You may be surprised to know that the psychological significance to a woman of baking a cake is that of bringing a gift of a new baby to the family. Thus sellers of cake mixes, which originally only required the addition of water, were well advised to allow their customers to add eggs for themselves – thus experiencing some responsibility for the outcome.
Those of you who read Vance Packard’s Hidden Persuaders back in 1957 will remember the shock of discovering that our merchandisers were devoting big money to discovering how we could be tempted to buy through a direct appeal to subliminal methods – below the threshold of consciousness.
So should your washing powder be marketed in a blue, yellow, or blue with splashes of yellow? You know the answer. So did Vance Packard. Blue just won’t deal with stains, yellow is too strong for delicate fabrics, but blue with a dash of yellow is just right.
Been to the supermarket this week? I hope you recalled that the arrangement of the merchandise maximised your chances of being exposed to temptation. You noticed the various attractive smells and the level of the lighting. You spotted how the varying width of the aisles affected your speed of passage. You saw how own-brand products were displayed, in contrast to branded products. You were drawn to the end-of-aisle spots where the promotions caught your eye. To whose tune were you dancing: yours or the supermarket’s?
So the discipline of charting our subconscious reactions in the marketplace is already well established. And many studies of behaviour have been conducted to increase the range and reliability of this new science. It was never short of funding – commercial interests knew that it worked because the bottom line said so. Although the practice of marketing to the subconscious is not new, it moves into a different dimension when we cut out the fallible middleman and speak directly to the brain.
Let’s take an example. When a cosmetics firm discovered that one version of an advertisement was favoured greatly by a group of potential customers over a very similar advertisement, they wondered why. The only difference was a four-second scene where the model touched her face with a hand. The brain images of the group showed a powerful emotional response to that scene. Bingo!
In a notorious study keen Coke fans were asked to taste Pepsi and Coke blind for comparison. The brain showed clearly that Pepsi was the favoured taste. But when they were told which brand beforehand, the brain voted for Coke. The association with their favoured brand actually made it taste better.
I could fill several columns with examples, but it is enough to say that already and increasingly every aspect of the market is being surveyed with a view to luring our subconscious into the desired behaviour. And since we are only just into the threshold of neuromarketing, we can look forward to more and more accurate penetration into our brains. Believe me, there are fine minds focused on reading not just our response but our actual thoughts.
While that is of concern, our shopping is relatively trivial. How do we feel when neuroscience is advising our politicians? Is our vote to be seduced by scientists in the pay of our would-be masters? Well, yes, actually. “Both [political] parties will merchandise their candidates and issues by the same methods that business has developed to sell goods” – quoted by Packard from Business Magazine, dated 1956.
Radio 4’s Brain Culture programmes tell us of an unnamed South American politician who put himself into the hands of consultant neuroscientists, and increased his vote by 20 per cent. While we don’t know how much of this increase can be attributed to his tailor-made campaign, it is likely that it would have been planned from appearance and tone of voice upwards. His choice of policies to emphasise would have been open to testing – right down to the phrasing – and chosen to get the best brain response. He might have gone to the hustings not necessarily with his own choice of policies, but with the total package most likely to succeed.
Perhaps it is not a surprise that the first Government paper on behaviour change was provided for Tony Blair, and it is interesting that we are told that behaviour change is “the only strand of No 10’s work retained by Cameron”. It does not seem to have been a great success so far.
The moral questions raised here are important. In the marketplace and in political choice we are faced by wholesale manipulation. We are being persuaded through methods of which we cannot in the nature of things be fully aware. We think that we are freely choosing this washing powder or this new motorcar and we are not. We think we are freely choosing this candidate or that policy and we are not. No one is offering us unvarnished truth. What is being offered is a subtle package designed to elude our defences.
Yet none of this is new. Since Eve first persuaded Adam it was so. And each of us uses persuasion many times a day. What are the limits? Some would argue that bypassing our conscious minds and speaking directly to our brains is a step too far. Is this the point where persuasion is replaced by invasion?
Tell us what you believe the limits to be. But at the practical level it may be wise to accept the vulnerabilities of the brain to below-the-counter persuasion. It won’t solve the problem, but it will increase your chances to defend yourself.