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Truth and Lies About Why We Buy

Buyology by Martin Lindstrom
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How much do we know about why we buy? What truly influences our decisions in today’s message-cluttered world? An eye-grabbing advertisement, a catchy slogan, an infectious jingle? Or do our buying decisions take place below the surface, so deep within our subconscious minds, we’re barely aware of them?

In BUYOLOGY, Lindstrom presents the astonishing findings from his groundbreaking, three-year, seven-million-dollar neuromarketing study, a cutting-edge experiment that peered inside the brains of 2,000 volunteers from all around the world as they encountered various ads, logos, commercials, brands, and products. His startling results shatter much of what we have long believed about what seduces our interest and drives us to buy. Among the questions he explores:

Does sex actually sell? To what extent do people in skimpy clothing and suggestive poses persuade us to buy products?
Despite government bans, does subliminal advertising still surround us – from bars to highway billboards to supermarket shelves?
Can “Cool” brands, like iPods, trigger our mating instincts?
Can other senses – smell, touch, and sound - be so powerful as to physically arouse us when we see a product?
Do companies copy from the world of religion and create rituals – like drinking a Corona with a lime – to capture our hard-earned dollars?

Filled with entertaining inside stories about how we respond to such well-known brands as Marlboro, Nokia, Calvin Klein, Ford, and American Idol, BUYOLOGY is a fascinating and shocking journey into the mind of today’s consumer that will captivate anyone who’s been seduced – or turned off – by marketers’ relentless attempts to win our loyalty, our money, and our minds.
The Crown Publishing Group; October 2008
256 pages; ISBN 9780385528290
Read online, or download in secure EPUB
Title: Buyology
Author: Martin Lindstrom; Paco Underhill
Not surprisingly, the smokers were on edge, fidgety, not sure what to expect.

Barely noticing the rain and overcast skies, they clumped together outside the medical building in London, England, that houses the Centre for NeuroImaging Sciences. Some were self- described social smokers–a cigarette in the morn­ing, a second snuck in during lunch hour, maybe half-a- dozen more if they went out carousing with their friends at night. Others confessed to being longtime two-pack-a-day addicts. All of them pledged their allegiance to a single brand, whether it was Marlboros or Camels. Under the rules of the study, they knew they wouldn’t be allowed to smoke for the next four hours, so they were busy stockpiling as much tar and nicotine inside their systems as they could. In between drags, they swapped lighters, matches, smoke rings, apprehensions: Will this hurt? George Orwell would love this. Do you think the machine will be able to read my mind?

Inside the building, the setting was, as befits a medical lab­oratory, antiseptic, no- nonsense, and soothingly soulless–all cool white corridors and flannel gray doors. As the study got under way I took a perch behind a wide glass window inside a cockpit-like control booth among a cluster of desks, digital equipment, three enormous computers, and a bunch of white-smocked researchers. I was looking over a room domi­nated by an fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) scanner, an enormous, $4 million machine that looks like a gi­ant sculpted doughnut, albeit one with a very long, very hard tongue. As the most advanced brain- scanning technique avail­able today, fMRI measures the magnetic properties of hemo­globin, the components in red blood cells that carry oxygen around the body. In other words, fMRI measures the amount of oxygenated blood throughout the brain and can pinpoint an area as small as one millimeter (that’s 0.03937 of an inch). You see, when a brain is operating on a specific task, it de­mands more fuel–mainly oxygen and glucose. So the harder a region of the brain is working, the greater its fuel consump­tion, and the greater the flow of oxygenated blood will be to that site. So during fMRI, when a portion of the brain is in use, that region will light up like a red-hot flare. By tracking this activation, neuroscientists can determine what specific ar­eas in the brain are working at any given time.
Neuroscientists traditionally use this 32-ton, SUV-sized in­strument to diagnose tumors, strokes, joint injuries, and other medical conditions that frustrate the abilities of X-rays and CT scans. Neuropsychiatrists have found fMRI useful in shed­ding light on certain hard-to-treat psychiatric conditions, in­cluding psychosis, sociopathy, and bipolar illness. But those smokers puffing and chatting and pacing in the waiting room weren’t ill or in any kind of distress. Along with a similar sam­ple of smokers in the United States, they were carefully cho­sen participants in a groundbreaking neuromarketing study who were helping me get to the bottom–or the brain–of a mystery that had been confounding health professionals, cig­arette companies, and smokers and nonsmokers alike for decades.

For a long time, I’d noticed how the prominently placed health warnings on cigarette boxes seemed to have bizarrely little, if any, effect on smokers. Smoking causes fatal lung cancer. Smoking causes emphysema. Smoking while pregnant causes birth defects. Fairly straightforward stuff. Hard to argue with. And those are just the soft- pedaled American warnings. European cigarette makers place their warnings in coal-black, Magic Marker—thick frames, making them even harder to miss. In Portugal, dwarf­ing the dromedary on Camel packs, are words even a kid could understand: Fumar Mata. Smoking kills. But nothing comes even close to the cigarette warnings from Canada, Thailand, Australia, Brazil–and soon the U.K. They’re gorily, forensi­cally true-to-life, showing full- color images of lung tumors, gangrenous feet and toes, and the open sores and disintegrat­ing teeth that accompany mouth and throat cancers.
You’d think these graphic images would stop most smok­ers in their tracks. So why, in 2006, despite worldwide tobacco advertising bans, outspoken and frequent health warnings from the medical community, and massive government in­vestment in antismoking campaigns, did global consumers continue to smoke a whopping 5,763 billion cigarettes, a fig­ure which doesn’t include duty-free cigarettes, or the huge in­ternational black market trade? (I was once in an Australian convenience store where I overheard the clerk asking a smoker, “Do you want the pack with the picture of the lungs, the heart, or the feet?” How often did this happen, I asked the clerk? Fifty percent of the time that customers asked for cig­arettes, he told me.) Despite what is now known about smok­ing, it’s estimated that about one-third of adult males across the globe continue to light up. Approximately 15 billion ciga­rettes are sold every day–that’s 10 million cigarettes sold a minute. In China, where untold millions of smokers believe that cigarettes can cure Parkinson’s disease, relieve symptoms of schizophrenia, boost the efficacy of brain cells, and im­prove their performance at work, over 300 million people,1 including 60 percent of all male doctors, smoke. With annual sales of 1.8 trillion cigarettes, the Chinese monopoly is re­sponsible for roughly one-third of all cigarettes being smoked on earth today2–a large percentage of the 1.4 billion people using tobacco, which, according to World Bank projections, is expected to increase to roughly 1.6 billion by 2025 (though China consumes more cigarettes than the United States, Rus­sia, Japan, and Indonesia combined).
In the Western world, nicotine addiction still ranks as an enormous concern. Smoking is the biggest killer in Spain today, with fifty thousand smoking- related deaths annually. In the U.K., roughly one-third of all adults under the age of sixty-five light up, while approximately 42 percent of people under sixty-five are exposed to tobacco smoke at home.3 Twelve times more British people have died from smoking than died in World War II. According to the American Lung Association, smoking- related diseases affect roughly 438,000 American lives a year, “including those affected indirectly, such as babies born prematurely due to prenatal maternal smoking and victims of ‘secondhand’ exposure to tobacco’s carcinogens.” The health-care costs in the United States alone? Over $167 billion a year.4 And yet cigarette companies keep coming up with innovative ways to kill us. For example, Philip Morris’s latest weapon against workplace smoking bans is Marlboro Intense, a smaller, high-tar cigarette–seven puffs worth–that can be consumed in stolen moments in between meetings, phone calls, and PowerPoint presentations.5

It makes no sense. Are smokers selectively blind to warn­ing labels? Do they think, to a man or a woman, Yes, but I’m the exception here? Are they showing the world some giant act of bravado? Do they secretly believe they are immortal? Or do they know the health dangers and just not care?
That’s what I was hoping to use fMRI technology to find out. The thirty-two smokers in today’s study? They were among the 2,081 volunteers from America, England, Ger­many, Japan, and the Republic of China that I’d enlisted for the largest, most revolutionary neuromarketing experiment in history.
It was twenty-five times larger than any neuromarketing study ever before attempted. Using the most cutting-edge sci­entific tools available, it revealed the hidden truths behind how branding and marketing messages work on the human brain, how our truest selves react to stimuli at a level far deeper than conscious thought, and how our unconscious minds control our behavior (usually the opposite of how we think we behave). In other words, I’d set off on a quest to in­vestigate some of the biggest puzzles and issues facing con­sumers, businesses, advertisers, and governments today.

For example, does product placement really work? (The answer, I found out, is a qualified no.) How powerful are brand logos? (Fragrance and sound are more potent than any logo alone.) Does subliminal advertising still take place? (Yes, and it probably influenced what you picked up at the conve­nience store the other day.) Is our buying behavior affected by the world’s major religions? (You bet, and increasingly so.) What effect do disclaimers and health warnings have on us? (Read on.) Does sex in advertising work (not really) and how could it possibly get more explicit than it is now? (You just watch.)
Beginning in 2004, from start to finish, our study took up nearly three years of my life, cost approximately $7 million (provided by eight multinational companies), comprised mul­tiple experiments, and involved thousands of subjects from across the globe, as well as two hundred researchers, ten professors and doctors, and an ethics committee. And it em­ployed two of the most sophisticated brain- scanning instru­ments in the world: the fMRI and an advanced version of the electroencephalograph known as the SST, short for steady-state typography, which tracks rapid brain waves in real time. The research team was overseen by Dr. Gemma Calvert, who holds the Chair in Applied Neuroimaging at the University of Warwick, England, and is the founder of Neurosense in Ox­ford, and Professor Richard Silberstein, the CEO of Neuro-Insight in Australia. And the results? Well, all I’ll say for now is that they’ll transform the way you think about how and why you buy.

Marlene, one of the smokers in the study, took her place lying flat on her back inside the fMRI. The machine made a lit­tle ticking sound as the platform rose and locked into place. Marlene looked a little hesitant–who wouldn’t?–but man­aged a gung-ho smile as a technician placed the protective head coil over most of her face in preparation for the first brain scan of the day.

From Marlene’s pretesting questionnaire and interview, I knew she was a recently divorced mother of two from Mid­dlesex, and that she’d started smoking at boarding school fif­teen years earlier. She thought of herself less as a nicotine addict than a “party smoker,” that is, she smoked just a couple of “small” cigarettes during the day, as well as eight to ten more at night.

“Are you affected by the warnings on cigarette packs?” the questionnaire had asked.

“Yes,” Marlene had written, twirling her pen around in her fingers as though she was about to ignite the thing.

“Are you smoking less as a consequence of these?”

Another yes. More pen-spinning. I’ve never been a smoker, but I felt for her.

Her interview answers were clear enough, but now it was time to interview her brain. For those who’ve never had an MRI, it’s not what I’d call the most relaxing or enjoyable ex­perience in the world. The machine is clankingly noisy, lying perfectly still is tedious, and if you’re at all prone to panic or claustrophobia, it can feel as if you’re being buried alive in a phone booth. Once inside, it’s best you remain in a state of yogic calm. Breathe. In, out, in again. You’re free to blink and swallow, but you better ignore that itch on your left calf if it kills you. A tic, a jiggle, a fidget, a grimace, body twitching– the slightest movement at all and the results can be compro­mised. Wedding bands, bracelets, necklaces, nose rings, or tongue studs have to be taken off beforehand, as well. Thanks to the machine’s rapacious magnet, any scrap of metal would rip off so fast you wouldn’t know what just belted you in the eye.

Marlene was in the scanner for a little over an hour. A small reflective apparatus resembling a car’s rearview mirror pro­jected a series of cigarette warning labels from various angles, one after another, on a nearby screen. Asked to rate her desire to smoke during this slideshow, Marlene signaled her re­sponses by pressing down on what’s known as a button box– a small black console resembling a hand-sized accordion–as each image flashed by.

We continued to perform brain scans on new subjects over the next month and a half.

Five weeks later, the team leader, Dr. Calvert, presented me with the results. I was, to put it mildly, startled. Even Dr. Calvert was taken aback by the findings: warning labels on the sides, fronts, and backs of cigarette packs had no effect on suppressing the smokers’ cravings at all. Zero. In other words, all those gruesome photographs, government regulations, bil­lions of dollars some 123 countries had invested in nonsmok­ing campaigns, all amounted, at the end of a day, to, well, a big waste of money.

“Are you sure?” I kept saying.

“Pretty damn certain,” she replied, adding that the statisti­cal validity was as solid as could be.

But this wasn’t half as amazing as what Dr. Calvert discov­ered once she analyzed the results further. Cigarette warn­ings–whether they informed smokers they were at risk of contracting emphysema, heart disease, or a host of other chronic conditions–had in fact stimulated an area of the smokers’ brains called the nucleus accumbens, otherwise known as “the craving spot.” This region is a chain-link of specialized neurons that lights up when the body desires something–whether it’s alcohol, drugs, tobacco, sex, or gam­bling. When stimulated, the nucleus accumbens requires higher and higher doses to get its fix.

In short, the fMRI results showed that cigarette warning la­bels not only failed to deter smoking, but by activating the nu­cleus accumbens, it appeared they actually encouraged smokers to light up. We couldn’t help but conclude that those same cig­arette warning labels intended to curb smoking, reduce cancer, and save lives had instead become a killer marketing tool for the tobacco industry.

Most of the smokers checked off yes when they were asked if warning labels worked–maybe because they thought it was the right answer, or what the researchers wanted to hear, or maybe because they felt guilty about what they knew smok­ing was doing to their health. But as Dr. Calvert concluded later, it wasn’t that our volunteers felt ashamed about what smoking was doing to their bodies; they felt guilty that the la­bels stimulated their brains’ craving areas. It was just that their conscious minds couldn’t tell the difference. Marlene hadn’t been lying when she filled out her questionnaire. But her brain–the ultimate no-bullshit zone–had adamantly contra­dicted her. Just as our brains do to each one of us every single day.

The results of the additional brain scan studies I carried out were just as provocative, fascinating, and controversial as the cigarette research project. One by one, they brought me closer to a goal I’d set out to accomplish: to overturn some of the most long-held assumptions, myths, and beliefs about what kinds of advertising, branding, and packaging actually work to arouse our interest and encourage us to buy. If I could help uncover the subconscious forces that stimulate our interest and ultimately cause us to open our wallets, the brain-scan study would be the most important three years of my life.

By way of profession, I’m a global branding expert. That is, it’s been a lifelong mission (and passion) to figure out how consumers think, why they buy or don’t buy the products they do–and what marketers and advertisers can do to pump new life into products that are sick, stuck, stumbling, or just lousy to begin with.

If you look around, chances are pretty good you’ll find my branding fingerprints are all over your house or apartment, from those products under the kitchen sink, to the chocolate you stash in your desk drawer, to the phone beside your bed, to the shaving cream in your bathroom, to the car sitting in the driveway. Maybe I helped brand your TV’s remote control. The coffee you gulped down this morning. The bacon cheese­burger and French fries you ordered in last week. Your com­puter software. Your espresso machine. Your toothpaste. Your dandruff shampoo. Your lip balm. Your underwear. Over the years I’ve been doing this work, I’ve helped brand antiperspi­rant, feminine hygiene products, iPod speakers, beer, motor­cycles, perfume, Saudi Arabian eggs–the list goes on and on. As a branding expert and brand futurist (meaning that the sum of my globe- hopping experience gives me a helicopter view of probable future consumer and advertising trends), busi­nesses consider my colleagues and me something of a brand ambulance service, a crisis- intervention management team.

Let’s say that your line of pricey bottled water from the Silica-Filled- Crystal-Clear- Mountain-Streams-and- Artesian-Wells-of- Wherever is tanking. The company wants consumers to believe it’s bottled by elves standing ankle-deep in fjords rather than inside a sprawling plant off the New Jersey Turn­pike, but regardless, its market shares are tumbling, and no one in the company knows what to do. I’ll begin digging. What’s the secret of their product? What makes it stand out? Are there any stories or rituals or mysteries consumers associ­ate with it? If not, can we root around and find some? Can the product somehow break through the two- dimensional barrier of advertising by appealing to senses the company hasn’t yet thought of? Smell, touch, sound? A gasp the cap makes when you unscrew it? A flirty pink straw? Is the advertising cam­paign edgy and funny and risk- taking, or is it as boring and forgettable as every other company’s?

Because I travel so much, I’m able to see how brands per­form all over the world. I’m on an airplane about three hun­dred days out of the year, giving presentations, analyses, and speeches. If it’s Tuesday, I could be in Mumbai. The next day São Paolo. Or Dublin, Tokyo, Edinburgh, San Francisco, Athens, Lima, Sri Lanka, or Shanghai. But my hectic travel schedule is an advantage I can bring to a team that’s usually too busy to go outside their own building for lunch, much less visit a store in Rio de Janeiro or Amsterdam or Buenos Aires to observe their product in action.

I’ve been told more times than I can count that my appearance is as nonconventional as what I do for a living. At thirty-eight, I stand about five feet eight inches, and am blessed, or cursed, with an extremely young, boyish-looking face. The excuse I’ve come up with over the years is that I grew up in Denmark, where it was so cold all the time the weather froze my looks in place. My features, my raked-back blond hair, and my habit of wearing all black give a lot of peo­ple the impression that I’m some kind of quirky child evan­gelist, or maybe some precocious, slightly wired high-school student who got lost on the way to the science lab and ended up in a corporate boardroom by mistake. I’ve gotten used to this over the years. I suppose you could say that it’s evolved into my brand.

So how did I find myself staring through a window into an antiseptic medical lab in a rain-soaked English university as one volunteer after another submitted to an fMRI brain scan?

By 2003, it had become pretty clear to me that traditional research methods, like market research and focus groups, were no longer up to the task of finding out what consumers really think. And that’s because our irrational minds, flooded with cultural biases rooted in our tradition, upbringing, and a whole lot of other subconscious factors, assert a powerful but hid­den influence over the choices we make. Like Marlene and all those other smokers who said that cigarette warnings discour­aged them from smoking, we may think we know why we do the things we do–but a much closer look into the brain tells us otherwise.

Think about it. As human beings, we enjoy thinking of ourselves as a rational species. We feed and clothe ourselves. We go to work. We remember to turn down the thermostat at night. We download music. We go to the gym. We handle crises–missed deadlines, a child falling off a bike, a friend getting sick, a parent dying, etc.–in a grown-up, evenhanded way. At the least, that’s our goal. If a partner or colleague ac­cuses us of acting irrationally, we get a little offended. They might as well have just accused us of temporary insanity.

But like it or not, all of us consistently engage in behavior for which we have no logical or clear-cut explanation. This is truer than ever before in our stressed-out, technologically overwired world, where news of terrorist threats, political saber- rattling, fires, earthquakes, floods, violence, and assorted other disasters pelts us from the moment we turn on the morning news to the time we go to bed. The more stress we’re under, the more frightened and insecure and uncertain we feel–and the more irrationally we tend to behave.

For example, consider how much superstition governs our lives. We knock on wood for luck. (I’ve been in boardrooms where, if there’s no wood around, executives will glance around helplessly for a substitute. Does a briefcase count? A pencil? What about the floor?) We won’t walk under ladders. We cross our fingers for luck. We’d prefer not to fly on Friday the thirteenth, or drive down the street where we spotted that black cat in the bushes last week. If we break a mirror, we think, That’s it, seven years of bad luck. Of course, if you ask us, most of us will say no, don’t be ridiculous, I give absolutely no credence to any of those inane superstitions. Yet most of us continue to act on them, every day of our lives.

Under stress (or even when life is going along pretty well), people tend to say one thing while their behavior suggests something entirely different. Needless to say, this spells disas­ter for the field of market research, which relies on consumers being accurate and honest. But 85 percent of the time our brains are on autopilot. It’s not that we mean to lie–it’s just that our unconscious minds are a lot better at interpreting our behavior (including why we buy) than our conscious minds are.

The concept of brand- building has been around for close to a century. But advertisers still don’t know much more than department store pioneer John Wanamaker did a century ago when he famously declared, “Half my advertising budget is wasted. Trouble is, I don’t know which half.” Companies of­ten don’t know what to do to engage us authentically–as op­posed to simply attracting our attention. I’m not saying companies aren’t smart, because they are. Some, like the to­bacco companies, are scarily smart. But most still can’t answer a basic question: What drives us, as consumers, to make the choices we do? What causes us to choose one brand or prod­uct over another? What are shoppers really thinking? And since no one can come up with a decent answer to these ques­tions, companies plow ahead using the same strategies and techniques as they always have. Marketers, for example, are still doing the same old stuff: quantitative research, which in­volves surveying lots and lots of volunteers about an idea, a concept, a product, or even a kind of packaging–followed by qualitative research, which turns a more intense spotlight on smaller focus groups handpicked from the same population. In 2005, corporations spent more than $7.3 billion on market research in the United States alone. In 2007, that figure rose to $12 billion. And that doesn’t even include the additional ex­penses involved in marketing an actual product–the packag­ing and displays, TV commercials, online banner ads, celebrity endorsements, and billboards–which carry a $117 billion an­nual price tag in America alone.

But if those strategies still work, then why do eight out of ten new product launches fail within the first three months? (In Japan, product launches fail a miserable 9.7 times out of every ten.) What we know now, and what you’ll read about in the pages that follow, is that what people say on surveys and in focus groups does not reliably affect how they behave–far from it. Let’s take an example. Today’s modern mother is more and more fearful about “germs,” “safety,” and “health.” No woman in her right mind wants to accidentally ingest E. coli, or pick up strep throat, nor does she want little Ethan or So­phie to get infected either. So a company’s research depart­ment develops a small vial of something antibacterial–we’ll call it “Pure-Al”–that women can tuck in their pockets, and whip out to slather on their hands after a day spent in a suffo­cating office, a friend’s filthy apartment or an overcrowded subway car.

But can Pure-Al really inhibit our fears about “germs” and “safety”? How can its marketers know what these terms mean to most of us? Sure, there’s a basic human desire to feel safe and secure, as well as a natural aversion to germ- ridden banis­ters, bacteria- laden jungle gyms, and dusty offices. But as our smokers’ questionnaires showed, we don’t always express or act on these feelings consciously; there’s an entire peninsula of thought and feeling that remains out of reach. The same goes for every single other emotion we experience, whether it’s love, empathy, jealousy, anger, revulsion, and so on.
Tiny, barely perceptible factors can slant focus group re­sponses. Maybe one woman felt that as a mother of four kids and three dogs and seventeen geckos, she should care more about germs, but didn’t want to admit to the other women in the room that her house was already messy beyond the pale. Or maybe the head of the research team reminded an­other woman of an ex- boyfriend who left her for her best friend and this (okay, just maybe) tainted her impression of the product.

Maybe they just all hated his nose.

Point is, try putting these micro- emotions into words or writing them down in a roomful of strangers. It can’t be done. That’s why the true reactions and emotions we as consumers experience are more likely to be found in the brain, in the nanosecond lapse before thinking is translated into words. So, if marketers want the naked truth–the truth, unplugged and uncensored, about what causes us to buy–they have to interview our brains.

All of this is why, in 2003, I became convinced that some­thing was fundamentally wrong with the ways companies reached out to customers, to us. Quite simply, companies didn’t seem to understand consumers. Companies couldn’t find and develop brands that matched our needs. Nor were they sure how to communicate in a way so that their products gripped our minds and hearts. Whether they were marketing cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, fast-food, cars, or pickles, no ad­vertisers dared to stand out, or to try out anything remotely new or revolutionary. In terms of understanding the mind of the average consumer they were like Christopher Columbus in 1492, gripping a torn, hand-drawn map as the wind picked up and his boat lurched and listed toward what might or might not be flat land.

By uncovering the brain’s deepest secrets, I wasn’t inter­ested in helping companies manipulate consumers–far from it. I buy a lot of stuff, too, after all, and at the end of the day, I’m as susceptible to products and brands as anyone. I also want to sleep well at night, knowing I’ve done the right thing (over the years I’ve turned down projects that, in my opinion, crossed that line). By attempting to shine a spotlight on the buying behavior of over two thousand study subjects, I felt I could help uncover our minds’ truest motivations–and just maybe push human brain science forward at the same time.
It was time to throw everything up in the air, see where it landed, then start all over again. Which is where our brain-scanning study came in.

For me, it all began with a Forbes magazine cover story, “In Search of the Buy Button,” which I picked up during a typical daylong airplane flight. The article chronicled the goings-on in a small lab in Greenwich, England, where a market researcher had joined forces with a cognitive neuroscientist to peer inside the brains of eight young women as they watched a TV show interspersed with half-a- dozen or so commercials for prod­ucts ranging from Kit Kat chocolates, to Smirnoff vodka, to Volkswagen’s Passat.

Using a technique known as SST, which measures electrical activity inside the brain (and resembles, I later found out, a floppy black Roaring Twenties—era bathing cap), the scientist and researcher had focused on a sequence of wiry lines crawl­ing across a computer, like two garter snakes engaged in a mating dance. Only these weren’t snakes, but brain waves, which SST was measuring millisecond-by- millisecond, in real time, as the volunteers viewed the commercials. An abrupt spike in one woman’s left prefrontal cortex might indicate to researchers that she found Kit Kats appealing or appetizing. A sharp drop later on, and the neurologist might infer the last thing in the world she wanted was a Smirnoff-on-the-rocks.6

Brain waves as calibrated by SST are straight shooters.

They don’t waver, hold back, equivocate, cave in to peer pres­sure, conceal their vanity, or say what they think the person across the table wants to hear. No: like fMRI, SST was the fi­nal word on the human mind. You couldn’t get any more cutting-edge than this. In other words, neuroimaging could uncover truths that a half- century of market research, focus groups, and opinion polling couldn’t come close to accomplishing.

I was so excited by what I was reading I nearly rang the call button just so I could tell the steward.
As I mentioned earlier, eight out of every ten products launched in the United States are destined to fail. In 2005, more than 156,000 new products debuted in stores glob­ally, the equivalent of one new product release every three minutes.7 Globally, according to the IXP Marketing Group, roughly 21,000 new brands are introduced worldwide per year, yet history tells us that all but a few of them have vanished from the shelf a year later.8 In consumer products alone, 52 percent of all new brands, and 75 percent of individual prod­ucts, fail.9 Pretty terrible numbers. Neuroimaging, I realized, could zero in on those with the highest chance of succeeding by pinpointing consumers’ reward centers and revealing which marketing or advertising efforts were most stimulating, ap­pealing, o