Put brain in gear before engaging a behaviourist

Research claiming to have discovered a ‘buy button’ in the brain glosses over the many social, and often irrational, motivations of consumers, says Sean Brierley

Do humans have a section of their brains that engages the mouth before thinking, or is it just me? Last week I asked a colleague whether she had had a new hairdo. “No”, she replied, “I’ve got alopecia. It’s falling out in clumps.” It isn’t the first time that this has occurred. As a lecturer, I once told a student that she had a good tan and asked her if she had been on holiday. “No,” she said, “I’m black.”

Awareness of my affliction makes it more manageable. Potential embarrassment can be avoided by careful rule-governed behaviour such as never asking large women when their baby is due and only offering my bus seat to a grey-haired woman if she is accompanied by several nurses and attached to an iron lung.

Unlocking the reasons for our behaviour is marketing’s Holy Grail. Companies spend millions on research to find the one ingredient that will get people to buy. Last weekend I saw a news story with the promising headline, “Admen seek ‘buy button’ in our brains”. It was in the The Sunday Times – a tabloid trapped in a broadsheet body – but as it is read by millions it deserves to be treated with some seriousness.

The article said that Camelot and Ford had hired neuroscientists to “measure the responses of human guinea pigs as they watched advertisements. The goal was to identify a “buy button” in the brain, which can be targeted and triggered by future commercials. Apparently, the part of the brain that features the “buy button” is linked to excitement. “Brands that stimulate activity in this area are more likely to make a sale,” the article said. James Bailey, professor of organisational behaviour at George Washington University told the paper: “In the not too distant future, firms will be able to tell if an advertising campaign or product redesign triggers the brain activity and neurochemical release associated with memory and action.”

You can hear the distant bark of Pavlov’s dog here, because what is sexed-up as neuro-science is actually hoary, old-fashioned behaviourism, which is making a comeback largely due to the re-birth of genetic research and the inability of psychological approaches to explain the effectiveness of advertising.

Behaviourism falls into the same trap as the psychological approaches that seek one isolated cause determining buying behaviour.

But there are lots of reasons why people buy lottery tickets or Ford cars. One is a craving for status. People’s first impulse is to spend on things that put them ahead of their neighbours (houses, cars, clothing), rather than on things that only they see (health care, job safety, retirement savings). These are cultural, not neurological, impulses.

Another reason for buying certain brands is stupidity. Behaviourism cannot take account of the fact that people do not always act rationally but can very often be stupid.

For example, American Express has married status-led branding with a loyalty scheme that gives the impression of good value. The reality is very different. I pay an annual &£38 fee and another &£23 a year to give me one membership reward per pound I spend. That makes &£61 a year for the privilege of having an Amex card and gaining membership rewards. According to Membership Rewards, 1,500 rewards are equivalent to one Lonely Planet City Guide, which costs around &£6; so to earn the reward points equivalent to the &£61 cost of being an Amex member, I would have to spend &£15,000 a year on my card. Given that hardly anywhere accepts the damned thing, this could prove difficult. And anyway, would I want to go through all that for the privilege of spending an extra night at the Basildon Moat House hotel?

The language and form of address used in advertising are equally important. All good salesmen will tell you that it is very difficult to dismiss, dislike or avoid someone who speaks to you as if they have known you for years. Human beings are endowed with strong urges to be loyal to those that they know. This loyalty can be as simple as somebody at a sandwich shop knowing your order or making intimate small talk. It gives a sense of belonging, something that a “buy button” cannot explain, just as it cannot explain familial loyalty and duty.

The serious problem with all of this neuro-scientific or behaviourist research is that how you achieve that initial stimulation to buy remains unexplored. Triggering parts of the brain is one thing. Understanding and interpreting the significance of that process is another altogether. Having your “buy button” triggered might be one contributing factor in your buying decision, but it would not be the only factor.

There is also the reductionist assumption that we are merely machines, a collection of chemical impulses and buttons. Stimulus-response models of human behaviour take no account of environment or culture. Worse, they make companies ignore the blindingly obvious.

Camelot told The Sunday Times that it had used the technique to gauge consumer reaction to its recent Billy Connolly ads. The campaign was later dropped. Did they need to measure people’s brain patterns to discover that the Connolly ads were appalling? Was this an example of Camelot using its “buy button”, or just engaging its wallet before thinking?

Sean Brierley is a former deputy editor of Marketing Week and author of the Advertising Handbook

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