We've got rules for ads targeting kids. But what if "supraliminal" marketing gets to them first?by Ed Mayo / April 26, 2009 / Leave a comment
Published in April 2009 issue of Prospect Magazine
It’s 34 years since the famous Pepsi vs Coke taste test produced its curious results. In a blind test, half of subjects preferred Pepsi to Coke. But when they knew which was which, three quarters of them liked the Coke best. It went down in marketing history: massively powerful global brands could now override the rationality of our own preferences. This low-tech test confirmed conventional thinking that clever slogans and appealing product claims persuade us to believe that brand X is better than brand Y—a conscious and rational process. But now, in places like the Human Neuroimaging Lab in Houston, sophisticated new tools are being used to show something quite different. Here you can see a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner, a massive piece of kit worth millions of pounds that measures changes in blood flow and blood oxygenation. It allow us to see which areas of the brain are working at any given time. If you wire it up to someone who is watching television, you can identify how marketing stimuli affect our conscious and subconscious emotions, desires and associations. Welcome to the world of “neuromarketing.” As the marketing industry embraces such new technology, we must ask what the rules of the game need to be—particularly for our children. Today, regulation rests on what experts call the “persuasion model” of marketing. In this world the phrase “Don’t Forget the Fruit Gums, Mum!” is not allowed because it tries to persuade young children, who don’t yet know they are being manipulated, to pester their parents. But the model is coming apart. We now know that advertisements with no obvious message most influence children. Cadbury’s claims it does not advertise to children, because it doesn’t address messages directly to kids. Yet the celebrated drumming gorilla advertisement, featuring Cadbury’s colours and a man dressed up in an ape costume, was wildly popular with kids. Put these children into an fMRI scanner and we would see exactly how their desires are stimulated in ways well outside their cognitive control. Some campaigners have already called for a ban on neuromarketing, claiming it can “subjugate the mind and use it for commercial gain.” This echoes the fears that led to subliminal advertising being banned in the US in 1958 and later in other countries like Britain. The word literally means “beneath the threshold” of awareness and it was its inaccessibility to conscious control that made the practice unacceptable. However, it’s becoming clear that many contemporary marketing techniques can influence young brains using stimuli that can be seen, heard or smelt. They are “supraliminal,” yet still beyond conscious control. Take Johnson & Johnson baby shampoo. A simple whiff of it can take you back years to your own childhood or that of your children. The smell links the product to your memory and the association makes you smile. In some cases, these associations are triggered simply by the brand name. Only when subjects know that they are drinking Coca Cola do the emotion and affect-related areas of the brain (the hippocampus and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex) get fired up. Emotional brand cues, not factual information about the product, are central to persuasion. But why does this matter for kids? Studies show that pre-school children start recognising television advertising formats, by primary school they grasp “persuasive intent” and by secondary school they have developed some level of scepticism. Presumably this is why the Children’s Society in February 2009 called for a ban on all advertising to the under 12s. But neuromarketing shows that knowing about persuasive intent does not make you impervious. Indeed, recent research suggests that older children (with more developed cognitive competence and, indeed, more consumer experience) are just as likely to be influenced by advertising as their younger counterparts, if not more so in the case of teenagers. The importance of establishing principles of “neuroethics” for marketing to children is particularly acute when we consider the world of digital marketing. Here children engage not with clearly regulated 30-second television slots but with an immersive and interactive environment where advertising exposure is both limitless and often indistinguishable from content. Our research shows that about three-quarters of internet advertising on kids sites is integrated into the fun and games, rather than labelled on a separate part of the screen. These “advergames,” and techniques like product placement, viral marketing and sponsored gaming, all work implicitly and emotionally. Our distinguishing feature as humans is meant to be our self-consciousness. But neuroscience is beginning to explain, and undermine this, giving us insight into how and why we interact in the way we do. It is right that this new knowledge should be at the disposal of companies who want to innovate and serve us better, but it is no less important, particularly when it comes to children, that we identify and prevent any abuse of these powerful tools. They might not be subliminal in the usual sense. But against them cognitive defence is no defence at all.