babygate blues: a neuromarketing tale

Cory Doctorow has a new short story (“Ghosts in my Head“) about the undesirable consequences of neuromarketing run amok up on the Subterranean Press website.  I liked the story, but thought the premise was pretty unrealistic (and, yes, I do know it’s called science fiction for a reason–I’m just sayin’). So as a counterpoint, here’s an alternative neuromarketing future that I personally find much more plausible.

Deborah Stojko didn’t care much for Pockter and Gramble’s corporate headquarters. The building smelled of disinfectant and organization; the halogen corridors all blended together into one giant dimly-lit maze. Stojko had been visiting P&G regularly for several years now; it was never a pleasant experience, but it couldn’t be avoided. Communicating with major stakeholders was a large part of her job as director of the International Consortium for Neuromarketing Research. And P&G was by far the largest stakeholder, contributing over 70% of the money that supported the consortium’s work.

For several years now, ICNR had been pumping out first-class scientific research on the neural mechanisms of economic decision-making. The Richelieu effect, Preinforcement Learning, the neurometric satisficing theorem… ICNR was behind any number of recent discoveries; its members were continually in the news. And all of it was made possible only through the generosity of the marketing and R&D wings of P&G.

The generosity, or the naivete? Stojko asked herself as she reached her destination and knocked softly on an office door. Somehow, the executives at Pockter and Gramble had managed to convince themselves that the survival of P&G rested on their ability to mine the deep secrets of the brain. For years now, they’d been throwing sums of money at cognitive neuroscientists that would make European royalty blush. That streak of good fortune, Stojko suspected, was now about to end. Recent events had rendered P&G’s massive investment in ICNR something of a political liability; she had the feeling this was the last time she’d be making the trip to P&G headquarters.

And not a moment too soon, she thought, as the door opened in front of her.

*    *    *

“How long has Pockter and Gramble been funding you, Deborah,” Bob Ramsey, Chief Executive Officer, asked, once Stojko was seated and they’d gotten the standard pleasantries out of the way.

Stojko did the arithmetic in her head. The International Neuromarketing Consortium had formed in 2013, following a massive infusion of P&G cash, so…

“Six years,” she said.

“Right. And do you know how much money Pockter and Gramble has given your consortium in those six years?”

“I’d put it somewhere between 251.8 and 251.9 million dollars.”

“Very clever. A quarter of a billion dollars. We’ve given you a quarter. Of a billion. Dollars.”

“Well, to be fair, that amount is spread out over 8 sites and 30 other investigators,” Stojko pointed out. “It’s not like you wrote me a check for 250 million. My institution only got about forty-five million.”

Ramsey didn’t say anything, but his expression bespoke a thinly-veiled irritation. He picked up a remote control on the desk and pushed a button. Behind Stojko, the wall turned translucent as the embedded display lit up.

“No doubt you’ll recognize this clip,” Ramsey said.

Stojko swiveled around to watch the giant screen. The camera faded in on a bright and comfortable-looking living room somewhere in America. Almost immediately, six or seven babies in diapers filed into the room and began dancing synchronously in a circle. After a few seconds of dancing, the babies started babbling an Eastern-sounding melody in a totally incomprehensible–and, Stojko suspected, nonexistent–language. And a few seconds after that, they started banging spoons on the tabletop in perfect unison, all the while still dancing and singing in tongues. The whole thing lasted exactly thirty seconds, and occupied a very narrow emotional niche between really adorable and utterly creepy.

Stojko did recognize the clip, of course; it was an ad for Dampers, a P&G-owned diaper brand. The consortium had selected the ad from over two dozen candidates that P&G had asked them to test. For reasons that remained unclear to Stojko–and to pretty much everyone else–singing, dancing, spoon-banging babies lit the brain up like a christmas tree.

Stojko had had her reservations about declaring a ‘winner’; she’d written several long emails to the P&G marketing brain trust explaining that, brain activation notwithstanding, there really wasn’t any evidence yet that this particular ad was going to help sell more diapers, and many more studies were needed before the consortium could confidently interpret its own results. But marketing wasn’t into the whole waiting thing, and the ad was on the air within three months of the consortium’s initial report.

As it turned out, it didn’t do so well.

“That ad bombed,” Ramsey said, wagging his finger in the general direction of the screen, “According to you people, it was supposed to push all of the brain’s buttons at once. You spent three million dollars of our money just on that one testing program. Two dozen ads to choose from, and the one you pick completely tanked. It was an epic failure. At this very moment, people in living rooms all over America are laughing at Pockter and Gramble because of that ad.”

“I’m sure it’s not that bad” said Stojko, smirking almost imperceptibly. She was well aware of the PR disaster P&G had on its hands, of course. But she couldn’t deny the warm feeling of schadenfreude that accompanied the knowledge that P&G was now paying many times over for disregarding just about every recommendation the consortium had made in its 480-page report. She was pretty sure the suits had never made it past the fifth or sixth page.

“It is that bad,” Ramsey shot back. “We blew half of our network budget for the year on this ad. Our initial focus groups were already pretty positive, and then we received your report saying things like–and I quote–”of all the ads tested, number seventeen elicited the largest response in brain areas associated with reward.” So we figured it was a sure thing, and started airing the ad in all the major markets. And then, out of nowhere, we get this massive backlash. Thousands of angry emails from people complaining that the ad was trite and we were shamefully “exploiting babies”. People saying they would never buy Dampers diapers again; that the CEO–that’s me, mind you–should resign; that someone should “just torch Pockter and Gramble headquarters”. And those were just the serious complaints. There were also the people who apparently thought the whole thing was just a big joke that gave them an opening to do their own thing. We had forty YouTube videos a day uploaded by people spoofing the ad. There was one clip of six guys in giraffe suits singing and doing our baby dance. Sixteen million hits.”

“All publicity is good publicity, right?”

“No. Not even close.”

Stojko chuckled just loudly enough for Ramsey to hear.

“Is this funny to you?” Ramsey asked. “We give you a quarter of a billion dollars for commercials designed to push the brain’s reward buttons, and we get grown men in giraffe suits?”

“Well, let me put it this way, Bob. If your goal was really to make commercials that light up the brain’s reward circuitry, you wouldn’t have needed to do any serious research in the first place; you could have just run 30-second clips of semi-nude women making out with each other, or couples giggling and cuddling in bed. That’d cover most of the bases. You’d have all the reward-related activation you could want. But how many deodorant sticks do you think commercials like that would sell?”

Ramsey stared at Stojko blankly.

“Porn, flashing lights, pictures of hundred-dollar bills, a basket of shiny fresh fruit… lots of things activate the brain’s reward centers,” Stojko continued. “What makes you think a commercial that tangentially elicits reward-related activation is going to make people buy any more of a product?”

“Well, can’t you tell that?”

“Can we?” asked Stojko rhetorically. “I don’t know. Can you tell that? You guys probably have labs full of people trying to figure out whether the fact that people tell you they like a commercial means they’re going to buy more of the product featured in that commercial. And what’s the answer?”

“I don’t know that myself,” Ramsey replied abruptly. “It’s not my job to know that. I can have marketing come up here and tell you the answer if you like.”

Stojko shook her head.

“Doesn’t matter. I mean, it can only go one of two ways. If marketing doesn’t know what makes a commercial good or bad, you can’t really expect us to tell you what it is about the brain that makes people buy things. We don’t track how well your products sell after different ads go into circulation; how the hell would we know which commercials have the largest impact on sales? I can tell you which commercials activate the nucleus accumbens more than others, but so what? How am I supposed to know if nucleus accumbens activation is a good predictor of actual purchases without actually knowing anything about real-world purchases?”

Ramsey had nothing to say to that; he stared down at his shoes.

“So clearly, that’s not going to help us,” Stojko continued. “But suppose instead we pretend that the people in your marketing department are smart cookies, and they do know what it is about commercials that makes people buy your products. Well, in that case, what the hell would you need us? If you’ve figured out that people are more likely to buy your anti-dandruff shampoo after watching ads they rate ‘extremely interesting’, what is peering into the brain going to tell you?”

“Well, I guess you could use brain imaging to figure out what it is that people find extremely interesting, right?”

“Sure, Bob, we could do that. And you know how we’d do that? By asking people which commercials they found interesting, and then correlating their verbal responses with what their brains were doing while they watched those commercials. And you know what that means? It means we can never do any better than your people can do with your focus groups and spreadsheets. Because basically, we’re stuck trying to predict the same variables that you guys are using to predict people’s buying behavior. We’re just one step further removed.”

Ramsey listened quietly, but anger visibly colored his face as Stojko spoke.

“This is the kind of thing that might have been good to bring up, oh, say, five years ago,” he said.

“Oh, believe me, we did bring it up,” Stojko smiled bitterly. “Or at least, we tried to.”

She tapped a few keys on her holoboard.

“Here’s an email dated June 18th, 2014: “Dear Mr. Chauahan–I believe that’s your VP of marketing, right?–senior members of the consortium continue to express their frustration at Pockter and Gramble’s failure to provide us with the sales data we requested. As we indicated in our letter dated April 21st, it is not possible for us to properly evaluate the efficacy of our program without the use of real-world performance metrics. We understand your concerns about sharing private data with outside contractors; however…”

Stojko shot Ramsey a pointed look.

“I’ll spare you the rest; it goes on like that for three pages. See, we’ve been asking for the data we need for six years now–pretty much since we started. And every time we ask, you throw more money at us and tell us to go back to work, that you’re not going to share your numbers with us because they’re confidential and we shouldn’t need that information anyway.”

She tapped a few more keys.

“Here’s another similar one. September 30th: Dear Mr. Chauahan, the consortium is at a loss to understand…”

“Enough!” yelled Ramsey, slamming his fist down on the desk. “I get the point! We’ve spent a quarter of a billion buying you new toys to play with, and all the while you’ve been playing us for idiots. Well, you know what–enjoy your toys while they last, because we’re going to have Legal look at our options for recovering that money first thing Monday morning. Those fancy new scanners of yours are going away.”

He wheeled his chair away from Stojko and sat there fuming. Stojko took it as a sign the meeting was over; she shrugged and got up to leave.

The falling out was unfortunate, she thought as she walked down the long sterile corridor towards the elevator. But it had been a long time coming, and after the whole Babygate episode (as the scientists at ICNR had started calling it), no one at ICNR would be surprised to hear that P&G was pulling the plug.

Nor would most of them mind terribly much. Stojko had always planned for a six or seven-year run, and had stopped hiring people on short-term contracts a couple of years ago. There would be no massive lay-offs, no collective plunge into obscurity for the many researchers invested in the project. The data was already collected, and she and her colleagues would be kept busy analyzing and publishing the results for years to come.

As for Ramsey’s legal threats, Stojko wasn’t the least bit worried. Universities had lawyers too, and there wasn’t a judge in the country who’d award P&G a single nickel for breach of contract; not after reading the long series of emails from the consortium that already explained in excruciating detail exactly why P&G was never going to recoup its financial investment unless it fundamentally changed the way it did things. Which, of course, hadn’t happened–and probably never would.

Stojko left Pockter and Gramble headquarters with a clear conscience. At the end of the day, she thought as she walked to her car, all you could do was represent yourself honestly to the other party and let the chips fall where they may. And that was what she’d done. She’d told P&G all along exactly how the consortium was going to spend the money they received; the service agreements she signed were very clearly delineated in legalese that several lawyers on the institutional payroll had contributed to and pored over. Stojko and her colleagues had worked hard to ensure that no one at P&G was laboring under false pretenses about the likely outcome of ICNR’s work. As she’d once put it to a mid-level P&G executive over dinner, neuromarketing research was great for science, and (in her estimation) utterly useless for advertising. But if the suits were willing to pay for it, she was willing to do the research. That, after all, was her job; it was what she’d be doing with her time anyway, ICNR or no ICNR.

No, she thought, turning the key in the ignition. She’d been right to take the industry money; ICNR had conducted itself impeccably over the past six years. If someone insisted on filling your cup up with change even after you very carefully explained to them that you were only going to buy beer with it, who could blame you for paying a visit to the bar once panhandling hours were over?

One thought on “babygate blues: a neuromarketing tale”

  1. Heh. The difference between yours and Doctorow’s stories reminds me of a metaphor I always use when people wonder where the flying cars are, or predict such-and-such technology by 2025:

    The march of technology is not a paved road, its direction determined by the whim of scientists, engineers, and those who fund them. Rather, it’s a meandering mountain stream, following the contours of the landscape, veering off here, branching there — and with immovable boulders blocking the flow in the most unlikely of places.

    Speaking only in the narrow field of my expertise, what computer scientist in 1970 would have thought that forty years later, the cutting edge of artificial intelligence would be awkwardly fumbling to victory on a game show, while at the same time searching 100 petabytes of information in a fraction of a second has become a routine daily activity? Turns out reasoning about even relatively small amounts of information is really really hard, but indexing and searching inconceivable amounts of information is (relatively speaking) pretty easy. Who knew? Technology goes where it wants, not where we want it to go.

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