Every little while, a neuroalarmist rant pops up in the blogosphere, almost always from someone who read an article about neuromarketing and concludes, “My goodness – now they’ll manipulate my brain into buying all kinds of stuff I don’t want or need!” (Latest example: Neuromarketing – a Growing Menace.) While one might argue that marketers have been doing that for decades, if not centuries, the reality is that marketers are using brain scans for product refinement and avoiding clunker ad campaigns. Whether the art and science of neuromarketing will ever achieve unprecedented levels of brain manipulation seems unlikely, but what about product optimization?
While the techniques are still in their infancy, we do know that product developers are trying to use fMRI and other data to gauge consumer reaction to their offerings – we recently covered neuromarketing in the movie business. While some of their efforts are geared to evaluating ads or trailers, movie execs are also testing the product itself. At our current level of knowledge, the challenge is interpreting the data. If you are making a movie intended to be a tear-jerker, what conclusions do you draw when different areas of the brain light up? How sad is too sad? Which brain areas need to be activated to get a viewer to like the movie enough to recommend it to a friend, or see it again? As Quartz and others collect more data, some of these answers may start to emerge.
Let’s jump ahead to a not-too-distant future when we actually do have a good understanding of what makes a product desirable, whether it’s a television show or a fast food item. At this point, brain scans have also become easier and cheaper, so we aren’t limited to testing a tiny number of subjects. Is there an ethical problem with neuro-optimizing one’s product? Say, for example, that a chain restaurant is introducing a new pasta entree. In a series of tests, they have hundreds of subjects sample different versions of the product. A dozen different noodle styles are tested, and two tortellini-style noodles produce the best results. So, another batch of noodle designs, with relatively minor variations on the tortellini look, are tested, resulting in a clear preference for a smaller size and somewhat elongated appearance. The process is repeated for the sauce, testing levels of spice, sugar, salt, and so on, until a recipe is found that maximizes activation of the appropriate brain areas. Finally, the process is repeated for the presentation of the dish, resulting in a neuro-optimized pasta dish. As a final test, the new dish is compared to comparable offerings from competing restaurant chains; the final series of scans confirms what the product developers expected – the new dish lights up the areas of the brain responsible for food preference far better than the competition. The chefs, neuroscientists, and marketers break out the bubbly – they have developed SuperPasta.
Some people might find this frightening and Orwellian. Others might find it incredibly exciting. Neuroalarmists will no doubt have visions of an entire population becoming addicted to SuperPasta, or spending the entire night hyupnotized by the same neuro-optimized television program. That simply won’t happen. Let’s look at the likely reality of a hypothetical product like this. First, using brain scans isn’t that much different than conventional taste testing – it just takes the inaccuracies and uncertainties of self-reporting out of the process (assuming that we can establish the brain areas responsible for food preferences, and also determine what kind of activity in those areas is optimum). Second, it’s extremely likely that differences between individuals will make any optimization process aim for smaller target markets. Quite simply, my SuperPasta might be very different from your SuperPasta; a spicy sauce might max out my food preference areas, but cause yours to shut down.
In reality, just as with brain-scan based evaluation of ads, neuro-optimization is highly unlikely to result in “super” products. Rather, it will serve to avoid costly introductions of products doomed to fail. All the neuroscience in the world wouldn’t improve a movie like Titanic enough to sell twice as many tickets; rather, some early fMRI work might have served notice that Gigli was a movie destined to sink quickly. The same applies to food – through centuries of trial and error, humans have produced many food items that no doubt light up the brain like a Roman candle. While brain scans may help avoid product fiascos like McDonald’s Big Arch, they simply aren’t going to produce addictive superfoods.
In short, we should welcome the age of neuro-optimization when it arrives. We can expect to see more appealing products, and fewer bad ones. Due to the diversity of human nature and preferences, though, we still won’t like everything we see; we can only hope that clever marketers find a way to get us the neuro-optimized products we’ll find most useful and enjoyable.