by: Jonathan Salem Baskin

For those of you mapping your next branding campaign based on the insights of fMRI imaging, you better make sure that the flashes you're seeing aren't the symptoms of hay fever.

Only you can't.

Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) has been a topic du jour in the marketing world, as it promises to let us use brain scans to prove the efficacy of one branding message over another. Finally, there's scientific proof of all the mental images and emotions that we'd only been able to see indirectly via qualitative research. fMRI means you don't have to ask people what they think. You can just check the monitor, and adjust your marketing accordingly.

Only you can't.

The primary tool for this imaging is something called BOLD, for Blood-Oxygen-Level Dependent, as it allows for the measurement of the oxygen that neurons need when they fire. So it's an indirect measure, and it can get prompted by physiological prompts, like sinus pressure. It's also dependent on other chemicals present in a brain, it changes with familiarity, and it's based on measuring triggers for oxygen when the brain is prompted...and not when it prompts thoughts (or actions). 

On the macro-level at which we marketers live, this means we can see when and where brains flash when we run a commercial, or make a specific sales pitch, but there's no way to differentiate the substance of those flashes from, say, the enabling effects of a neurotransmitter, or the fact that somebody felt like they were about sneeze. It's all the same flash, irrespective of input or any future state.

Lots of correlative assumptions can get made about what the flashes might mean, but it's all interpretation. Flashes indirectly prove that a brain responded to a stimuli. Full stop. There's no suggestion (beyond more interpretation and hope) that said flashes connect in any way to subsequent thoughts (which can't be measured) or actions. Coke commercials don't flash red, nor Pepsi blue. It would be really cool if you could make those links.

Only you can't. The scientific community is so not in agreement about how to interpret fMRI to make its immediate applications to marketing little more reliable than using seances or phrenology.

So why do marketers even indulge in conversations about it, especially since there are such rich, obvious, and absolutely real tools of behavior available to decipher, map, and manage outbound marketing? 

Well, first, because it's totally cool. Understanding the biological basis for consciousness and sense of self, let alone branding, is really, really interesting and real. There's serious stuff to be learned about bridging the gap Descartes saw between mind and body. I'm all for it.

Second, marketers are poets, not scientists, and we believe our purpose is to influence perceptions and intent. Mind states matter more than actions, so we leave that behavioral stuff to sales people or, at best, our lesser cousins in direct marketing. fMRI plays to our predisposed interests.

But I suspect the reason we're entertaining the nonsense about reading minds is because of the crisis in our industry. Consumers are harder to reach, more difficult to convince, and nearly impossible to keep loyal. Every conceivable pressure is being applied to marketers...forcing proof that our marketing and branding efforts have any connection to the survival of our companies and clients.

So fMRI looks, feels, and purports to provide that proof -- in a cool way, and of mental stuff that's far more important than physical reality -- so you can claim that you're truly connecting with a consumer.

Only you can't. Flashes are as much proof that someone needs your brand as they reveal her need for a decongestant.

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