Neuromarketing - The Brain Basis of Buying Behaviour

10 October 2010

How do advertisers get inside your head? This week we explore the field of neuromarketing - how a knowledge of your brain and behaviour can help marketers to manipulate your buying habits. We'll find out how the brain choses what stimuli to pay attention to and the neurological basis of why celebrity sells. In the news, the first Census of Marine Life and how researchers have got wind of the fact that men really are sweatier than women. Plus, we hit the shops to investigate how retailers trick you into overfilling your basket!

In this episode

01:46 - The Census of Marine Life

This week saw the first report of the Census of Marine Life. This has been a worldwide project spanning in the last 10 years, aiming to catalogue the diversity, distribution and abundance...

The Census of Marine Life
with Enric Sala, Ann Bucklin, Kristina Gjerde

Sarah -  This week saw the first report of the Census of Marine Life.  This has been a worldwide project spanning in the last 10 years, aiming to catalogue the diversity, distribution and abundance of life in the oceans.  I went along to launch of the census report in London and spoke to Marine Ecologist Enric Sala...

Yellowfin tuna, Thunnus albacaresEnric Sala -   Well today was a celebration of 10 years of great work and 2700 people from 8 different countries who have worked their *beep* off for 10 years.  This project has completely transformed our vision of the ocean.  So right now, we know that there are far more species than we thought, that the ocean life is more connected than we thought, but also, that it's more impacted by human activities than we thought 10 years ago.

Sarah -   That was Enric Sala who acted as compere for all the talks and discussions throughout the day of the launch, and was also involved in looking back at fish populations of the past for the survey.  As Enric said, this was a global effort.  Researchers went out and collected samples, took photographs and measurements from all types of marine ecosystem.  From tropical mangroves to under the sea ice in Antarctica, to abyssal planes and ocean trenches out to the open ocean, to try and get an idea of what species were living in each area.  During the census, they found 6,000 potential new species and have pushed up the estimate for total marine species to over 250,000.  One of the methods pioneered by the census was DNA barcoding which allows you to take a sample from an ecosystem and identify all the animals present.  Ann Bucklin is from the University of Connecticut...

Ann Bucklin -   The way the census has started bar coding is what we called "gold standard barcoding".  We work from an identified specimen and we determine the sequence.  And so now, we have a gold standard.  We have a DNA sequence with a name on it.  Overall, 35,000 species of marine organisms, marine animals have been barcoded.  Now, what we're starting to do is to take that scoop of animals; whether it's a net sample of plankton, a scoop of sediment, any kind of habitat you could name, and we're doing deep sequencing with the new high throughput sequencing, to tell us how many species we think are in that sample.  Some of those will match our library of gold standard barcodes, some will not, but some will be close enough so that we can classify them.  So we say, we don't know what copepod that is, but we know it's a copepod.  That's the power of what we call environmental barcoding.

Sarah -   Ann Bucklin there.  In terms of the distribution of species, researchers used a range of tracking methods including satellites and acoustic techniques to find out where, when and how far species travel.  The tracking studies, as well as looking at the genetics in different areas, led the census to conclude that ecosystems and marine species are much more interconnected than we thought, which really has important implications for conservation.  Looking at abundance, this is where it becomes a much less positive story.  The census estimates that 90% of top marine predators like tuna, marlin and sharks have been lost in the last 50 years alone, due to over-exploitation and habitat loss.  And looking much further back, they found that humans have been impacting fish populations for much longer than we previously thought, certainly back at least 2,000 years.  But the census isn't just an interesting piece of zoological and ecological information.  It could also act as a guide to inform conservation efforts and as a guide to policy makers.  As Maritime Lawyer turned Ocean Conservation Adviser, Kristina Gjerde explains...

Kristina Gjerde -   Bringing the high seas, the oceans into the living room will help to stir some concern about what is the state of the ocean these days and if that concern can be translated to our policy makers that're in our capitals, in our hometowns then we would start to see some action.

Sarah -   That was Kristina Gjerde, talking to me at the Royal Institution in London.

06:21 - Not all fat cells are created equal

This week, researchers have made another interesting finding in regard to what actually happens when a person puts on a bit too much weight. Now not all fat storing cells which are known...

Not all fat cells are created equal
with Michael Jensen, the Mayo Clinic

Chris -  This week, researchers have made another interesting finding in regard to what actually happens when a person puts on a bit too much weight.  Now not all fat storing cells, which are known as adipocytes, are equal it seems and from the Mayo Clinic, to tell us more, Michael Jensen.

Michael -   We were trying to understand why, when some people gain weight, they gain it in their hips and thighs which seems to protect from cardiovascular disease and other people tend to gain it in their abdominal area which seems to put them at higher risk.

Chris -   So, in other words, this is the apples and pears analogy, isn't it?  People who are very apple shape, they put all the weight on around the middle have a very different risk of being overweight than people who put their weight on around their bum.An Obese Teenager with Central Obesity, side view

Michael -   Yeah.  That's what we were trying to find out.  Is there something we can measure before you even gain weight that will predict where you're going to gain that weight?  So we asked about 28 people who were normal weight, who'd never been overweight, and we're completely healthy to undergo some initial tests, including some fat biopsies, and then to really overeat for about 8 weeks to try to gain about 4 kilograms.  And then the idea is to measure where they gain the fat and then to repeat the fat biopsies and see what had changed about their fat tissue.

Chris -   So, by looking in the different zones in the body, you're asking:  Do the fat cells change equivalently in the different anatomical zones, the abdomen versus around your hips for example?  I guess to find out whether the cells there are behaving equivalently.

Michael -   Yes, but also to see how they behave with regards to how much fat is gained in that area.  So what we found is that the people who - when they gain weight in their abdomen, they gain it primarily by their fat cells getting bigger.  When people gain weight in their hip and thigh area, their fat cells don't get bigger.  They make more fat cells so that they keep their fat cell size on average, staying about the same.  So the implication is, if you're putting weight on in the hip and thigh area, it's because you're creating new fat cells.

Chris -   Well that flies in the face of what I guess doctors have been learning at medical school for many years, which is that after a certain age, you don't make any more fat cells.  You just get fatter by making the ones you have got get bigger.

Michael -   That's right and so that was what was so striking to us.  This has completely overturned everything we've been taught.

Chris -   Okay, so you've got this interesting finding.  People put on increased numbers of cells around their hips.  They have increasing size of cells in the abdomen.  Where next?  Where does this leave us?

Michael -   Well, the other thing we found is that the people who did make more cells in their thighs were less likely to gain weight in the abdomen, suggesting that it may be the ability to create new fat cells in the hip and thigh area is one thing that might protect you from getting bigger cells in the abdominal area.Fat cells in adipose tissue

Chris -   In other words, it's a word of sequestration process.  If you're making new cells in your hips, you're not putting the fat around your middle which is the fat we know is associated with ill health.

Michael -   Exactly, sort of the good news, bad news story.  The bad news is you're making more fat cells which most people wouldn't want to do.  The good news is that those fat cells are doing exactly the job you want them to do.  They're having the fat stored benignly inside fat cells rather than going into bigger fat cells or worse yet, going into organs like liver and muscle where the fat can cause some insulin resistance.

Chris -   So does this mean that one way we could tackle obesity and not just obesity, the linked condition diabetes which is of course much more common in people who gain too much weight?  If we could find what is causing those cells to behave differently in those two areas and then in people who have a tendency to put weight on around the middle, we could make the fat instead be directed towards this less unhealthy distribution around the hips. Then we might have a way of reducing the risk of someone going on to develop an obesity linked disorder or disease.

Michael -   Yes, that's exactly right.  That's what we're hoping is that even if we can't prevent people from becoming obese which it doesn't seem we're having very good luck at, if we could at least prevent them from becoming ill as a result of the weight gain, that would be at least some accomplishment.

Chris -   How close are you to being able to realise that, to being able to work out what is causing these cells to behave differently, not just in different bits of the body, but in different people?

 Michael -   Not as close as I would like to be, I'm afraid.  I think the next steps are to begin looking much more closely at the pre-adipocytes, the precursors to fat cells in the different depots and specifically in people who we know already have gained weight preferentially in the hip and thigh area versus those who are not able to and look to see what is it about those cells that are different, and not just the mature adipocytes, but the pre-adipocytes.

Chris -   Certainly food for thought, isn't it?  That was Michael Jensen who is from the Mayo Clinic, and that work was published this week in the journal, PNAS.

11:47 - Yeast-smelling lily tricks pollinating fruit flies

This week, researchers have published a paper in Current Biology describing a flower that uses an unusual smell to attract its pollinators. The Solomon’s Lily, which is a member of the Arum...

Yeast-smelling lily tricks pollinating fruit flies

This week, researchers led by Johannes Stökl have published a paper in Current Biology describing a flower that uses an unusual smell to attract its pollinators. The Solomon's Lily, which is a member of the Arum genus - which also contains the largest flower in the world, the Titan Arum - releases a sweet smell that mimics rotting or fermenting fruit to attract Drosophilid fruit flies.

SolomonThis lily uses what is known as deceptive pollination to trick the flies into pollinating it. Now, many flowers attract their pollinators - like insects, birds, bats, all sorts of animals - with some sort of reward - like a sweet sugary nectar. The pollinator visits the flower, and in the process of feeding on the nectar, pollen gets transferred to them that they then transfer to another plant.

But obviously, it's quite costly to the plant to produce sweet nectar, so some plants trick their pollinators into pollinating them without giving a reward. They release smells that are similar to the food source, or breeding place of the insect, or sometimes even mimic the pheromones of the female insects to attract the males. And that's what this lily does - it mimics the smell of something that attracts the fruit flies.

So what the researchers did was that they analysed the volatile compounds released by the lily using Gas Chromatography and Mass spectrometry, and found that 6 of the 13 compounds that make up the smell are also found in rotting fruit and fermentation products like vinegar and wine, that are also very attractive to these fruit flies. Because Drosophilid fruit flies feed on yeasts and breed in rotting fruit, they have evolved to be sensitive to the odour of those things, and to respond to them.Drosophila melanogaster

They also carried out functional imaging of the fly 'smell centre' - the antennal lobe - and found that the compounds released by the lily activate the same parts of the antennal lobe (which is like the olfactory bulb in our brains) as the smells of rotting fruit - so the lily is exploiting the fact that these flies have evolved to be very sensitive to these particular compounds in order to attract them. So it's interesting in two ways - from an evolutionary point of view, that the flower has evolved to so closely mimic the smell of rotting fruit, and from the point of view that it has helped to shed a bit more light on the way the fruit fly brain works and responds to particular smells.

14:45 - Men Perspire, Women Glow, though more so if they exercise!

Japanese scientists have confirmed the axiom that men sweat while women glow.

Men Perspire, Women Glow, though more so if they exercise!

Japanese scientists have confirmed the axiom that men sweat while women glow. Writing in the journal Experimental Physiology, Osaka International University researcher Yoshimoto Inoue and his colleagues measured the sweat production rates of a mixed group of 37 trained and untrained men and women as they underwent an hour-long exercise regime that had them working out at between 35% and 60% of their maximum workloads.The researchers also totted up the density of sweat glands on the subject's skins. Runner

Men, they found, produced significantly more sweat than women, especially with increasing exercise intensity, and amongst both sexes exercise training augmented sweat gland activity, although much more so amongst males. The female study participants also became much hotter before they began to sweat maximally compared with either their trained or untrained male counterparts.

Apart from confirming the stereotype, the research sheds light on a number of outstanding questions regarding how the two sexes cope differently with temperature extremes. According to Inoue, "women generally have less body fluid than men and may become dehydrated more easily. Therefore the lower sweat loss in women may be an adaptation strategy that attaches importance to survival in a hot environment, while the higher sweat rate in men may be a strategy for greater efficiency of action or labour."

Next, the team plan to look at how hormones influence the process, based on the belief that testosterone is the driver behind mens' more prodigious sweat outputs, as well as accouting for why exercise training boosts sweat gland activity.

17:41 - Planet Earth - Orang-utan posture

Orang-utans are one of the world’s most fascinating creatures living primarily among the trees. They're the only mammal apart from us that habitually walks on two legs. Sue Nelson...

Planet Earth - Orang-utan posture
with Susannah Thorpe, Birmingham University

Orang-utans are one of the world's most fascinating creatures living primarily among the trees.  They're the only mammal apart from us that habitually walks on two legs.  Sue Nelson from the Planet Earth podcast visited Birmingham University's posture and balance lab to meet a team who are researching the way that humans, and by extension our shared ancestors with orang-utans, moved around.  She spoke Project Director, Dr. Susannah Thorpe.

Susannah Thorpe -   We're really interested in human evolution and one of the most important things is how human ancestors started to walk on two legs.  Our idea is that this began in the trees.  So what we've created here is the kind of environment that our early ancestors would've experienced when they were walking on two legs and trying to balance on the edges of trees as they're trying to reach for fruits or cross gaps in the canopy.

Sue Nelson -   You say our common ancestors.  We haven't got any of those present, so what do you use instead?

Susannah -   We're using humans to try and understand what our ancestors did, but we're also using orang-utans.  And this is on the basis that we think the origins of bipedalism lie in our ancestors moving around in the canopy of tropical forests.  Orang-utans are the only one of the great apes which are our closest living relatives to still live in that habitat.  So they're a perfect model to understand the problems that our ancestors would've faced.

Sue -   What role is Emma, who's a doctor or researcher going to play here - not that of an orang-utan, or is she?

Susannah -   Emma is going to be our guinea pig today and she's going to walk on the beam and well hopefully, she's going to be able to balance on it without falling off.

Sue -   Emma is also with Dr. Sam Coward.  Sam, you designed this equipment here.  What are you going to do to Emma in order to examine how she actually walks across this recreated forest branch? Sumatran orangutan

Sam Coward -   Well we have a number of cameras in this room which attract reflective markers that we placed on the subject.  This technology is commonly used in film making, so it's a sort of technology that's used in the making of Gollum.

Sue -   In Lord of the Rings?

Sam -   That's correct.  To get enough information to fully recreate full body movements, we have to put somewhere in the region of 70 markers on the subject.

Sue -   Emma is now kitted up.  Could you explain Susannah what Emma is going to be doing for us here?

Susannah -   You can see that the beam, we have one fixed end and one free end, and obviously, it's much harder moving on the free end because it's more flexible, so it's going to bend more under her mass - under her weight.

Sue -   Which is how a branch and a tree would be.

Susannah -   Yes, and she's going to walk slowly along towards the end of the beam, and if she feels like she might fall off, she's going to use the thinner hand beam to help balance herself.

Emma -   Well I'm starting at the unfixed end and this is the most flexible end, so the most unstable. So it's getting a little bit easier as I'm walking towards the fixed end, but am still having to use the hand beam to balance.

Sue -   How does it feel compared to how you normally walk?

Emma -   A lot more unstable.  You're kind of wanting to grip with your feet.  I just suppose it's similar to what an orang-utan would do in the canopy and this is on the thickest beam, so I dread to think how I'll fare on the narrower ones!

Susannah -   We're trying to get information on all aspects of this movement, both from the perspective of the person moving on the branch and from the perspective of the branch itself.  So, the beam is instrumented which means that we can record the forces that the person is exerting on them as they walk.  On Emma, we have all these reflective markers and the cameras are picking those up so that we have a very detailed 3D movement of her body and all of the separate limbs.  Coupled with that, we have an EMG system attached to her muscles as well which are these sticky plasters that record muscle activity.  And finally, we also have an ultrasound attached to her muscles, and these tell us how much the tendon is moving and how much the muscle fibres are moving themselves.  The final part of the program is to play on this screen, images of branches moving in the wind and this is to try and destabilise her a bit more, make it much more realistic for how it would be for one of our earliest ancestors to move in the arboreal canopy where the branches are all moving and which must knock their balance.

Sue -   What do you hope to gain from this research?

Susannah -   We hope to gain two things really:  One is, a better understanding of how orang-utans move in their habitat and how costly it is because logging and deforestation is devastating their habitat, and if we can understand their crucial habitat requirements, we can gain a lot of knowledge about where they can be reintroduced and so forth.  Our second primary outcome of this project is to understand about our own evolution; to work out why bipedalism evolved, what the benefits were in our early ancestors, and how well adapted our ancestors were to walking on two legs before they came down to the ground.

23:09 - What is Neuromarketing?

On today’s show, we’re talking about neuromarketing, but what actually is it? Sarah Castor-Perry caught up with Gemma Calvert, who until recently was Professor of Applied Neuroscience at...

What is Neuromarketing?
with Gemma Calvert, Neurosense Ltd

Sarah -   On today's show, we're talking about neuromarketing, but what actually is it?  I caught up with Gemma Calvert, who until recently was Professor of Applied Neuroscience at Warwick University and is now Managing Director of Neurosense Limited to find out...

ShoppingGemma -   Well, neuromarketing is a term used to describe the application of tools and tasks that have been derived from the fields of cognitive psychology and neuroscience to measure the nonconscious and biological, as opposed to the rational conscious and psychological, reactions to marketing stimuli materials and brands, and communication.

Sarah -   How exactly does a researcher go about looking into that sort of thing?  What sort of studies are used to give us this information?

Gemma -   There are a wide range of techniques which are now at our disposal and which have been applied in the commercial setting for the last 10 years, including techniques such as eye tracking, which can be done in store or looking at people's visual attention on a pack.  There are techniques such as EEG which allows us to track slight changes in positive or negative emotions over time for example, during an advert.  And then there is functional magnetic resonance imaging or fMRI which allows you to see deeply inside the brain to discriminate what kinds of emotions and cognitive processes are being elicited when somebody is exposed for example to a new product or to a fragrance, or to a public communication.

Sarah -   How do companies that wish to market a product, how do they go about using that information?

Gemma -   They're using this to understand much better the needs and drives that underlie human beings and also, to build an understanding about the way consumers make decisions.  They do this in order to improve marketing strategies and marketing spend.

Sarah -   What are the limitations of neuromarketing?  People might think, "Oh, it's reading your mind, reading what you want."  But are there limitations to the use of these sorts of studies in marketing?

Gemma -   I think one has to admit there are limitations to every technique that's available at the moment, but the advantages of these techniques is because so much of our behaviour is driven by processes which operate below the level of our awareness, without turning to these tools, you can't measure any of that information.  So you're throwing away 80% of information about consumers and what they want, and how the brain processes communications about those products if you don't use them.  I think we've gone well past the early adoptive stage into a more mainstream uptake of these technologies, but we have to admit that they are still in their infancies.  So, the story has a long way to run and we're just getting future developments and further developments in the technological side of things.  It's going to mean that we're going to be able to gain a much, much more in-depth understanding of the kinds of things that we can do to create better consumer experiences.

Sarah -   ...And when I spoke to Gemma, she was also keen to stress that these sorts of techniques are merely one part of the arsenal of methods used to research responses to products and adverts, along with questionnaires, market research, that sort of thing.  But they can certainly help make those other methods more effective.  That was Gemma Calvert, Director of Neurosense Limited.

26:41 - How adverts could attract your attention

We’re talking about advertising and one of the main aims of an advert or a billboard, or a poster is of course to attract your attention. So, how does the brain actually decide what it’s...

How adverts could attract your attention
with Dr Andy Parton, Brunel University

Chris -   Now, we're talking about advertising and one of the main aims of an advert or a billboard, or a poster is of course to attract your attention.  So, how does the brain actually decide what it's going to look at?  To help us decide and work out what makes things eye-catching is Dr. Andy Parton who's a lecturer in psychology at Brunel University.  Hello, Andy.

Andy -   Hi, Chris.

Two human billboards in Drottninggatan, Stockholm.Chris -   So tell us, if I want to make the advert from heaven that's going to guarantee me some sales, what do we need to know about how the brain works?  How would you do that?

Andy -   Well it's a very complex question.  I guess what we're looking at from our point of view is mechanisms underlying the processes of what we call "visual attention."  So, if you imagine when you look around a complex scene, there are many things that you could actually look at and choose to look at, or just without thinking, look at.  And the way that that is determined is by the process of attention.  Some of the things are really kind of obvious.  So, if for example, most of the things in the room are black and then suddenly something very bright, you will tend to look over at it, so things that stand out and are quite obvious you'll look at.  But there are other things which are - maybe to do with strategy, what are you interested in.  So, if I'm searching around in my living room, trying to find my keys, then I'm probably going to spend time attending to things that are a bit shiny and a bit metallic as opposed to things that are clearly not my keys.

Chris -   Indeed, but the point is that if you're looking for those keys, the brain is being assailed by this barrage of sensory information which is going to include things that aren't keys, things that are keys.  How does the brain assign to the sensory information that's coming in, some kind of label to say, "Hey, that's important.  That's what I've got to look for."?

Andy -   Again, that's a very tricky thing and it is dependent on both the basic visual properties and the strategic aims of the person looking around.  What we were interested in doing is I guess at one level above that and actually looking at the actual code that the brain uses for achieving this.  So, assuming that you want to attend to a sort of one thing, how do you actually code that differently so it kind of stands out amongst the coding within the brain?

Chris -   Indeed.  So what did you do to try and understand that?

Andy -   Well, we looked at the theory which suggests that actually to do this, the brain needs to recruit lots of areas across the brain simultaneously and it needs to link all of their activity.  It does this by briefly synchronising the firings of nerve cells and neurons in those parts of the brain at the same time.  To actually try and induce that experimentally, to actually get the brain to do that without specifically changing attention, we found another study which had suggested that basically, if you look at a light that flickers, your neurons in your brain actually change their activity at the same rates as the flickering light.  Even when the light is flickering at such a fast speed that you can't actually tell it's flickering. So it's entirely subliminal to you that this light is flickering, but the neurons in your brain - you can measure them with an EEG - are actually changing their activity at the same speed.

Chris -   So what are you saying?  That there's some kind of magic flicker rate which if things are pulsing on and off at just that sweet level, the brain will pay more attention to that because it makes these different bits of the brain all fire off, all the ducks are lined up in a row and they all go down together sort of thing.

Andy -   Yes.  I mean, that was the basic idea.  It was not that the brain is designed when things are flickering before us to do that, but because the brain uses neurons, changing at that speed for its code, if you can actually induce that, it will have the effect of directing attention.

Chris -   So how did you do it?

Andy -   Well, we had a computer screen and we had three small patches on it and a fixation cross in the centre.  So people look at the fixation cross and they attend to the three patches, and they're told that these stripy patches, one of them will have a brief change in the width of the stripes and they have to indicate which of the three it is.  What they don't know is that before that occurs for a second, one of the patches is flickering at our critical speed.  We know they don't know this because we did a separate study in which they had the patches and they had to detect if there was any difference between them, and they couldn't spot whether one was flickering or not above chance; they were entirely random. So people can't detect this, but what we found was when we did this flicker manipulation, if the change in the width of the patch occurred at the same location that has been flickering, even though people couldn't see it, they were much faster at indicating there was a change there.  And if it was at another location, one of the other two patches, they were much slower at indicating that the change was there.

Chris -   Because their attention was being drawn to the one that was flickering and drawn away from the one that wasn't, so they were missing the one that was changing in the patch that wasn't flickering, but they were attending much better to the patch that was flickering and that's why they saw it better.

Andy -   Absolutely.  That's exactly it and we did another similar thing where they have to actually - a much more subtle change and it's much more difficult to detect and we showed that again, if there was a flicker there before people could detect, there's change, but if there wasn't, they were very unlikely to change it or to detect it.

Chris -   And so the logical extension of this would be then, you found that there seems to be this coding, written into how the brain pays attention to things.  Could advertisers exploit that in order to make TV adverts that are more arresting than other content or to make billboards that are more arresting so you pay attention to them and pay attention to the message for longer than you otherwise would?

Andy -   I think it's certainly - there are a couple of problems, but certainly in principle, possible that if you have a kind of crowded scene, you could draw people to attend to that in comparison to other things that are around.  Particularly one might think that if you're looking on an internet screen and you go to a web page, people are actually fairly skilled at avoiding looking at adverts when they go into web pages.

Chris -   I'm one of them.

Andy -   Yes, absolutely me too, but if you can have something that would just draw them, and bias them to look at it briefly, that might obviously increase the effectiveness of that advert.  The one problem is of course, you'll never know what screen people are looking at the adverts on and so it's very difficult to know precisely what speed the flicker will be at because screens run at different speeds.  And so, some people will see it at one speed and some people will see it in another.  I mean, I guess you can go for the most common kind of screen speed, but that is one difficulty.

35:23 - Why does celebrity sell?

Well, one thing that is fairly ubiquitous to most adverts is the presence of a celebrity. Clutching a bottle of perfume or extolling the virtues of a certain brand of makeup, advertisers...

Why does celebrity sell?
with Mirre Stallen, Erasmus University

Sarah -    Well, one thing that is fairly ubiquitous to most adverts is the presence of a celebrity.  Clutching a bottle of perfume or extolling the virtues of a certain brand of makeup, advertisers know that a quick glimpse of celebrity will mean a rocket in sales, and behavioural studies have shown this too.  But is there really a neurological basis for why this works?  Mirre Stallen is from Erasmus University in the Netherlands and she joins us now to talk about this.  Mirre, hello.

Mirre -   Hello.

Sarah -   So why are we so obsessed with celebrities?  What is the neurological basis for why we respond to them?

Mirre -   So, what we did was that we showed some kind of imitation of celebrity advertisements to people in our brain scanners and what we found is that when people see a celebrity face that's paired with a product, we saw activity in an area of the brain that's called the medial orbitofrontal cortex, a very fancy name, and that area was particularly active when people saw a famous face with the product.  And that suggested that positive emotions that are linked to a celebrity get transferred to the product and well, that's more or less what the neurological basis in this is.  The positive emotions that are linked to the celebrity get transferred to the product.  Next time, if you see those products like in a shop or a sale, you have some positive associations with it and what we also saw is that this positive association seems to come from memories that you have linked to the celebrity because you have experiences with the celebrity face. For movies or theatres, you tend to recollect some memories automatically and that's where the positive emotion seem to come from.

Vin Mariani Wine Advert

Sarah -   So the medial orbitofrontal cortex is involved in taking those positive memories that you have attached to that celebrity and then transferring them to the product, but what would happen if you had a negative view of a particular celebrity?

Mirre -   Yeah.  We didn't test that, but it's very likely that the same mechanism will be underlying this, but then it won't be the positive emotions that get transferred but the negative ones.  So, if you have a celebrity that's advertising your product, yeah, you have to be really cautious because if his image is changing into a negative personality, you risk a chance that your product will get negative associations by showing your product together with this person.

Sarah -   So I suppose maybe in the future we could see companies using these sorts of studies to compare different celebrities the average view of these people to then choose which celebrity to advertise their product.

Mirre -   Yeah, sure but I think that is already done.  Like people already know, marketers know, that celebrities work and that they have to be aware of this.  So yeah, celebrities definitely have to be tested before they get used.

Chris -   Mirre, can I ask you a question?

Mirre -   Sure.

Chris -   Because I've got a tweet here from someone whose initials on Twitter start OB and they say, "Why is it that when I hear the muzac version of Nirvana's Smells Like Teen Spirit, I desperately want to buy deodorant?"  My question to you is, is it just the celebrity or is it something that's associated with celebrity, a piece of music which is indirectly coming from a celebrity which can also have this sort of relationship?

Mirre -   Yeah, that's how it goes.  So, it's all about associations.  So you might have association with the song, with the celebrity, and then when you hear that song, you think about the product that has been advertised by the celebrity.  It's like going all-fire associations, so one association can activate another one, and it can activate another one, and that's how it can get this indirect associations that can happen when you hear a song or so, yeah.

39:20 - How Supermarkets make us Spend!

Neuromarketing is the use of behavioural and neurological studies to market and advertise products. But how exactly do supermarkets use it to affect how we shop? Smitha Mundasad took Philip...

How Supermarkets make us Spend!
with Philip Graves

Smitha -   Imagine it's a Saturday afternoon.  Many of us are wondering through our local supermarket for our weekly shop, unaware of just how many messages we are unknowingly taking in as we choose what goes in our basket.  To unveil some of these hidden messages, I've come along to a large supermarket here in Cambridge and joining me is expert in consumer psychology Philip Graves.  Straightaway, I can see a huge red sign with a special offer for wine.

Philip -   Yeah, this is quite unusual.  What most supermarkets do is introduce you to the fresh products straightaway.  But here, they've gone a different way and what they're doing is they're presenting us with a lot of offers.  What that does is it attracts you in, it draws you in, we're used to that big red sign, the big price point, and that's a quick way of buying.  So rather than spending all that time, looking at this big confusing selection where if you don't know much about wine, you could spend all day.  Here, they're giving you an easy decision to make.  This is "obviously a good deal" because it's got a big red price.

A row of shopping cartsSmitha -   I don't know very much about wine and I always think, "Oh look!  That's a £10 bottle marked down for £5" and I got it thinking, it's definitely a good wine.  But is that always the case?

Philip -   In neurological studies, what they found is if you give people the same wine, but tell them it's more expensive, they actually experience it as being better at a brain level.  The reward centres of the brain light up when the price is higher.  So, the reality is, you will enjoy it more if you believe that what you got is a £10 bottle of wine but you've only paid £5 for it.

Smitha -   We ventured a little bit further into the shop now.  We're actually yet to come near any groceries as such, but you've stopped.  What's caught your eye?

Philip -   Well I'm looking here at this very heavily discounted product, an anti-wrinkle cream.  This is all part of giving us the feeling that there are great deals more widely and that the total shopping experience is inexpensive.  Now, I did a little bit of checking before we came.  This product is genuinely half price.  Conversely, if you were going to buy your dishwasher tablets here, they would cost you slightly more than twice as much as they would in the other supermarket.  So, what's happening is, they're winning on some and losing on others, but the impression that we pick up, because of the way our minds work, is to select those deals and attribute them to the store we're in.  And if that's something we're buying, we tend to think that other things are cheap as well because of those great headline grabbing deals that we encounter.

Smitha -   So you get an overall impression that this is a really good place to shop.

Philip -   That's right because if you think about it, all the big deals - the big discounts, this feels fantastic.  So there's a huge emotional impact to the brain level from that product, but the mundane products your buying that are ordinary every day things that are at the standard price don't have the same impact.  So you have what's known as an availability heuristic.  This looms large in your mind where the other things don't and as a result of that, we tend to misattribute later on the general feeling of competitive pricing because of the one or two examples that we find that we feel great about.

Smitha -   And I guess the other factor to take into account is, I don't often walk around with a bunch of prices or price comparisons printed out.  I'm not often 100% sure of what the most competitive price of an every day product is.

Philip -   Absolutely right.  You know, we rely on these general themes, these general ideas, these heuristics we have about whether or not we're making good decisions or not, but they're nothing to do with the fact because they're too complicated to get access to, they're too difficult and too time consuming to reference.  So, we create these shortcuts in our mind and sometimes they work for us, but sometimes they're open to a little bit of manipulation, exploitation.

Smitha -   Around the corner, at last there is some food.

Stacked supermarket shelvesPhilip -   That's right.  We're now into the food part of the experience and they have primed us with the fresh produce.  So we've got fresh fruit and vegetables, flowers on one side and fresh meat on another.  So this is setting us up to think this is a place that sells fresh food.  Even though probably over 50% of the products in here are going to be ambient, long storage products.

Smitha -   Spinning around now, there's loads and loads of really colourful juice cartons with big signs, with "Buy 4 for £3!"  What's going on here?

Philip -   You've got those big prices again which back at the beginning of the store, people were primed to look out for.  My guess is that a lot of the people who are buying the juices from that display won't know what the individual price of those cartons is, but in a sense nor will they care because they're taking the shortcut that's saying, "This is obviously a good price because it's a big red price."  So they're using the priming they've set you up with, they're carrying it through and they're cashing in on the fact that you probably won't scrutinise how much of an effective deal that is.

Smitha -   I've just seen a lady put a big bag of 24 toilet tissues into her trolley, so is buying in bulk a good idea?

Philip -   Again, we use these shortcuts.  Shopping in a supermarket isn't about consciously evaluating all the time.  If you did that, I would think your total shop would probably take you a day.  If you really wanted to price check, look at the cost per gram, it's just not practical.  It's not the way it would work and it's not the way our brains are designed to work either.  We work on these heuristics, these shortcuts that generally work for us, but they don't always.  We've got an example here.  You buy the biggest pack of, in this case, the own brand luxury toilet roll, 24 rolls and that's going to work out at 15.9 pence per 100 sheets, I think that says there.  But as we move here, we can see that if you just buy a simple pack of 4, it's actually 15.6 pence per 100 sheets.  So, it's going to be cheaper to buy that product, 6 of those instead of one pack of that, but then even then it's fiddly.  You've got to do all the extra looking around, but we'll go for convenience, we'll go for the shortcut that tells us this is the cheapest way to buy and you're starting to see those links now between those primes they're creating with the big red prices that say, "This is discount.  This is cheap.  You're being clever buying this way."  And the reality, in this case, is actually it's not the smartest way to purchase.

Smitha -   I don't think shopping's ever going to be the same.  It must be pretty exhausting for you?

Philip -   I have to say it's not a whole lot of pleasure and there is a limit to how far you really want to take these things as a consumer because once you start to see the shopping experience as, in a sense, a game of psychological manipulation and a battle of influence, it's not really as much fun as it used to be.

Chris -   Philip Graves, talking to Smitha Mundasad.  And there are a lot of tricks that retailers use to get us to spend money and if you'd like to know how colour, smell, music, and so on affect your buying habits or why Christmas products are already in the shops - apart from just making money for people selling them to you of course,
there is a longer version of that very nice interview.

Does subliminal advertising work?

We put this question to Dr Andy Parton...

Andy - That's an interesting question. I guess this comes back from the idea from the '50s of putting a single frame into a film and changing people's behaviour. There's no real evidence that that actually works in that way at all and I guess the kind of things that we were talking about when we were talking about subliminally shifting attention, where I suggested it might work, is a slightly different thing because the notion is to get you to still look at adverts and you would still be processing the adverts and deciding consciously. It would just be the process that made you look at it that would be unconscious but I think the idea of just flashing something up very, very briefly and that suddenly making you feel hungry or suddenly giving you a desire to go out and buy something, I don't think there was ever any real good evidence for that.

Is Neuromarketing an ethically sound science?

We put this question to Dr Mirre Stallen...

Mirre - Well, it's a question that many people ask. I think it's something that really comes to your mind if you hear the term neuromarketing. But first, I think it's good to point out that people already get influenced, that marketers already go out and do their own marketing research, and know very well how to influence people. So, that's just done by questionnaires and market research but it's true that with brain imaging, you do get different information about people's behaviour than you get with the behavioural research. For instance, you can see when people do things more automatically or whether they put more effort into things and what this can cause is that commercials may target their consumers better. So I can see that that's going to happen in the future by having knowledge from neuromarketing research. But whether that's really unethical, making commercials better but making people get more influenced by the commercials, I think that's something that you have to decide for yourself, whether you think that's unethical or not.

Sarah - So, does it make you feel bad what you do then? Mirre - No, because marketers already knew that celebrities work in advertisements so I didn't show anything new with it. I more or less only showed how it works, so I'm just interested in why things happen the way they do, so they already knew.

Chris - But one of the things Sarah is getting at Mirre is, what about if the actual product you're advertising makes the person feel bad because if they don't buy it, they're made to feel bad for not having it. Mirre - I would say that's not a good thing. Chris - But that's what they all do! Mire - Yes. Like you said, that's what they already do, right? So that's not what neuromarketing really is going to change. That's what people already do with the way they make their commercials right now.

51:09 - When there is a new moon in England , What do Aussies See?

When there is a new moon in England , is the moon in Australia the same or because this country is on the other side of the world from us, is the moon either a day earlier or a day later,...

When there is a new moon in England , What do Aussies See?

We put this to Dr Dominic Ford from the Department of Physics at the University of Cambridge, also familiar to listeners of the Naked Astronomy Podcast...

Dominic - One thing which often surprises people when they travel long distances is that the Moon appears in different orientations from different places on the Earth. So for example, from the UK, you might see a crescent Moon on the left side of the Moon, on the equator you might see a smiley face with the bottom of the Moon illuminated and then from Australia, you might see a crescent on the right hand side. That's because the Earth is curved and so different people have a different sense of what direction is up and the whole sky appears rotated. But although the Moon can appear rotated, it tends to appear with the same phase, that is the same amount of the Moon's disk is illuminated, from any place on the Earth. That comes down to where the Moon's phases actually come from, which is the orbit of the Moon about the Earth. The Moon orbits once every 29 days around the Earth and at one point in the month, the Moon will appear quite close to the Sun and we will see the back face which isn't illuminated by the Sun, and that's a new Moon when you can't see the illuminated disk of the Moon. Two weeks later when the Moon has gone halfway around the Earth, we see the same side of the Moon which is being illuminated by the Sun and we see a full Moon. And so, the simple answer is that the phases of the Moon come down to the orbit at the Moon about the Earth, not where you are on the Earth, and so it is exactly the same time wherever you are.

Diana - The Moon should appear to be the same no matter where you are on the Earth if slightly rotated, but surely, that's too easy... Dominic - The slightly more complicated answer is that as you move around on the Earth, you're seeing an ever so slightly different face of the Moon. Imagine that you're holding an orange in front of your face and you move your head a few centimetres from side to side, you see a little way around the left or the right side of the orange.

The same thing happens moving around on the Earth, but the Moon is a very long way away. It's 400,000 kilometres away. The Earth is only 6,000 kilometres across. And so, you can only see about 1 degree around either side of the Moon. But that does mean that when one person sees the Moon being totally illuminated, another person will see 1 degree around the unilluminated side of the Moon. And so that leads to a difference of about an hour and a half in when people see the Moon being completely full. You need a very good telescope to see that and it'd be a very challenging observation, but there is a very small difference there.

Diana - One vantage point might allow you to see a tiny bit of the Moon which other people can't. Even the exact times of Moon phases given by calendars are calculated as if one was standing right in the centre of Earth with the 5 Ã?,½ thousand degree iron-nickel core around you. I don't think you'd see much of the night sky from there.

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