One of the age-old questions, as controversial as or Apple vs Microsoft or puppies vs kittens, was addressed in a famous neuroscience study: sixty-seven participants had their brains scanned while blindly tasting Coca-Cola and Pepsi and then choosing which they preferred. While half of the participants actually preferred Pepsi, this number plummeted to a just a quarter when the participants were told which drinks were Coke. When the participants chose blindly, the reward center of their brains – the ventromedial prefrontal cortex – lit up. However, once they were told which samples were Coke, their brain activity changed to include parts of the brain that control higher levels of thinking, such as cultural biases and memory. These functions are performed in the dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex and hippocampus. While Pepsi should be just as popular as Coke in terms of taste, Coca-Cola still dominates the market because of people’s past experiences and biases relating to the brand.
The implications of this study extend far beyond the Cola wars. The nascent field of neuromarketing has been developed with these concepts in mind, seeking to explore the processes of consumer behavior. The field’s first studies were conducted at Emory University, where researchers found that whenever participants were shown an image that they particularly liked (anything from sushi to Lamborghinis to Bill Clinton), their medial prefrontal cortex would light up. Immediately, companies and activists from Disney to political campaigns began jumping on the neuromarketing bandwagon.
While this area of research is still in its infancy its essence is simply applying knowledge of brain processes to business and advertising schemes. For example, a study in 2001 found that the transfer of information from short-term memory to long-term might actually take place in the left hemisphere of the brain; consequently, it suggested that in order for TV commercials to be “highly memorable,” they should aim to create visual content that produces a quick electrical response in the left hemisphere.
Opponents have rallied behind the banner of consumer rights, asserting that neuromarketing bypasses consumers’ rational cognitive defenses against advertisements.
Just as quickly as companies latched onto this field, however, many consumers balked. Claiming that this type of research promotes “brandwashing,” many opponents have argued that these marketing techniques are invasive. Opponents have rallied behind the banner of consumer rights, asserting that neuromarketing bypasses consumers’ rational cognitive defenses against advertisements.
If there is some kind of magical “buy switch” in the brain, is it ethical to capitalize on it? Many scientists are calling upon both companies and researchers to design codes of neuroethics before moving forward, ensuring that consumer autonomy is protected.
Despite the backlash, the field of neuromarketing doesn’t seem to be slowing down anytime soon. However, Orwellian fears of mass brainwashing also seem—for the moment—irrational. For now, at least, Pepsi lovers are safe to continue to enjoy their brand. However inferior it may be.