Finding the brain’s “buy chocolate” button?

Ah yes… chocolate…  Few things in life can be as pleasurable when made properly… except red wine, of course… and maybe cigarettes…but what triggers the actual desire to buy?

Neuromarketers have increasingly argued in favour of multiple “buy buttons” in the brain – little triggers that make us purchase a product when we encounter the right set of marketing stimuli.  So, could there be a little button telling me to buy my confectionary of choice?

A study by Kuhn et al in the journal Neuroimage suggests that not only is this the case, but activity levels associate with the “buy chocolate” circuits could actually be really useful in predicting sales.  In the first stage of the study, the authors used fMRI techniques to identify particular regions of the brain firing in response to six different chocolate advertisements.  In the subsequent phase, firing levels in response to those different ads were used to forecast chocolate buying among over 60k consumers.  The results seem impressive – the greater the levels of brain activity recorded in response to an ad, the greater the purchase rates of consumers exposed to that ad.  Moreover, contrary to previous studies, the fMRI-generated forecasts proved far more accurate in terms of predicting chocolate sales than traditional self-report survey-based preference measures.

Before we all start throwing away our Survey Monkey subscriptions and investing millions on research involving shoving consumers’ heads into giant magnets, a note of caution… This experiment asked consumers which ad they liked best, nothing more, and this does not necessarily equate to asking whether the ad made them want to actually buy the product.  Studies involving surveys which explore intention to purchase – with all the qualifiers normally associated with that stream of research – typically yield forecasts which are way more accurate than anything neuro-imaging can ever achieve.

So, although this study sheds light on many aspects of the neuroscience of chocolate, it may not quite be the breakthrough in neuromarketing it might at first seem.  Pity really…