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If I Only Had A Brain Scan

By Aili McConnon
January 22, 2007

It might soon be time to redefine MRI machines as "market research imaging" devices. At Harvard's McLean Hospital not long ago, six male whiskey drinkers, ages 25 to 34, lined up to have their brains scanned for Arnold Worldwide. The Boston-based ad shop was using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fmri) to gauge the emotional power of various images, including college kids drinking cocktails on spring break, twentysomethings with flasks around a campfire, and older guys at a swanky bar. The scans "help give us empirical evidence of the emotion of decision-making," says Baysie Wightman, head of Arnold's new, science-focused Human Nature Dept. The results will help shape the 2007 ad campaign for client Brown-Forman (BF.B), which owns Jack Daniels (BF.B).

The idea of peeking into the brain for consumer insights isn't new. More than a dozen universities have been using fmri to study how people respond to products (prompting Ralph Nader's Commercial Alert group to assert that "it's wrong to use a medical technology for marketing, not healing"). But now a few agencies like Arnold -whose clients also include McDonald's (MCD) and Fidelity-and Digitas (DTAS), another Boston-based shop, are offering fMRI research. "Neuromarketing" consultants, like Los Angeles-based FKF Applied Research, are springing up, too, to link companies with hospitals seeking to lease time on their pricey MRI machines.

Advertisers look to the scans to help tweak their messages. "If you're going to spend $50 million on an ad campaign, wouldn't you want to know if the ad even gets out of the starting gate?" asks Joshua Freedman, M.D., who co-founded FKF. Because scans for 10 to 20 subjects can cost $50,000 to $100,000 (vs. $4,000 for a focus group), FKF arranges fMRI time shares, allowing clients to show 10 subjects a 30-second ad for $3,000, for instance.

Even that's too much for skeptics. "Just knowing the area of the brain where something fires doesn't tell you anything about why it fires," says Eric Du Plessis, author of The Advertised Mind. But Wightman argues that consumers often can't articulate what they like best. At McLean, she notes, the spring-break images sparked the most brain activity, even though the camping scenes were the spoken favorite. (Similarly, high-fat-food images fired up the brain of this reporter, despite her stated preference for photos of healthy snacks.) Since the McLean fMRIs were Arnold's first, the agency itself paid for them. (Brown-Forman says it might fund
a future round.) Wightman concedes that responding to an ad while in an MRI device differs from shopping in a store. That's why she's also considering doing research with a sensor-equipped shirt, originally developed for medical tests, that records rises in sweating or heartbeat as the wearer responds to a product.