put it: “The subconscious is ceaselessly murmuring, and it is by listening to these murmurs that one hears its truth.” NeuroFocus and its brainy peers reach into your subconscious, home to your deepest desires, and help their clients shape the design and market their products for maximum, perhaps even primordial, effect.
Clad head to toe in Versace, Pradeep came to New York to unveil Mynd, the world’s first portable, wireless electroencephalogram (EEG) scanner that covers the entire brain yet doesn’t require messy gel for better reception. It sports twenty prongs that rest on your head like a crown of thorns, capturing, amplifying, and transmitting brainwaves via Bluetooth to an iPhone, iPad, or other smart device. I try on a headset and Pradeep points to my brain waves, represented by colorful bars jouncing on the iPad screen. “Good news,” he cracks. “You’re alive.” Then Pradeep proceeds to reel off volumes of info in a single breath, covering the human brain’s hundred-thousand-year history, the business and scientific rationale for neuromarketing, while simultaneously plugging his book, The Buying Brain. He inscribes my copy, “Welcome to a great adventure.”
The man is effusively brilliant, and offers a mesmerizing and somewhat exhausting performance. He continues in this vein, tackling differences between the male and female brain, the fact our subconscious comprises 95% of our thoughts, and a host of other brainy pickings. Then he starts repeating something from his earlier Mynd presentation and my mind wanders. This morning I woke up at 5:30 a.m. to get some work done before making cinnamon toast for my daughters’ breakfast, tuna sandwiches for lunch, and hustling them out the door so my wife could take them to school. Now that it’s mid-afternoon I’m fried.
Although in the distance I hear Pradeep’s lecture, simultaneously I’m thinking about an upcoming research trip I’ve planned to Microsoft for a book I’m writing. I remember I need to buy travel-sized toothpaste. Toothpaste in three-ounce tubes? Like I’m going to blow up the plane with Aquafresh? Then I agitate over the prospect of traipsing onto Microsoft’s Redmond campus toting an Apple MacBook Pro, iPhone, and iPad. If you don’t hear from me, I told my wife, check the grounds around Steve Ballmer’s estate. All of this makes me even more tired. I fantasize about a jolt of caffeine and, thanks to the mirror neurons in my brain, I can almost taste the coffee I make in my Nespresso machine. While I might be looking directly at Pradeep, I’m miles away.
Peering at my brain waves on the iPad screen, Pradeep admonishes me for not paying attention. “Are you falling asleep?” he asks.
“No, no,” I say.
But he knows I’m lying.
Adam L. Penenberg is a journalism professor at NYU and a contributing writer to Fast Company. Follow him on Twitter: @penenberg.
[Image: Floto + Warner]