BMW aims for your brain

10 February 2006

You wouldn’t know it from anything the firm has said in public, but neuroscientist professor Steven Rose has spilled the beans: BMW wants to get inside your head.

Actually, to be fair, it only wants to get inside your head if you’ve got (or are likely to amass) the funds to buy a BMW. It probably doesn’t give a monkey’s cuss what happens in your head if you’re in socio-economic segment D or E.

The company – like others such as fizzy drink maker Coca Cola – has set up its own "neuromarketing" laboratory. It wants to know more about what makes us tick so that it can get better and more sophisticated at marketing. These firms want adverts that appeal to us not simply on an emotional or psychological basis, but on a physiological level too.

Today’s best efforts – such as Jaguar’s expensive attempts to polish up its brand – are crude Pavlovian things at best. Flash up images of attractive young people doing sultry things in expensive clothes and shiny cars, repeat the word “gorgeous” over and over, throw in the Jaguar leaping cat at the end. Repeat until “Jaguar” and “gorgeous” are inextricably linked, hopefully erasing associations between “Jaguar” and “retired duffer in tweed jacket”.

According to boffins in the US, up to 95 percent of consumer decision making is unconscious. Studies at the Baylor College of Medicine in Texas involved students in brain scanners taking the "Pepsi Challenge". The scans showed that people could express a verbal preference for Coke even if their brain scan showed they got a bigger, more pleasurable kick from slurping Pepsi. The conclusion being that brand preference can be much stronger than we realise – it can tie into the sense of self. If you see yourself as a Coke drinker rather than a Pepsi drinker, perhaps because of the bundle of social associations that the choice entails, then that decision overrules the fact that on a completely rational level you actually have the opposite preference.

Nobody yet knows how to make an advert that will switch your preferences on or off – to make you junk your liking for the hot-selling SLK in preference for the underwhelming Z4, say. But firms like BMW aim to find out if this principle might pan out in practice.

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