A trove of brain waves occupies an office on Chamiers Road in Chennai. Data flows in from Japan, the US, the Middle East, Europe, and various towns and cities across India. To the untrained eye, the data might appear as a bewildering bunch of squiggles, cascading across a series of screens.
This is no ordinary medical transcription center, burrowed in the outsourcing trenches. No disease must be detected here. Instead, the signal-processing experts employed by global research firm Nielsen NeuroFocus examine these squiggles for precious strands of a consumer's subconscious.
The NeuroFocus team strives to decipher various levels of emotion, attention and memory retention in data culled from an electroencephalogram, commonly known as an EEG.
Invented in the 1920s, the EEG typically serves to track epilepsy, monitor the depth of anesthesia or confirm brain death. In the commercial world of the 21st century, however, the EEG is also increasingly wielded as a tool to gauge consumer responses to TV and Internet advertisements for anything from a slender mobile phone to a luxury car, a watch or a fragrant household cleaner. Researchers also use it to measure reactions to product design, in-store displays, billboards, and slogans. Such methodologies based on neuroscience have hundreds of proponents and critics around the world. The field has provoked particular controversy in France. Among some industry leaders in India it has created a surge of excitement.
But how does it all work?
Imagine the scene: a middle-aged Indian woman walks into a room somewhere in the country with bare walls, no distractions. She signs a consent form, agreeing to a research trial using an EEG. A technician adjusts a thin stretchy cap on her head and squirts some conductive gel on the cap's 32 sensors, which are designed to map various spots in the brain. (At this point, she might get a bit worried - will the gel mess up her hair? - but is reassured to learn that the sticky stuff will work as leave-in conditioner.) The technician shows her a few TV ads or rough storyboards, and her EEG squiggles are recorded and then dispatched to Chennai.
The data lands in a building shielded by reflecting glass. Its concave façade displays an abstract mural at its core - a medley of pointed shapes in yellow, black, white, and gray. Inside, the NeuroFocus team peers into the core of its subjects. In the end, the Indian woman's data will be blended with those of other participants in the research trial to get an average that will be interpreted for the client.
The clients' sales goals tend to decide who gets the EEG. These can be women-only, men-only, mixed gender, or members of a certain socio-economic category. Ads resonate differently. For example, studies indicate that women's brains are particularly drawn to close-ups of faces in advertisements, while male brains gravitate toward images that reinforce notions of autonomy, like a confident driver at the wheel.
Nielsen NeuroFocus executives call this approach "consumer neuroscience". In their view, it provides an accurate picture of the consumer mind. Together with eye-tracking, another tool to measure attention, they promote the EEG as key to the future of marketing. "Traditionally, the thought was that we think, then act, and then feel about a purchase," says Gayathri Swahar, the Bangalore-based director of Nielsen NeuroFocus. "But consumer neuroscience has identified that we feel first, then act and think. So if an ad does not create the 'aha' response in the brain, then we are not even going to expend energy rationalizing the thought of purchasing."
How long should it take for an ad to create an 'aha' moment? Ideally, about five seconds, according to this theory. The first subconscious reaction will register at somewhere between 300 and 500 milliseconds. Apparently, that doesn't give much wiggle room to creative types in advertising, who prefer to build up to a humorous or poignant denouement. Compression is a key byword of consumer neuroscience, which aims to advise the client on which bit of an ad is most compelling. Back to the editing room, and presto.
"Advertisers can create enormous flexibility by compressing their ads," argues Swahar. "They can increase the reach, frequency and impact of their advertising campaigns for the same level of spending, or spend significantly less with no loss of sales." In India, this pitch can be particularly enticing, given a newly-imposed 12-minute per hour ceiling on ad time for news channels.
Nielsen NeuroFocus also emphasizes its swift delivery of consumer insights. "[We are] able to process neuroscience research at a speed significantly faster than the world's top academic neuroscience research facilities," Swahar claims. For now, the firm has opted to stay away from another key tool in neuroscience - the fMRI, or functional magnetic resonance imaging - deeming the technology too bulky and expensive to prove cost-effective for clients.
Other companies are also using lessons from neuroscience to gauge consumer preferences in India. An Australia-based firm called Neuro-Insight entered the Indian market three years ago, following other assignments in the Asia-Pacific region, the US and the UK. The company relies on a technique called Steady State Topography (SST), which is distinct from the EEG but also measures electrical activity in the brain. "Neuroscience can measure the pure, non-verbal response to ads," asserts Peter Pynta, director of sales and marketing for Neuro-Insight. "It can drive significant returns."
Other companies are focusing on subconscious reactions that flash across a consumer's face. In 2013, for example, the India branch of global research firm Millward Brown gathered some 4,000 subjects to test more than 250 ads using a technique called "facial coding," which records split-second facial expressions in response to advertisements. This includes the flicker of an eyebrow, a sudden smile or a grimace. In this effort, the Millward Brown collaborates with US-based developer Affectiva.
In India, the Millward Brown team typically recruits subjects door-to-door in a neighborhood. Such participants are invited to a wedding hall or perhaps a hotel conference room. There, one by one, they view a cluster of ads on a laptop or TV screen, while their expressions are recorded on a webcam. "Relax and watch the ad," says an advisory (in Hindi, Kannada, or the appropriate local language) on the screen. The test ad is shown twice, in between other ads. Reversing the usual outsourcing pattern, that data is uploaded to the Affectiva team in the US, which then delivers the analysis the next day. To reward Indian participants for their time, the company opts for small gifts like a coffee mug, a lunchbox or a can of deodorant.
According to Millward Brown project management head Anupama R, roughly 10 to 15 out of the total sample of 150 Indians typically say they felt uncomfortable with the webcam surveillance. In that case, they are given a chance to opt out of the recordings and simply answer questions verbally after viewing the test commercial. Was it interesting or boring? Soothing or irritating?
In fact, this kind of conversation with the potential consumer was the primary tool for decades before consumer neuroscience came along. Marketers relied on focus groups and one-on-one interviews to elicit consumer feedback on advertisements. They still do. But a new assumption is starting to take hold: shoppers cannot be trusted to articulate their true feelings, especially in places like India, where the pressures of social conformity are so great.
Increasingly there is impatience with the focus group method. Focus groups are not infallible and the data that emerges is subject to whatever alchemies of the composition of a particular group. At times, focus groups also fall prey to a dominant figure who sways others with his or her opinion about an ad or a product.
Then there are other culture-specific concerns. "Indian consumers don't really come out and say bad things about advertising. That's particularly true of our culture," says Pankaj Jha, Millward Brown's Gurgaon-based director of global innovations for Africa, the Middle East, and Asia Pacific. "In the West, people are generally more open and frank about their responses."
Pranav Yadav, the New-York based CEO of Neuro-Insight US Inc., also perceives a special opportunity. The effectiveness of self-reporting "hits its lows in markets such as India," he observes. "Moreover, Indians have an inherent level of comfort with technology and believe in the idea that technologies like ours add value."
But the appeal of the new technologies goes deeper than some impatience with the old ones. Tools like EEG and facial coding seemingly underline the importance of irrational impulses in consumer behavior, impulses that are scarcely acknowledged or understood by the speaker. This is not a brand new idea, but it does cast a shadow on the work of the small armies of researchers in every country that have been busy quizzing housewives and teenagers about new gadgets or soft drinks on the market.
For example, if a consumer feels delight in watching Deepika Padukone in a coffee ad, one can feel pleasure in watching the actress and in listening to the jingle without any intention of running out and buying the coffee. So various players in the advertising industry insist that traditional methods (like interviews) should complement these neuroscience-based tools - especially when it comes to probing a decision to actually buy a product. That's called "purchase intent," and it can be as essential as the emotional arousal triggered by any particular ad.
Neuro Boosters & Neuro Skeptics
The Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad is reportedly the first institution in India to offer a course on "Neuroscience and Consumer Behavior". (Similar courses have popped up in business schools in the US and the UK over the last few years.) Students seem enthusiastic. More than 120 attempted to sign up in 2013, with just 50 accepted into the class.
Professor Arvind Sahay offers an upbeat introduction to what most of the world (except Nielsen, which calls it consumer neuroscience) calls neuro marketing. Sahay explains that traditional market research has proven difficult in India due to changing consumer preferences in a market that changes quickly. Low levels of literacy and the "demand effect" created by interviewers is also a problem. Demand effect is the phenomena of participants straining to tell researchers what they think they want to hear. "With neuro, one can have better accuracy and granularity of judgments and if done well, I think lower costs as well, over time," Sahay concludes.
One Indian firm that has already dabbled in neuromarketing is Titan Industries, the watch manufacturer. While the company is not forthcoming with details on how this brain-based research helped to tailor any advertising campaigns, the methodology gets a thumbs-up from Ajoy Chawla, Titan's chief strategy officer. "I am quite excited about this new tool as it cuts through the 'rationalizations' of research respondents," he says. "At present, the cost of this tool is a bit on the higher side and also the number of firms offering this is limited. But these costs can come down as more facilities are available and more advertisers start using this."
But India is not awash only with neuro-boosters. While consumer neuroscience has proceeded largely beneath the radar of the general public, it has also spurred a ripple of skepticism here among some scientists and other intellectuals - calling into question both the methods and the ethics of this emerging field.
"As human beings, we think of the inside of our bodies as private space," says Santanu Chakraborty, a US-trained neuroscientist who now focuses on photography and filmmaking in Bangalore. "Having that being used, being looked into, evokes a certain negative feeling. It does raise the question: Who does this information belong to? The ethics need to be evaluated, debated and questioned."
The Neuromarketing Science & Business Association (NSMBA), a leading international industry body, does publish a code of ethics on its website. It's an interesting document. On the one hand, the code stresses that participation in any neuromarketing research project "shall always be entirely voluntary" and researchers shall explain the tools they use to participants in layman terms. Children may not be recruited without their parents' consent.
On the other hand, the code also endorses a certain atmosphere of secrecy. "Concerns or critics (sic) about publicly known neuromarketing projects shall first be presented to the attention of the NSMBA before they are shared widely," reads Article 3.
Such secrecy has come under attack in a 2013 book by Sally Satel and Scott O. Lilienfeld, titled Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience. In it, the authors highlight the lack of publicly published and validated neuromarketing case studies. Taking aim at neuro-hype, they argue that the science, in its present form, does not support such sweeping findings about the subconscious of the humble shopper.
Neuromarketing skeptics can also be found on the campus of the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) in Bangalore. "Because the EEG represents the aggregate activity of millions of neurons, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to understand and extract information regarding different consumer responses," observes Supratim Ray, assistant professor at the Center for Neuroscience at the IISc.
At the IISc's third Bangalore Cognition Workshop, held in mid-December, some visiting neuroscientists also expressed misgivings. Michael Shadlen, who studies decision-making and cognition as a professor of neuroscience at Columbia University in New York, dismissed the EEG as a "very crude tool" and added, "I doubt the techniques would have the power to be useful predictors."
Indeed, the US-based Advertising Research Foundation has registered various members' complaints that "some vendors made strong claims about the measures they use, but could not validate these claims." In 2012, after commissioning a study, the ARF still urged its members to explore the potential of neuromarketing, finding that the methods were effective in their ability to uncover emotional reactions. However, the approach fell short in figuring out whether a consumer actually understood an ad, or felt compelled to go out and buy a product. "If message comprehension or purchase intent are being measured, neuromarketing research probably does not provide better insights than (less expensive) traditional methods," the ARF concluded.
The global verdict is important for India, because many of the multinational companies experimenting with neuromarketing - or considering the plunge - are also eying India as a key growth market. And as growth slows, the pressure to find innovative tactics to reach consumers in Tier II and Tier III cities could increase, some analysts believe.
Not surprisingly, ARF executive vice president Horst Stipp confirmed to this reporter that there is no difference between the terms "consumer neuroscience" and "neuromarketing". When controversy comes knocking, rebranding can't be far behind.
The French Connection
Neuromarketing has proven to be a particularly sensitive subject in France, with its rich tradition of philosophers, historians and novelists concerned with individual freedom. Television documentaries such as "Neuromarketing: votre Cerveau les Interesse" have highlighted fears of psychological manipulation via neuromarketing. In 2011, the French parliament barred all uses of neuroimagery for purposes other than medical or scientific research or expert testimony in court cases.
"The net effect was to make neuromarketing illegal in France," conclude the authors of Neuromarketing for Dummies, a 2013 book designed to appeal to companies that want to jump into the game. "In our opinion this sort of legislative activism is both premature and inappropriate."
Could other countries follow suit? That remains unclear. Many intellectuals view attempted psychological manipulation as par for the course in the advertising world, and have a hard time believing that neuromarketing will turn humans into shopaholic robots. Raising awareness, they say, could be more effective than any ban.
G Gabrielle Starr, author of the 2013 book Feeling Beauty: the Neuroscience of Aesthetic Experience, has engaged in research on neurological responses to works of art, including paintings and poetry. In the context of the application of neuroscience to consumer research she says, "People need to be educated about the ways they can be manipulated. We remain in the position of having to be aware of how we might be swayed by what we see and hear."
Other experts argue that our reality check is natural and fairly dependable. Bangalore-based neuroscientist and author Sai Gaddam notes a significant gap between attempted manipulation and so-called "mind control." He says, "An ad is a fantasy. We do respond to fantasies, but can always differentiate between fantasy and reality. I think our brains are sophisticated enough."
Historically, the master manipulators of advertising include Edward Bernays, the business-savvy nephew of Sigmund Freud. After World War II, he introduced his uncle's psychological theories into the world of American advertising - and played a major role in convincing women to take up smoking. Ads that stimulated people's inner desires and saturated them with consumer goods were thought to have a de-politicizing effect.
In India, the advertising world has also drawn on psychology for decades. The ad industry has produced "an Indian consumer who is specifically Indian and therefore requires local and expert assistance, but who is modern enough to appreciate and desire the commodities offered by a global marketplace," according to American anthropologist William Mazzarella, author of Shoveling Smoke: Advertising and Globalization in Contemporary India.
Some brand evangelists would like the public to believe that commodities represent nothing less than the glue of existence.
"The brands in our lives serve a vital human purpose: they give identity, meaning and connectivity to our experiences and possessions," rhapsodized AK Pradeep, a pioneer neuromarketer. (Pradeep founded NeuroFocus in 2005, and Nielsen fully acquired the company in 2011, extending its global reach.) Pradeep has described one facet of his work as forging "a breathtakingly romantic, yet thoughtfully loving relationship with the brand."
Beyond the commercial forces driving neuromarketing, one wonders whether these tools might be deployed for some social good in India. In the UK, for example, a behavioral insight team draws on cognitive neuroscience to figure out how to encourage people to pay their taxes and search for jobs. Without erecting a nanny state, could advertisers in India dream up public service ads that might persuade people to stop spitting in public? Or encourage more exercise? Or cut down on hazardous drinking?
As it happens, an innovative private firm in Mumbai called FinalMile Consulting has started using lessons from cognitive neuroscience to devise projects linked to public welfare. So far, the portfolio includes interventions that dissuade people from trespassing on railway tracks, encourage them to finish their tuberculosis medicine, drive safely on national highways and efficiently dispose of their trash.
"We should use the principles of neuroscience in designing interventions, and test those in actual contexts," says Ram Prasad, co-founder of Final Mile. For example, eye-tracking will be used in designing more effective signs for drivers.
For now, though, his firm is steering clear of tools like the EEG and fMRI. Prasad thinks those techniques have yet to prove their mettle in yielding real-world solutions to social problems.
In laboratories around the world, researchers are surging ahead in studying the nature of pleasure and addiction. As more is understood about the mechanisms of addictions to video games, chocolate, coffee, poker, whiskey, energy drinks, cigarettes, lingerie, high heels, or even teddy bears, it is conceivable that entrepreneurs will try to reverse-engineer them for commercial gains.
"The science won't stop," points out Julio Martinez-Trujillo, a Cuban-born neuroscientist now conducting research in Canada. "We're going to understand these processes and companies are going to use that. More attention has to be paid to countries like India - and other developing countries - where regulations are more difficult to impose," adds the neuroscientist, who also visited Bangalore last month.
Six years ago, Peter Reiner and his colleagues at the National Core for Neuroethics at the University of British Columbia stated that there was no evidence that neuromarketing allowed "invasion of the inner sanctum of private thought" or was capable of manipulating consumers without them being aware of the subterfuge. Those conclusions still hold, Reiner says.
Yet individual autonomy could have a shelf life. On the cusp of the new year, he observed, "There is every reason to think that as the science matures, the situation could change."
Margot Cohen is a writer from New York. Her interest in India follows previous reporting stints in Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines.