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What Makes a Product Cool

The Fast Interview: Steve Quartz on neuromarketing – and why iPods are like heroin.

We may try to hide our lust for goods but our brain can’t. Steven Quartz, a neuroscientist at the California Institute of Technology, is part of a new generation of researchers exploring neuromarketing — a new field that uses brain science to understand consumer behavior. Quartz and his colleagues roll subjects into MRI machines (which measure oxygenated blood flow) to see what parts of the brain light up while viewing images of iPods, Aeron chairs, Capresso coffee machines, and Oakley sunglasses. Their findings are challenging some basic assumptions about marketing and economics.

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What exactly is neuromarketing?

A lot of people think neuromarketing is just using brain imaging technology to understand the decisions that underlie consumer behavior. Although technology is a really important part, brain science over the last decade has advanced at a tremendous pace. Neuromarketing is the application of this huge amount of information that’s available in the literature in terms of how people make decisions.

Why are these methods better than focus groups or surveys?

One of the general lessons we’ve learned from brain science is that when we ask people about their reasons for things, we’re only getting a small part of the brain processes that underlie their decision making. A lot of times the information we get is really a reconstruction or rationalization. We may want to avoid saying we buy things because they appeal to our sense of pride or something like that. One of the most fundamental insights in brain science is that most of the processes that underlie our decisions are unavailable to our conscious access. They’re done on the basis of intuition or unconscious processing.

We’re all gut players?

For a lot of our decisions we are. It actually turns out our unconscious processes are a lot more powerful than we thought. In fact, they’re probably better at making decisions than our conscious access. Our conscious awareness and attention is really limited in the amount it can process.

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Why are emotions so important in marketing?

Emotions turn out to be the way in which the brain encodes things of value. When an economist talks about how much utility a decision has for somebody or how much reward somebody is likely to get — that is actually being encoded in the brain in emotions. All of the value that’s important in marketing — brand equity, the role of an ad — is generating this anticipatory emotional signal in the brain. You can think of emotions and the unconscious as this gatekeeper for your attention. When people with brain damage no longer have access to these emotional systems, their decision-making falls apart.

In one study, you did brain scans on people while they viewed products with high brand equity like: Apple, Audi, Hermes, Christian Dior. Walk me through the process — what lights up in the brain when we see something “cool?”

We get a strong response in Brodmann’s area 10, which is an area implicated in self-perception and social emotions. It is the very front part of the brain behind our foreheads. The interpretation of this result is that subjects are evaluating the cool products in terms of their ability to enhance their social image. Another area continually implicated in these studies is the nucleus accumbens, which is a very basic reward structure in the brain that’s involved in everything from appetite to drugs of addiction. We also see a strong anticipatory response in the prefrontal part of the brain in the orbital frontal cortex that involved in making predictions about reward.

You mention the part of the brain that controls addiction. Does that mean heroin and iPods have something in common?

Nearly everything that has a reward/hedonic element recruits the nucleus accumbens via dopamine as the chemical messenger. This makes sense as the brain has to compare very different things in terms of their commonality as rewarding stimuli, which may be as different as a new pair of shoes or a dose of heroin. Both have to be compared in terms of their utility to a subject, which means they have to be given a common reward metric. As you might imagine, this makes the idea of shopping as an addiction more than just a metaphor. It is likely that compulsive shoppers are self-medicating via shopping (which also might involve serotonin — which might either be directly involved or influenced by dopamine). There’s actual evidence with compulsive shoppers that this is what’s happening at the biological level. There must be something that would make people wait in line all night for a new iPod model or an iPhone.

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When you showed “uncool” products with low brand equity like supermarket bottled water or Oldsmobiles, some people showed activation of the insula — literally a disgust response.

There are certain people who are much more sensitive to negative information, who tend to be ruminators or worriers. They’re maybe more motivated by avoiding things than by receiving things. There’s a very different psychology going on with those people. A lot of marketing treats the consumer in monolithic terms. These results suggest that there are many different kinds of consumers who are sensitive to different information.

You also saw some interesting effects when you asked people to make decisions about buying luxury products like Louis Vuitton and Gucci at full price and at a discount.

We see this “cost” play out in the brain with luxury products in that there is both a reward activation in the nucleus accumbens and a strong response in the anterior cingulate, which is involved in conflict between two different kinds of signals. People have strong desire but also, because of the prices, it generates conflict. The conflict signal decreases when people are given a chance to purchase the product at a discount, which increases their overall reward evaluation of the product.

Has industry accepted the idea of neuromarketing?

There’s been an intensification of interest, but it’s still at that transitional stage. My guess is we’re probably where biotechnology was 20 or 25 years ago when genetics was just beginning to go from the lab to an applied setting.

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Isn’t there something a little creepy about this — marketers figuring out how my brain works before I do and manipulating my emotions?

With any new technology, there’s a responsibility to understand all the elements and facets of its potential use. One of the things that surprised me was that I had this perception that marketing was this all powerful force that could manipulate people. As an outsider, I was struck that it’s not clear that marketing does anything at all. Maybe the goal is just to try to improve the efficiency of this whole process, versus what seems like a lot of money that gets wasted. It just seems like we’re so far from any Orwellian scenario that this technology really doesn’t add a whole lot to those concerns.

Is there potential for abuse — such as manipulating children?

If anything, I think the brain science will motivate thinking about public policy. We know that the processes that underlie decision making aren’t mature in children, and we know that response inhibitions aren’t well-developed in children. In the larger context, this will help us clarify what we ought to be doing in marketing and ought not to be doing in marketing. The brain science might ultimately tell us that it may be inappropriate to market goods to people below a certain age.

You were scanned, too, looking at cool products. What did you learn about yourself?

It was this high response in the cool project to a whole slew of products. As a scientist, I like to think of my decisions as being more rational and considered. But this suggests to me that I’m just as open to these high emotional social evaluations as anyone else.