Market researchers have come up with a new brainwave: looking into the minds of consumers to see which of our grey cells are most vulnerable to the hard sell.
Camelot, the lottery firm, and Ford, the motor manufacturer, are among those who have hired teams of neuroscientists to carry out the analysis.
They attach electrode-studded caps to their human guinea pigs and measure their responses as they watch advertisements on a television screen. The ultimate goal is to identify a “buy button” in the brain which can be targeted and triggered by future commercials.
Other firms are moving in a similar direction. Coca-Cola, Hallmark and Johnson & Johnson have all employed a Harvard brain expert to understand consumer motivation.
AOL Time Warner, the American entertainment company behind the Harry Potter films and television shows such as Friends, is believed to have looked at using similar technology to find why people are devoted to particular movies and programmes.
Researchers, using multi-million pound brain scanners, have established that a section of the brain just behind the top of the skull could hold the key to higher profits.
This area of the brain is linked to excitement. Brands which are able to stimulate activity in this area are more likely to make a sale.
When faced with different brands in a supermarket, research shows that the average person takes 2.6 seconds to choose between them. Relatively small changes in brain activity could make a crucial difference.
“In the not too distant future, firms will be able to tell precisely if an advertising campaign or product redesign triggers the brain activity and neurochemical release associated with memory and action,” said James Bailey, professor of organisational behaviour at George Washington University in Washington DC.
A recent study carried out by German neuroscientists for DaimlerChrysler, the car company, discovered that looking at sports cars triggers two different parts of the brain: the area which responds to human faces and, more importantly, the section which deals with the concept of rewarding ourselves.
Yesterday Camelot said that it had used the technique to gauge consumer reaction to its recent Billy Connolly adverts. The adverts were later dropped.
Although much of the work is in its infancy, the research has huge potential and could quickly replace traditional studies based on consumer surveys and focus groups. A trip to the local supermarket or car showroom could soon become a psychological challenge with shoppers fighting subconscious urges that are manipulated by the marketers.