Tell Me What You Really Think

8 09 2011

Many years ago, while I was pursuing my MBA at Indiana University, I did a research paper on a topic of my choice. Somewhere along the line I had become intrigued by the topic of motivation research, a popular practice in the 1950s that marketers used to try to get inside people’s heads. The only problem was that, at the time, about the only methods we had to go on were an outgrowth of Freudian psychiatry.

In other words, lots of projective techniques and highly subjective evaluations.

But that did not stop marketers from doing it anyway, because there was money to be made if you could only get at what really motivates people to do things. Vance Packard became popular with The Hidden Persuaders, as well as slew of sequels. More of a journalist and social critic than marketer, though, Packard described the evil going on in the field.

And about the time that Packard started writing, marketers started dabbling in subliminal persuasion, resulting in the famous “Drink Coca Cola” and “Eat Popcorn” test in a New Jersey movie theater (in spite of the reports, there was no solid proof the subsequent rise in sales could be attributed to the subliminal suggestions).

Later on in the 1960s, Wilson Brian Key wrote three sensationalized books on subliminal advertising, but he often went so far off the deep end in his accusations as to fully discredit himself.

From then until just recently, researchers had all but given up on truly figuring out the inner psyche of shoppers. It was too hard to make generalizations, other than the fact that the findings were not generalizable. Sure, it would be nice to know what drives people to take up dangerous habits (e.g., smoking), what effect an embedded phallic symbol might have on purchase, and whether air brushing erotic images or the word “s-e-x” could entice people to unconsciously pick up a product while in the store. But could the findings be replicated? Would different observers draw the same conclusions? Would a sample of 100 yield 100 completely different results?

But that’s all changed, thanks to the emerging field of neuro-marketing. Starting first with fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging), and now more recently EEGs, marketers in the lab can now peak behind the curtain of personal privacy and see exactly what is going on inside our head. Neurons firing. Hippocampus aroused. Brain waves dancing.

One of the latest efforts to probe the human brain is Mynd, a rather strange looking hair piece that users don while watching TV shows and ads, or being presented with products. You see, what people say is one thing; what their brains do, on the other, is quite another. Mynd allows researchers to see what is going on in the mute cranial area. So while we say we like something, etc., what we may really be doing is trying to subscribe to socially acceptable norms. Those partying neurons, though, tell another story.

If this sounds like the 1950s all over, think again. This is real science, not just “lie-down-on-the-sofa” psychiatry. It is measurable. It is replicable. It is generalizable.

And, I suppose, it might be dangerous. But not in a threatening kind of way. No, I mean in a marketing way, because if Apple knows that the mere mention of its name sends tingles up and down my spine, then their marketing focus should be more on the sizzle, and less on the steak. It’s how Coca Cola has come to know that, in spite of blind taste tests that show little favoritism among cola drinkers, its name evokes something far more than fizzy caramel-colored refreshment.

Of course, you have to wonder how they get people to put these things on in the first place. As one of my colleagues and friends said to me last night, “What I want to know is why anyone would subject themselves to this machine? Boat loads of cash?”

True that, my friend. They would have to sweeten the experience considerably before I would want to spend an evening wearing one. Besides, it might muss up my ever-so-slightly receding hair line.

Still, I cannot help but concede that this is the future of marketing research. Sure, we’ll continue to do lots of surveys and focus groups like before, but increasingly we will see companies ponying up big bucks to take a look under the hood. In an arena whereby even one additional share of market can mean tens of millions of dollars, it is well worth marketers being motivated to engage in such research.

Because there really is a battle going on out there, and the battle is for us and our money. If that isn’t motivation research, then I don’t know what is.

Dr “Be Careful With My Hair” Gerlich


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