Picking your brain

Firm uses magnetic scans to target marketing

With Christmas fast approaching, retailers and marketers only want consumers to remember their seasonal advertisements for a short period of time. So, how do you market straight to the short-term memory?

The PHD Network thinks it has the answer: Look inside the brain. With the help of consultants, including the pioneering and sometimes controversial brain research firm Neurosense, PHD is rolling out a new suite of media-planning tools in Prague, which includes a component called “neuroplanning.”

Traditional media planning — deciding where to place ads on radio, television, Internet and other media — has long been based on intuition, says Mark Holden, planning director at PHD UK and key member of the neuroplanning development team.

Such planning makes use of “clever people coming up with intuitive guesses,” he says, who then “use data to corroborate their choices.”

However, private studies by PHD have shown that the choices of media planners are often biased by personal preference. If the planner is a devotee of sitcom reruns, he’ll recommend television; if she wakes up every morning to a folded copy of the International Herald Tribune, it’s print.

To counteract this, PHD fastened itself to developments in functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and cognitive psychology.


The brain’s amygdala, peasized and perched near the end of the hippocampus, is the root of all fear—and many other primitive emotional responses. Because the senses are wired into the amygdala, says Petr Miláček, strategy and planning director for PHD’s Czech office, it acts like a filter. The brain makes a split-second calculation as to whether it likes what is being seen or heard, and only if it does will it further process the information received. And PHD says it has a good idea what turns it on.

In the past decade, fMRI has made it possible for researchers to measure brain activity. When a region of the brain is in use, it requires energy to replenish spent neurons. This takes a rush of oxygen-flushed blood. It’s the different magnetism of water in the fresh blood that allows measurement of activity.

Traditionally used to map the interior of possibly damaged brains or joints, the machines can make many low-resolution scans over short periods — say, once every five seconds.

Scan while exposing subjects to advertising, as Neurosense did for PHD, and brain activity becomes apparent: Television stimulates long-term memory and emotions, while radio activates the “working memory” — which is why it’s hard to ignore ads on the radio. And those Christmas offers? Best to use advertisements in daily newspapers.

As it’s commercial, Neurosense does not publish research for peer review, as is standard in academics. This has drawn criticism before, though Gemma Calvert, Neurosense co-founder and a cognitive psychologist at the University of Bath, asserts that many critics have never spent time working with fMRI.

The Neurosense founders, University of Cambridge neuroscientist Luke Clark says, are “well-respected in the field of imaging research and cognitive neuroscience, so I would expect the studies to have been conducted with appropriate scientific rigor.”

Without seeing data and experimental designs for the studies, it’s difficult for scientists to comment.

Still, Neurosense has worked for some of the world’s largest firms. PHD is a subsidiary of Omnicom Group, the world’s largest marketing firm, which netted $10.5 billion (233.8 billion Kč) in revenue in 2005.

Will it play in Prague?

Omnicom’s Prague office opened in 1998, under the name Mediaplan Praha. In 2003, it became Mediawise, and, this year, PHD. Clients include Ferrero, Nissan, KFC and Becherovka, among others, as well as ad agencies like TBWA, Kaspen and Fabrika. But most have not yet made the transition to neuroplanning.

The Prague office’s use of neuroplanning banks on the belief that the Czech and British experience media similarly. Neurosense’s research was limited to an undisclosed number of British subjects, and Calvert says the firm has not explicitly studied possible differences between nationalities. She expects them to be few.

The cost of repeating the study in the Czech Republic is prohibitive — access to fMRI machines must be purchased from universities and hospitals at a premium rate.

While Neurosense’s research provides a partial scientific basis for PHD’s media planning, the company still relies on the field’s conventional wisdom. For example, television ads activate parts of the brain associated with emotion. But it is institutional tradition that tells PHD to use TV’s storytelling-based emotional appeals to re-establish or reinvent a brand.

Still, says Miláček, the Czech office’s strategy director, this is different than what other planning agencies offer: statistics like number of people reached. Such figures, he says, do not account for the human response.

The firm has shown caution in introducing neuroplanning to clients.

“We feel this is a delicate matter,” Miláček says. Many are befuddled by PHD’s use of fMRI scans, comparing it to “rocket science.”

“This is not the ultimate solution of media planning,” Miláček says. “But it feels better than traditional approaches.”

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