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What Is Brain Scan Marketing?

In recent years there has been a lot of fascinating research into the way we think and the way the brain is affected by various things. MRI MachineAs part of my website on brainpower I report on this, and I also just enjoy learning about the latest findings. But with raw research there is often no immediately obvious application, and I also love to see new ideas put to use in some way. That brings us to the subject of this page: brain scan marketing.

Flickr photo by Liz West

Whether we like it or not, much of the most creative thought is about how to sell us things. In fact, the first applications of any given brain research is often in the field of marketing. Once brain scan machines were invented, for example, it was perhaps inevitable that marketers would wonder if they could be used to understand the brain in a way that made it possible to sell things more easily, or to predict which products would sell. The latter purpose is the one considered to have the most potential at the moment.

Doing brain scans has become a way to pick a winner among potential products or songs. It started with the classic "Pepsi challenge." Scientists let subjects taste Pepsi and Coca Cola to see which they preferred, but they tried a few new twists with the testing, and recorded what was going on in the brain during these, using an MRI scanner. For example, they found that when Pepsi was mislabeled as Coke, people liked it better. This suggests that good brand marketing works.

That was with a known and popular product though, and some scientists wanted to do more with the MRI brain scans. For example, they wondered if the there might be a pattern of activity in the brain when people tried new products--one that would predict future success.

A recent article in Scientific American reported on one study in which the brains of teenagers were monitored while they listened to new songs. Then they waited a few years...

During that time, the songs did what songs will do. A tiny percentage became extremely popular, a handful more became somewhat popular, and the overwhelming majority went nowhere. After tallying the sales information for each song, the scientists essentially took a shot in the dark. They re-examined brain areas associated with song likability years ago, and asked if activity in those areas predicted a song’s eventual success.

For one area - the nucleus accumbens - the answer was yes. Though it certainly didn’t distinguish between hits and duds with dead-on accuracy, more activity in the accumbens was loosely predictive of higher sales.

This study wasn’t designed to test any specific idea about how the nucleus accumbens might do this. However, a good deal of other work has implicated this structure in reward processing and the subjective experience of pleasure, including that derived from music...

Time will tell us what record companies can do with that information, but it seems likely that whether or not there is much to the science, there will soon be marketing research done by way of brain scans for large companies. It might open up a new line of work for human guinea pigs who participate in scientific research for pay.

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Brain Scan Marketing