Neuromarketing is coming to a cineplex near you. In an interview with Caltech’s Steve Quartz, The Guardian reports that movie makers are starting to use fMRI brain scans to evaluate consumer preferences and predict future recall of promotional trailers. Although Quartz provides no details of how they determine “winners”, the thrust of the work seems to be geared to product development rather than finished product marketing. Quartz finds brain scans more accurate and illustrative than traditional methods of movie evaluation, such as prescreening a film and surveying the audience.

In addition to this preference evaluation, Hollywood is also evaluating the effectiveness of its promotional “trailers” – with these, memorability is of major import.

We know that there are regions of the brain that are involved in the encoding of long-term memories. And if we look there for activity, we can predict how likely it is that someone will remember in the future having seen this or that item. That’s valuable for all sorts of communication strategies in marketing. The modern consumer is inundated with marketing messages – most of which don’t make it into our memory at all.

Quartz is crystal-clear on where neuromarketing fits into the spectrum of market research techniques:

About 80% of processes in the brain are unconscious and most of those processes are automatically filtering, at their unconscious level, the world around us to decide whether something is worthy of sending upstairs for attention. Only the things that the brain decides are salient, or interesting, get sent up into our conscious mind. You can’t interrogate people about things that. So finding out things like that, with brain science, is important. Take something as mundane as picking out a box of cereal, or a magazine cover, from a host of competing similar products. The producer dearly wants to know what will stand out, or capture the consumer’s attention.

The maybe not-so-dirty secret of marketing is that there’s not a whole lot of evidence that traditional research works. Typically marketing budgets follow the successful product, rather than the other way around. And even in design, 95% of new products fail. What brain imaging does is to figure a way to find better and more effective ways of offering service to the customer.

This interview is one of the better neuromarketing pieces in the general press – although it’s woefully short on technical details, the writer gives Quartz a chance to put his brain scan work in perspective. The article raises no spectres of Orwellian mind manipulation, and indeed quotes the neuroscientist’s comments that the main benefits are better products, i.e., products that come closest to what people want. In Quartz’s own words, his work is “more a means of measuring preferences rather than a technique for manipulating choice.”

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