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Ads to the Brain

Bombing the Senses

by SAUL LANDAU

The long recession has reduced consumption, so how does the “business community” – an oxymoron since businesses try to destroy their competitors – sell its crap to people it laid off? The potential buyers. Advertisers — the avant garde of the “sales community – must somehow get these consumers without money or  credit (suckers) back into “the market.”

The right wing mouthpieces for the “business community” that fired these once industrious workers now labels them lazy welfare cheats while marketers still try to figure out how to sell them the latest sugar-coated turds — excuse me, vital products with healthy chemical preservatives and taste additives.

After all, Americans, conditioned through decades of sensory bombardment, expect buying new products will bring happiness on earth. They can also purchase salvation in the hereafter

My wife’s grandmother donated money to a TV preacher – dressed in a garish pimp-like suit. Elmer Gantry of the tube assured Granny God would reward her contribution to His cause.

Secular pitchers entice us: buy this IPhone; enrich your life. Focus groups and consumer surveys marketers once tested merchandise, to discover what colored dye made toothpaste most palatable, or the proper wording to transform Ex-Lax into something soft and cozy. As if!

Companies like Google, GM, CBS and Campbell Soups biw invest in science and technology that manipulate brains to send messages to hands  — to sign credit card slips.

The newest “hidden persuader (see Vance Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders published a half century ago) involves what the NY Times called “Making Ads That Whisper to the Brain.” (Natasha Singer, Nov 13). The “neuromarketers” could sell you “new and improved dog shit” to replace Botox: your wrinkles will disappear and you’ll get a tan – if they got to your brain.

Since the brain uses “only 2 percent of its energy on conscious activity, with the rest devoted largely to unconscious processing,” neuromarketers scoff at “inherently inaccurate” consumer surveys and focus groups. The “participants can never articulate the unconscious impressions that whet their appetites for certain products.”

According to Dr. A. K. Pradeep electronic patches monitor subconscious brain levels, “where consumers develop initial interest in products, inclinations to buy them and brand loyalty.” (Founder and CEO of NeuroFocus, Berkeley, Calif)

NeuroFocus hooks its volunteers to EEG sensors  and an eye-tracking device. The vols watch commercials or movie trailers. “Researchers” then match brain-wave patterns with video images ads or logos they’re viewing “to measure attention, emotion and memory,” says Pradeep. “We basically compute the deep subconscious response to stimuli.” Analyze those electrical patterns, he says, and “you find it represents the whispers of the brain.”

The flourishing “brain-whispering business” has generated new
“neuromarketing firms,” like MindLab International and NeuroSense, which “specialize in the latest mind-mining techniques — EEGs, M.R.I.’s, eye-tracking — or in older biometric methods that track skin, muscle or facial responses to products or ads.”

Major corporations desperate for techniques to sell at time when consumers are kicking their buying habit invest in brain-pattern probing in hopes of keeping consumers addicted. Will some turn to crime to satisfy their habits? This  “brandwashing” —branding plus brainwashing — aims to weaken adults’ defense mechanisms making truth and untruth more difficult to discern.

“But ,” objects Jeff Chester of the Center for Digital Democracy, working to safeguard digital privacy, “if the advertising is now purposely designed to bypass those rational defenses, then the traditional legal defenses protecting advertising speech in the marketplace have to be questioned.” NY Times Nov 13

Dr. Pradeep  disagreed. “If I persuaded you to choose Toothpaste A or Toothpaste B, you haven’t really lost much, but if I persuaded you to choose President A or President B, the consequences could be much more profound.”

“Neuromarketing scientists can “distinguish whether a person’s emotional response is positive or negative,” said Dr. Robert T. Knight (professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at UC Berkeley abd chief science adviser at NeuroFocus), but luckily have yet to perfect techniques that defines whether “the positive response is awe or amusement.” Knight added: “We can only measure whether you are paying attention.” And “the technique has yet to prove that brain-pattern responses to marketing correlate with purchasing behavior.” Not yet!

Neuromarketing represents a trend, one that indicates further mental gymnastics that combine high tech with sales trivia. Hey, we’re still the greatest country in the history of the world. We now spend more money on breast implants and Viagra than on Alzheimer’s research. Now that points to the future.

As the late George Carlin quipped: “By 2020, there should be a large elderly population with perky boobs and huge erections and absolutely no recollection of what to do with them.” 

SAUL LANDAU is an Institute for Policy Studies fellow whose film WILL THE REAL TERRORIST PLEASE STAND UP opens at the Havana Film Festival, Dec 11, 2010 at the Chaplin Theater. CounerPunch published his BUSH AND BOTOX WORLD.