So, big business marketers have begun taking advantage of functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI. Wikipedia describes fMRI as follows:
Since the 1890s it has been known that changes in blood flow and blood oxygenation in the brain (collectively known as hemodynamics) are closely linked to neural activity.
As neurons do not have internal reserves for glucose and oxygen, more neuronal activity requires more glucose and oxygen to be delivered rapidly through the blood stream. Through a process called the hemodynamic response, blood releases glucose to neurons and astrocytes at a greater rate than in the area of inactive neurons. It results in a surplus of oxyhemoglobin in the veins of the area and distinguishable change of the local ratio of oxyhemoglobin to deoxyhemoglobin, the “marker” of BOLD for MRI.
Current fMRI research uses BOLD as the method for determining where activity occurs in the brain as the result of various experiences.
What can fMRI’s blood focus do? AdWeek recounts one example:
“This is data you cannot access with traditional tools,” says [fMRI researcher] Iacoboni. In classic focus groups and telephone survey research, he adds, “people can tell you things because of social pressure that they don’t really mean.”
One of Iacoboni’s favorite examples of this is the fMRI study he performed on Super Bowl ads. Exposed to ads that played on a female actress’ sex appeal, including one from GoDaddy.com, women who were tested dismissed it verbally as exploitative.
What was happening deep inside their brains, however, said otherwise. “Actually, they really enjoyed it,” Iacoboni says. The areas of the brain that encode reward lit up on the fMRI in the women studied; so did the areas indicating empathy—meaning despite what they said, these women saw the actress as someone they identified with and wanted to emulate.
Lovely stuff, isn’t it? Knowledge that age-old subconscious vulnerability might still trump rational desires makes it possible for corporate capitalists to craft ways of perpetuating and tapping the old and explicitly disfavored vulnerabilities. The latter just happen to be radically sexist, as well as aspirational, and therefore commercially profitable. Hence, there is simply no question about what happens next.
And guess who is making this all possible? As usual, the public:
Illuminare is banking that its experts and proprietary analytical tools will help establish it at the forefront of the world of commercial neuroscience research. Illuminare, which hired its first CEO three months ago, and [its] founders and advisors include renowned neuroscientists and radiologists from UCLA’s Geffen School of Medicine.
Dr. Marco Iacoboni, an Illuminare founder, and professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the UCLA Medical School,… runs the Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation Lab at the university’s Ahmanson-Lovelace Brain Mapping Center. It was founded two decades ago as one of the first dedicated academic medical research institutes to use fMRI to study the brain. Research Iacoboni conducted in 2006 on viewer reactions to that year’s Super Bowl ads eventually led to a broader interest in finding commercial applications for their efforts.
While Iacoboni and the other UCLA researchers have used a variety of tools, including EEG, in their work, they see fMRI as the leading edge of neuroscience technologies. “EEG can tell you when something happens in the brain with millisecond temporal precision, but that information is generally useless when it comes to understanding what people think and feel,” Iacoboni says. “What people think and feel is dictated by where in the brain it happens, and EEG has no way of telling you that. The temporal precision of fMRI is good enough that I can tell you what you reacted to in a commercial.”
As Iacoboni notes, EEG only measures surface electrical activity—but that’s also its main advantage over fMRI since the equipment used to detect it (at least with current technologies) is much more portable. Multiple neuromarketers have developed simple caps containing electrodes that study subjects can wear while sitting at home in their dens watching TV, for example, instead of the artificial environment of an imaging center.
“EEG became more popular because it’s cheap,” Iacoboni adds. “But you also get cheap data with it.”
Iacoboni is careful to point out that even with the ability to peer below the surface using fMRIs, “brain regions do a multitude of things, not just one.” But some associations between stimuli and brain region, he says, are stronger than others, particularly when it comes to marketing messages—and the key with fMRI is that it can hone in on those regions much more specifically than an EEG can because of the 3-D view it provides.