It was at an oceanside picnic a few years ago that Steve Quartz got a germ of an idea that has guided much of his research since.
As their kids played, he and an acquaintance who works in marketing fell into a long conversation about unlocking the unconscious mind. The big frustration in advertising, the executive complained, is that while involuntary forces largely drive consumer behaviour, marketers lack the tools to probe shoppers' psyches.
Wouldn't it be interesting, they mused while watching surfers ride the Pacific, to apply brain-imaging technology to advertising?
That chance arrived last year in a dull basement lab at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. For several months, Mr. Quartz and his project manager, Anette Asp, watched intently as volunteers' brains were scanned for thoughts they didn't know they had about a parade of photographs ranging from shoes and sunglasses to coffee makers and vacuums. Some products were cool, others definitely not.
It was a brain focus group, the stuff of marketers' dreams.
In cutting-edge research, Mr. Quartz, a Canadian who grew up in the Toronto area, is tapping into the unconscious -- that holy grail of advertising -- and discovering radical differences in how people's brains respond to the pervasive notion of cool.
"We're looking at a really basic issue of marketing and consumer goods, which is: Why are people so willing to pay a premium for a product when that premium isn't really buying them anything extra in terms of functionality," said Mr. Quartz, who is director of Caltech's social cognitive neuroscience laboratory.
With his specialization in brain science, Mr. Quartz has become a key figure in the fledgling, and very controversial, area of consumer research known as neuromarketing. The field uses medical technology -- often functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, which measures changes in blood flow to determine the intensity of activity in different areas of the brain -- to delve deep into the mind. It is a boundary-busting frontier that, at its heart, seeks to find and trigger the brain's fabled "buy" button.
"In marketing, we often see the human mind as a black box," said Karl Moore, a professor of strategic marketing at McGill University, "and what this does is effectively allow us to peek inside of that black box more effectively."
Scientists believe an astonishing 80 per cent or so of the mental processes -- namely emotions -- that slosh around in the human brain are rooted in the unconscious. Add to that web of obliviousness the act of shopping, and the heady brain chemicals it triggers, and the result is a stew of complex forces driving consumer behaviour.
Keenly aware that four out of five new products fail, marketers rely on a stable of traditional methods -- namely focus groups and surveys -- to measure the effectiveness of their brand recognition and advertising campaigns.
But these techniques, most everyone agrees, have significant limitations, not least of which is that they require people to articulate complex, often involuntary, motivations behind the why of the buy. People can tell advertisers what they think they think, but often not what they actually think. And many tend to embellish their opinions, driven by a desire to please or appreciation at being paid.
Using fMRI to measure blood flow in areas of the brain -- such as those governing identity, memory, fear, disgust and reward -- allows advertisers to pull back the curtain and gain valuable knowledge of the connection their products have in a consumer's mind, said Prof. Quartz, a tall, stylish 42-year-old.
"There's an interest in a way to . . . get at all the very low-level kinds of processes," he said.
In a study released last year, U.S. researchers conducted a high-tech Pepsi Challenge.
In blind taste tests, participants were evenly split on whether they preferred Pepsi or Coke. But when the subjects were told which cola they were drinking, a different area lit up on the fMRI and suddenly three out of four favoured Coke. It was scientific proof of the effectiveness of branding.
But this business of slyly delving into the unconscious mind to discover what people do not even know about themselves -- all in the name of increasing profit -- has sparked deep controversy.
Last year, Commercial Alert, an organization that fights what it considers the creeping commercialization of U.S. culture, requested a congressional investigation into neuromarketing, calling it Orwellian and warning it could creep outside the advertising world.
"What would happen in this country if corporate marketers and political consultants could literally peer inside our brains, and chart the neural activity that leads to our selections in the supermarket and the voting booth? What if they then could trigger this neural activity by various means, so as to modify our behaviour to serve their own ends?" Gary Ruskin, the group's executive director, wrote in a letter to a U.S. Senate committee. "We Americans may find out sooner than we think."
Although it is in its infancy, some companies have made forays into the uncertain waters of neuromarketing. DaimlerChrysler, for example, has used brain imaging to improve its car designs. Mr. Quartz is working with a marketing company -- which employs the acquaintance who helped get him interested in the idea at the picnic -- to use brain scanning. A U.S. researcher has even examined the brain's response to political advertising.
And a national police force in the Pacific region (not in Canada or the United States), is considering using brain scans as an advanced lie detector, said Prof. Moore, who is an adviser to a British neuromarketing firm. "[That]just makes one a little nervous about Big Brother."
But there is, he argues, a huge difference between authorities requiring brain scans and someone who volunteers for market research. (MRI scans do not emit radiation, so there is no health risk.) To gain the public's trust, he believes those involved in neuromarketing must develop strict ethical guidelines and educate the public about the technology.
"There's a privacy issue, very clearly, and I think you've got to make sure it's voluntary and that you're very careful and very strict about what you ask them."
The concept of cool pervades advertising. Whether a company flogs cereal or computers, its end goal is to attract the cash and loyalty of consumers.
"Cool is basically kind of a positional good. People buy things that they think are going to advertise to other people who they are," Mr. Quartz said.
For his unpublished study, which he calls CoolScan, a few dozen participants were strapped into an fMRI and asked to watch 140 images flicker by. They were also given a pen-and-paper personality test in the belief that their social interactions "ought to have an effect on how they perceive what these goods mean in terms of their identity and the social value for them," he said.
The resulting treasure trove of data -- each participant generated several hundred minutely detailed brain maps recorded at two-second intervals -- yielded a striking breakthrough. Subjects viewing identical images had radical variations in their brain activity. The motivations of consumers, he says, are far more varied than previously believed.
When shown an undeniably cool product -- such as an Apple iPod, a Christian Dior purse or an Audi car -- some people had rushes of blood in an area of the brain governing self-image. They also had activity in a region involved in planning movement, which means that, lying strapped in a scanner, they were unconsciously preparing to reach out for the object -- a reaction for which marketers yearn.
And when they saw uncool products -- including a pair of stodgy loafers, a handmade purse and Nascar sunglasses -- members of this group, who the researchers dubbed cool fools, had little brain activity.
With their tendency to be extroverts, impulsive shoppers and to worry about social exclusion, these people, Mr. Quartz and Ms. Asp concluded, were attracted to cool products because they saw them as enhancing their identity and status.
But a second group of participants, who they nicknamed uncool connoisseurs, had mirror-opposite reactions. They had little brain activity while viewing cool products but had increased blood flow to an anxiety-filled region when viewing uncool items. The conclusion? These people, who were more apt to be neurotic, calculated shoppers and worry about social embarrassment, are strongly motivated by the desire to avoid things that are not cool.
Put differently: The first group was simply attracted to cool, while the second was driven by their repulsion to all things uncool.
The research, which is funded by a grant from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, provides another layer of information about the lightning-fast brain processes that underlie consumer behaviour. As Mr. Quartz says, attention is a "really limited resource in the brain." Like others who work in the field, Mr. Quartz and Ms. Asp foresee a day when products are tested deep in the craniums of people lying horizontal on MRI scanners. And as interest in the technology grows -- and the cost falls -- they believe marketers will change how they target consumers.
Instead of developing a one-size-fits-all ad, a luxury car maker could appeal to cool fools by showing how owning one of its vehicles is equivalent to membership in an elite group. That same ad, though, "will fail to motivate" uncool connoisseurs, Prof. Quartz said. Instead, they would be moved, he said, by a spot showing someone being embarrassed to drive a jalopy to a country club where the parking lot is packed with the car makers' products.
As project manager, Ms. Asp volunteered to have her brain examined for the experiment. Before she was scanned, she told Mr. Quartz -- whose test revealed him as a cool fool -- that she was convinced she would have the same reaction. With her avant-garde haircut, love of high fashion and interest in design, the 29-year-old Swede imagined her brain lighting up at the groovy products that she had helped select.
Instead, she was astonished to discover, she was an uncool connoisseur. Her intense fascination with cool is, at its heart, propelled by her deep-seated fear of being seen as anything but.
But, as she quickly points out, the experiment measured unconscious brain activity, not the coolness factor of participants.
"The study is really getting to something deeper than superficial things . . . all the hidden motives to our behaviour that kind of shape who we are. So yeah, I was surprised. I wasn't really disappointed. That's who I am, right?"