The Times

August 8 1999

Science finds brainwaves that make shoppers spend

Jonathan Leake
Science Editor
The Sunday Times

SCIENTISTS studying how women's minds work while shopping have discovered "buy, buy, buy" brainwaves that are generated when women find an item they like. The same team has also isolated the signals that correspond to rejection and "I'll come back later".

The research is the first to show the unconscious workings of consumers' minds. It was sponsored by some of the largest corporations which hope it will enable them to create products, shops and advertisements that subconsciously stimulate similar brainwave patterns - and so encourage people to buy without realising it.

Critics have condemned the research as sinister and accused the corporations sponsoring it - including Coca-Cola, General Motors and Procter & Gamble - of seeking to brainwash shoppers.

The researchers say their work will help manufacturers and consumers. "We are lighting up the shadows of the mind and showing what happens when consumers make decisions," said Gerald Zaltman, a professor at Harvard Business School where the work is being carried out.

Zaltman's research is based on the idea that consumers choose which products and brands to buy almost entirely subconsciously. By contrast, the questionnaires upon which most market research is based probe only the conscious mind. This, he says, explains their lamentable inaccuracy.

"When it comes to shopping, what people say and think are very different from what they actually do. There are unconscious processes at work," he said.

Working with Stephen Kosslyn, Harvard's professor of psychology, Zaltman used positron emission tomography to measure the changes in blood flow and electrical activity in different parts of the brains of women exposed to mock-ups of a variety of retail environments.

One, a car dealership with pushy sales staff and a dirty showroom, provoked a rapid surge of blood to the right prefrontal cortex - an area already linked to the "flight or fight" reaction. Similar flows went to the insula and the hippocampus which are also linked with negative reactions.

By contrast, a salesroom that offered helpful staff and perks such as valet parking produced blood flows to the left prefrontal cortex and to the visual cortex where activity is linked to heightened pleasure.

The researchers tested the women's responses to a wide variety of shop types to build up a detailed picture of their reactions and to pinpoint those occurring when a customer was likely to buy - or to walk out.

The Harvard team has already used its unpublished results to advise an American car maker, believed to be General Motors, on the best design for its showrooms. Those which have undergone such redesigns are reported to have seen sales soar by more than 30%.

This weekend the research was greeted with interest by top British retailers. Among them was Jimmy Choo, one of Britain's most sought-after shoe designers, who said the appearance of a shop could make or break a business.

"We based the design of our Knightsbridge shop on the principles of feng shui. We know it makes people feel good but we don't know why," he said.

Theo Fennell, who creates handmade jewellery and silverware for customers including Naomi Campbell and Elton John from his west London shop, was more sceptical. "Knowing that your customers were likely to buy would spoil the fun of retailing," he said.

British academics are impressed, however. Robert East, professor of consumer behaviour at Kingston University, Surrey, said: "It could save manufacturers spending money marketing something that would have no appeal."

The prospect of goods and shops becoming even more difficult to resist has horrified some consumers. Jane Green, author of the bestselling Mr Maybe, one of whose themes is the single woman's compulsion for "retail therapy", was concerned that shop owners and manufacturers would use such knowledge to manipulate their customers' emotions.

The Harvard team is undeterred, however, and has already started work on a new project: to find out how people respond to advertisements and to use the knowledge to create powerful new marketing techniques, including the "everlasting jingle" which consumers will find even more difficult than usual to get out of their heads.

One researcher said: "We don't want to manipulate people's preferences; we just want to speak to their desires."

Copyright 1999, Times Newspapers Ltd.