Big Brother isn't just watching you…

… he’s is about to get inside your head

I’m an ex-direct marketer. But some aspects of the marketing industry make me nervous – and this is one of them.

Apparently marketers are working hard to pin down mental buying signals using Functional Near-infrared Spectroscopy (FNIRS). The technique involves a headset beaming infrared light into the user’s pre-frontal cortex, the part of the brain associated with planning and making decisions.

Angelika Dimoka from Philadelphia’s Temple University is using FNIRS in a simulated supermarket setting to analyse people’s reactions to product packaging and advertising, in an attempt to pin down what’s going on in consumers’ heads.

How to spook your internal consumer

While my inner marketer thinks it’s a cool idea, my inner consumer is thoroughly spooked. Luckily common sense comes to the rescue. Humans are contrary, chaotic creatures. Just because Colin down the road reacts in a certain way to a specific proposition or packaging design, it doesn’t mean everyone responds the same way. If it did we’d all be driven helplessly to buy exactly the same stuff.

Bad moods, bad weather, bad hair days…

Some adverts strike a common chord. Just about everyone remembers the Cadbury’s TV ad with the drum-playing gorilla. But it didn’t hit home with everyone. And liking an advert doesn’t mean you’re going to rush out and buy. You might hate chocolate, be on a diet, looking after your health, broke, allergic, in a bad mood or fifty miles from the nearest shop. Your wife might have left you, your cat may have died… there’s an endless supply of emotional and practical reasons why plans and decisions die at birth, change part-way or get nipped in the bud.

The same probably goes for packaging. While I’ve never heard anyone actually raving about packaging, it has a powerful subliminal effect. But so does the position of a product on the shelf, the lighting, the weather, whether or not The Seagulls won the cup, the season, smells, the Zeitgeist, domestic worries, time pressures…

Big Brother on steroids

I’m wondering about the practical applications, too. If the day comes when retailers can not only predict our buying decisions but manipulate them, I’m steering clear of the shops. It’s far too ‘Big Brother’ for my taste. And rampant consumerism isn’t exactly a responsible lifestyle choice.

Keep calm and carry on

In the real world it’s doubtful marketers will crack the code, discovering a neat set of common human motivators to press everyone’s buying buttons. However their findings will contribute to an already formidable store of marketing knowledge, ultimately helping brands to sell more stuff.