The Race To Find The Brain’s 'Buy-Me Button'

The Race To Find The Brain’s 'Buy-Me Button'

Advances in neuro-psychology help decipher the secrets of consumer decisions.


How do our subconscious minds react to advertising? What are the different consumer types? Researchers around the world are searching for the latest secrets of our purchase decisions, and a growing number of companies are putting their findings into practice.

In Germany, the Hamburg consumer tends to be a traditional type, whereas consumers in Berlin tend to be more creative and spontaneous. Spaniards are more likely to follow gut decisions, whereas Germans tend to be either artistically inclined or fact-oriented. Researchers are now able to assign individual characteristics and purchasing trends to consumers in every country and region.

However, each individual consumer's mind reacts quite differently to the daily influx of advertising messages. Researchers have long been searching for the elusive "buy-me button" in the brain and major brand manufacturers have been using the results to target their customers. The magic word: neuromarketing.

"Anyone using this neuropsychological knowledge sees results - mostly through an increase in sales," says Professor David Scheffer of the 180 Grad Institute in Hamburg. He and his team have developed NeuroIPS, a method of measuring stable personality traits, allowing him to put the findings of brain research to practical use.

Scheffer has also been developing a way to compare personality traits. The innovative test no longer relies on data collected during face-to-face interviews with participants. Instead they are now asked to complete a simple online questionnaire designed to test their perceptions of shapes, colors and images. In a recent study Scheffer identified a range of different personality types in six nations and a selection of German cities.

Hans-Georg Häusel of the Munich-based Nymphenburg Consulting Group believes these methods can result in an increase in revenue of up to 15 percent. Retailers are reporting increased sales after optimizing their shop floor space, reworking paths leading through their shops or reorganizing their product displays. "The consumer has to feel comfortable, without being consciously aware of this," says Häusel. A subtle lemon scent in a supermarket, for example, has been shown to result in an increase in sales.

"There are thousands of little screws you have to turn," said Häusel. Using expensive brain research machines is only one of many methods - one which, considering the investment costs involved, simply doesn't deliver significant enough results.

Companies such as Audi and the Daimler group hope to use brain scanners to directly measure consumer acceptance of their new models. "This is still a dream," says Häusel. Although it is possible to show whether a product prompts positive or negative emotions, researchers can only get a very rough picture.

German scientists in Bonn, Munich, Magdeburg and Münster have been trying to decipher the effect of advertising on the subconscious for over a decade. The consumer goods manufacturer Henkel was one of the first to use their findings.

Many companies don't like to shout it from the rooftops that they are using these methods. The Hamburg branch of the German Sparkasse bank, for example, received bad press last fall when it was revealed that it was using psychological profiles of its customers, dividing them into seven types, such as "guardians' or "adventurers', without informing them. Consumer protection groups have condemned this practice. "They are trying to influence consumers against their own best interests, by worming their way into their brains," commented the Hamburg Consumer Advice Center.

The practice has also met with fierce protest in the United States. There, concerns were raised about a new era in which every detail of consumer habits would be laid bare for greedy corporations to exploit with the aid of brain research methods.

"Marketing is always influencing behavior in some form. Any woman who puts make-up on in the morning is being manipulated," said Häusel. "It's only when some kind of instrument is knowingly used to harm others that the practice becomes reprehensible."

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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