Over the last 10 years, businesses have been increasingly turning to the rapidly developing field of neuromarketing—the practice of applying brain science and behavioral research to hone a sales pitch. Neuromarketing has been around for a while, but it’s only recently achieved respectability. 

Roger Dooley is the author of Brainfluence, and has been covering the field for over a decade.  He says neuromarketing’s reputation was damaged early on by overblown claims, that made it sound like mind-reading.

“If you were an academic and said you were going to investigate neuromarketing, it’d be kind of like saying  you were going to investigate parapsychology,” Dooley said. “Your colleagues would look at you with a lot of skepticism.”

There’s still no mind-reading machine, but in just the last couple of years, Dooley says the science has matured.

“The companies that are performing these services for clients are working with a much larger base of information than they had 8 years ago, and more experience, better technology and so on,” Dooley said.

One of those companies, Innerscope Research, is based right here in Boston. Innerscope is an arm of Neilson, the same company that puts out TV ratings, and they agreed to make me a test subject.

Dr. Carl Marci is the chief neuroscientist running the show. He hooked me up to a chest belt that captures medical-grad heart rate and skim conductivity, measures breathing, and measures acceleration. “Again, there’s very low risk to you as a participant,” Marci assured me.

The most interesting data actually comes from the computer cameras that follow my facial expressions and eye movement. They produce a readout tracking individual emotions, like the characters from ‘Inside Out’: joy, fear, anger, disgust and sadness. Once I’m all hooked up, I’m shown a video montage.

First, a sentimental story about two brothers, fighting, but ultimately loving each other; it was an ad for Coca-Cola. The computer recorded something I was unaware of— my eyes flicking over and over to the coke bottle dozens of times. Throughout the montage, the devices did a really good job of tracking my emotions: my delight at a fun internet video of a drill bit splattering paint, joy at seeing Pee Wee Herman, and happiness thanks to another internet video of a baby laughing over ripped paper.

The last clip was from the PBS Newshour a few years ago—a clip where I was interviewed for my work with Frontline. Surprise for sure—I was not expecting to see myself.

“Yeah, part of what the biometrics is measuring is the relevance of content to the audience; so what’s more relevant than you to yourself?  So we should see some big spikes there when we look at the data,” Marci explained. 

I ask the doctor if the machine would be able to pick up me loathing myself. The self loathing wasn’t entirely a joke, Dr. Marcy had actually pulled up my least favorite TV appearance ever; I was standing in the cold, talking to a bank of lights, and didn’t look or sound my best.
And the computer read me like a book.  

“Oh my goodness, so there’s your spike to YOU,” said Marci, pointing to the data. I went from surprise, mixed with anger contempt and disgust—and then, those bad feelings settled down as I started to think—I actually wasn’t as bad as I remembered.  A little joy in the end.

Roger Dooley says data this detailed is invaluable for advertisers. 

“I think today it’s probably a safe bet that most big brands are doing some kind of neuromarketing work as part of their overall advertising effort,” said Dooley.

Now, having sat through a ton of political ads, you’re bound to be wondering: are politicians using neuromarketing techniques to tweak their ads and their message? Nielsen Consumer Neuroscience categorically does not do political work; but other neuromarketing companies do. Get ready for the world of “Neuropolitics.”