The researchers, from the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, told participants in the study that they could freely decide if they wanted to press a button with their left or right hands, whenever they wanted, but they had to remember at which time they felt they had made up their mind. They found that it was possible to predict from their brain signals which option they would choose seven seconds before they consciously made their decision.
“It’s all very Minority Report,” Steve Sands says, referring to the Tom Cruise film in which a special police department known as “PreCrime” tracks down criminals based on knowledge provided by psychics. “But we’re not too far from that now.”
In fact, it’s incredible how close Sands is. For the past 20 years, from his lab in El Paso, Texas, he’s been using technology to look inside our heads and show what consumers really feel, as opposed to what marketers think we feel. Using EEG tests (essentially a plastic swimming cap complete with electrodes to measure brain signals), functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI, which measures brain activity by looking at changes in blood flow), and eye-tracking technology, neuromarketing, as it’s known, has completely revolutionised the worlds of advertising and marketing.
Sands sits opposite me, looking relaxed in a white shirt and jeans. In his office there’s a framed 1995 cover of Newsweek on the wall with the headline: “The new science of the brain: why men and women think differently”.
“That’s the first cap I made,” he says of the EEG-outfitted woman on the cover. Sands used to work with rhesus monkeys in the psychology department at the University of Texas. When his lab closed down he started Neuroscan, which became one of the world’s largest suppliers of EEG equipment to research scientists. After selling Neuroscan, Sands and his team started to use the same machines to look at the brain’s response to advertising. He recently finished a one-and-a-half year project for POPAI, an international trade association, for which Sands’s researchers used eye-tracking and EEG technology to gain insight into shopper habits. The results were fascinating. Forget scrawled shopping lists on the back of an envelope: Sands found that the vast majority (76 per cent) of US grocery shoppers make their purchase decisions in-store, and that shoppers using non-cash payment methods are most likely to make impulse purchases. So shelf-placement and in-store marketing are more crucial than ever. Sands’s team would pop a pair of eye-tracking glasses on their volunteers (which were in turn wired up to a MacBook Air, carried in a rucksack), then send them off around the store to do their shopping. The researchers then waded through three terabytes of data and analysed 80,000 eye movements from the shoppers that agreed to take part in the study. Sands says a single eye movement takes just 200 milliseconds, the time a product in store gets to persuade a shopper to buy it. “And it only takes one eye movement to change their behaviour,” he says. The researchers noted what Sands calls “approach-avoidance” taking place in the sweets and chocolate aisle, and that the eyes sought out the shopper’s favourite sweets, even though they may have decided not to succumb to buying them. “Twenty per cent of eye movements relate to what you’re going to buy. The rest are alternatives,” Sands says. “We’d watch them pick up a packet of doughnuts, put them back, then walk away. Some came back later and put them in their shopping cart.”
EEG shopper.Sands says one interesting observation was that while the fizzy drinks aisle was the most organised in the entire supermarket, the sweets and chocolate aisle was the least: what Sands describes as “a potpourri of different sizes, shapes and brands that makes a lot of noise”. “Our brain is looking for something simple, and it’s happiest when it finds what it’s looking for,” he says. “Candy is unusually noisy. The industry doesn’t organise itself as well as the canned drinks one does. Visual clutter really does matter. All you’re doing is frustrating the brain.” The neuromarketing industry isn’t just interested in what makes shoppers choose the products they do in the supermarket. Much of their work is done before they’ve even walked through the door. Each year, Sands Research screens the commercials that have aired during the Super Bowl, the FA Cup of American football, to a test group of around 30 people. As in other tests, his team wires each person up to an EEG machine to monitor their brain signals, and each wears a pair of eye-tracking glasses so the Sands researchers can see what, specifically, they’re focusing on. Super Bowl ads are the most sought-after and expensive slots in the industry. In 2011, among the companies vying for hearts, minds, and cold, hard cash, were Coca-Cola and Volkswagen, both of which came out with brilliant spots. Coca-Cola’s featured two border guards in different military uniforms at some godforsaken desert outpost, who bond over a bottle of Coke. As for Volkswagen, their ad for the VW Passat saw a pint-size Darth Vader walking down the hallway of his suburban home, attempting to use “The Force” on his parents’ exercise bike, the washing machine — even the family dog. When his father arrived home in his Passat, the boy was almost ready to admit defeat: he ran outside and tried one last time to use his powers on the car, while inside the house his dad saw what he was trying to do and started the car’s ignition with the remote control. The boy turned around, astonished that The Force worked. “The Force” Volkswagen’s advert for the new Passat (Volkswagen) Of all the ads Sands has ever tested, The Force was, to use the American vernacular, off the charts, achieving the highest “neuro-engagement score” ever. Adweek named it 2011’s best commercial; it won two Gold Lions at Cannes. Before the game even began it had attracted 12 million YouTube views. At the time of writing it’s had almost 58 million. The man behind the advert was Deutsch LA’s Doug Van Praet. He says Sands’s research demonstrated that The Force ad had an inordinate capacity to engage the brain. “It galvanised our attention, our engagement and our emotion, and it turned out to be a very powerful predictor of end-market performance.” As he writes in his book Unconscious Branding: How Neuroscience Can Empower (and Inspire) Marketing, “it drove significant increases in purchase consideration, upped traffic to the VW website by half, and contributed to a hugely successful sales year for the brand.” Amazingly, it’s taken big business 20-plus years to realise how effective neuromarketing can be. British psychologist Dr David Lewis-Hodgson founded one of the earliest firms, Mindlab International, in the UK in 1988. One of his early “products” was Mindscan, a piece of software which measured the brain’s responses to marketing messages, working on the premise: “What can’t speak, can’t lie.” Hollywood’s interest was piqued by a 2012 study by Innerscope Research. They showed 40 film trailers to more than 1,000 people, measuring their heart rate, breathing, how much they sweat and motion responses – as well as what they focused on using eye-tracking technology. Using the results, they found they could predict box office hits. According to Fast Company magazine, “If a film’s trailer fails to reach a specific emotional engagement threshold (65), it will very likely generate less than $10 million in revenue on opening weekend.” But a film whose trailer exceeds an engagement threshold of 80 “will very likely earn more than $20 million the first weekend”. Studios such as Fox and Paramount have now started taking neuromarketing very seriously. And in January, the research agency Millward Brown announced its clients Unilever and Coca-Cola would be using facial coding technology – where emotions are tracked in facial expressions – in all their advertising testing in 2013. According to the company, this would “automatically interpret viewers’ emotional and cognitive states, moment by moment”. As well as gauging an audience’s reaction to Super Bowl commercials and tracking shoppers in supermarkets, Sands Research also tests ads before they’ve aired, letting agencies know what works and what doesn’t. “By looking at the EEG readout we can tell whether they’re disengaged or engaged,” Sands says. “And we’ve found that storyline wins every time. If you want to lose someone’s attention, have several storylines in your commercial.”
Journalist Alex Hannaford wearing eye-tracking glasses at Sands Research. (Sands Research) In a small office adjoining his, Sands sits me in front of two computer monitors and hooks me up to a pair of eye-tracking glasses. On the left-hand screen I can see my eyes, with a target indicating where my pupils are as they flit from left to right; on the right-hand screen is an ad for the Hyundai Sonata hybrid. The places on the screen where my eyes land are denoted by a frenetic green dot that jumps around at incredible speeds. When we play back the recording of my viewing session, I seem to have focused on exactly what the advertisers intended: initially the various characters in the commercial, but by far the longest spell is devoted to eyeing up the car itself. Only when he places an EEG cap on the head of his test subjects, however, can Sands really tell whether they like what they’re seeing. He says he once looked at an ad for a telecoms company and the panel he showed it to had such a negative reaction he had to tell the agency to think again. “There were two competing storylines,” he says. “Young creatives think they’re multitaskers, and this influences how they design things. And it doesn’t work. Simplicity wins every time.” Using EEG, Sands records the electrical activity of the brain along the scalp. In ads that really engage an audience, a large portion of the cerebral cortex, the part of the brain that plays a role in memory, attention, awareness and thought, is activated. Sands says that during portions of an ad that “work”, the frontal lobe, which deals with emotion and processes information, lights up. On the computer screen, Sands sees a line, much the same as you see on a heart monitor, which shows the exact moments during the commercial that different parts of the brain are engaged. Sands’s company has also been using EEG technology to gauge taste and smell. “From our experience, people usually tell market researchers what they think they want to hear. We’re social animals and we don’t want to offend anyone.” But by looking at the brain’s response to scents, Sands can tell exactly which fragrance you prefer. Van Praet acknowledges that neuromarketing is not without its pitfalls; that in studying the human brain, we have to be comfortable with paradox and contradictions. For example, he says you can like an ad and it can create a positive emotion, but if it doesn’t leave you with an appropriate and corresponding set of associations and emotions for that product, it’s no use to the company trying to sell it. He gives an example: Quiznos, the US sandwich chain that now has some locations in the UK. “They ran an ad that featured cartoonlike rodents, and it was funny as heck,” Van Praet says. “It was very likeable and engaging and people remembered it. But there’s a bad association between rats and food. It wasn’t very successful.”