Saturday, 25 September 2010

Which is about racial distribution, Monet and "neuromarketing"

I'm quite particular in who I follow on Twitter, and who I place on lists. I regularly cull anyone who tweets too much, or tweets rubbish, or is overly self-promotional, or just links to stuff that I don't find personally interesting. On the flipside, it means I get to read a lot of really interesting content. This week I've come across some more really interesting articles.

At the moment, my entire reading list (books not blogs!) seems to be based on Mark Earls's bibliography. I'm still ploughing my way through the latter chapters of Thomas Schelling's Micromotives and Macrobehaviour. It's quite pedestrian in style, but methodical and quietly brilliant. Basically it's a calm, rational, statistically-orientated study on the way small personal preferences - just a few per cent here and there - can result in major changes in group outcomes. There are numerous studies, all carefully argued step-by step without any QED flourishes (but then who needs flourishes when you've got a Nobel Prize to your name). The most famous chapter is the one where a simple home-made experiment (you can do it too: all you need is a few coins and a chessboard) demonstrates how very small preferences to have some of your own kin around you, end up in quite stark racial segregation across cities.

It's all very well seeing pictures in a book of what look like noughts and crosses, and as a reader you nod your head and say "how shocking"...but, living in "multicultural" London, where it feels like people of all different colours are jumbled up together, complete racial segregation feels a long way away. I suspect it can't be all that different in the States, either; which is why these new graphics of racial distribution by location are all the more startling.

I'm just beginning to dabble a little in reading around some psychology and neuroscience pieces at the moment, and having been just a few weeks ago to a superb Impressionist exhibition, I found this New Scientist article offering a possible explanation to why the Impressionists are so popular: basically the lack of detail means that our own imaginations are stirred into "filling in the gaps", while our subconscious locks onto blurred images with greater intensity than we might do otherwise. Fascinating stuff.

The same magazine has been causing a bit of a stir recently with its highly publicised experiment to pick the best front cover based on a neuroscience experiment. The neuromarketing claims have caused a bit of a stir with both scientists and neuroscience-focussed market researchers; even Derren Brown picks up on it, and links to this interesting article. Meanwhile, Robert Bain on Research Live presents the story against the background of other neuroscience/marketing issues, and gives a thoughtful and balanced analysis of some of the techniques availale right now. Peter McGraw, on the other hand, is much more sceptical.

Tapping into our natural instincts is nothing new. In Ogilvy on Advertising, David Ogilvy explains that the average person looks at an ad for 0.9 seconds, their eyes sweeping from top left to bottom right. (Eye tracking seems more interested in web design applications these days - plenty of interesting stuff out there to read on the web like this article). While advertising agencies and branding consultancies are obsessed with wanting to portray themselves as "different" (there are some truly gruesome straplines but perhaps the most vomitworthy is BBH's "when the world zigs, zag"), surely the aim of most marketers should be to discover scientifically what their best practices should be, and find out evidentially how people respond to certain situations, and act accordingly.

One or two people are muttering darkly about the ethical considerations of neuromarketing. It's a fair point. There's something slightly subversive about much of this, a little like subliminal advertising (a concept which I don't have a great deal against personally). My own take is that neuroscience probably has a lot to offer when it comes to trying to unravel subconscious decisions made by consumers, particularly at point of sale. There's probably a lot of very interesting research that can be done into packaging and logos, for example, based on brain activity, which might explain a shopper's instinctive decision to choose one washing powder over another, particularly on occasions where their usual brand is out of stock and they are relying purely on instinct. As for New Scientist? As Peter McGraw points out, it's a shame that the tree covers couldn't have all been put on sale, to add some real-world data to the lab experimental data. There are loads of great articles out there at the moment, fascinating stuff.

As a postscript, I'm slightly regretting climbing down on my last blog post. I honestly think that anyone who's happy to spout the unverified "research" claims of vitamin supplements on the whim of a PR company but not realise that they're apparently endorsing the product - especially where children are the topic of conversation - deserves both barrels. However, it reads better as it is now, and there's no point in dragging something out.

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