Since the 1920s, Mystics of Merchandising have sought to divine the emotional triggers that would motivate prospective consumers to make purchases. Manufacturing useful or beautiful products that people would want to buy was clearly not enough to move the wheels of commerce. With factories pumping out product, it was necessary to manufacture instrumental stereotypes of consumers that would generate sales as well. Thus began the ongoing enterprise of consumer profiling, the constant study of emotional life in an attempt to scientifically analyze the inner workings of the public mind.
Within the nascent field of social psychology in the twenties, it was assumed that in order to sell products to consumers, to link public loyalties to big business, even to lead populations into war, the ability to map the interstices of public perception and behavior was essential. From that time mind-mappers, working on behalf of high-paying clients, went into overdrive. Their goal: to chart the topography of human propensities.
One of the first of these was Henry C. Link, who founded an Orwellian entity known as the Psychological Corporation in 1923. His approach, as he described it, was "the study of people's behavior as a clue to their present and future wants." Under Link's direction, the Psychological Corporation published a quarterly Psychological Sales Barometer, the first ongoing examination of consumer attitudes and behavior: the brand-names people purchased, the ad slogans that stuck in their minds, etc.
This was the beginning of an obsession with finding the holy grail: a magic bullet that would make the processes of persuasion thoroughly predictable. Today, in business and politics, such efforts have only accelerated. No one "goes public" without being guided by polls, focus groups and other paraphrenalia of an intricately-managed democracy.
The sales machinery of the internet has allowed Link's "study of people's behavior as a clue to their present and future wants" to function on automatic drive. Every time someone makes a purchase at Amazon.com, for example, data is added to a behavioral profile of interests and desires. Incrementally, a self-generated stereotype begins to assume greater and greater detail. Now, upon signing on, one is gleefully addressed by his or her first name, and offered products that fit a purchasing pattern.
WHAT NEXT? WHAT NEXT? It seems like Stanford University psychologist Brian Knutson is on the case.
In an article in the January 4th issue of Neuron, reported on in the New York Times (January 16, 2007), MRI brain scans are now being used to predict consumer behavior. "We were frankly shocked at how clear the results were.…It was amazing to be able to see brain activity seconds before a decision and predict whether the person would buy it or not." In the case of Times reporter John Tierney, Knutson was able to predict that he was likely to make a purchase 50% of the time he encountered a product, higher than "the average 30 percent buy rate."
According to Tierney, there are two brain locations that figure heavily in consumer behavior. One is the "nucleaus accumbens" where expectations of desirable experiences register. The other is the "insula," which is stimulated by expectations of pain. One of these painful experiences, reports a team of researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, is when people part with their cash. For merchandisers, however, there is hope. Credit cards, no interest for six months, and "no payment until 2010," all offer consumers the ability to avoid "insula" attacks and to purchase items with money they haven't yet made. Taking the immediate pain out of the shopping process, something that credit card users on the internet can eloquently vouch for, makes a direct hit on the "nucleaus accumbens" all the easier.
The primary question, of course, is how to install brain scanning equipment in department stores and other consumer emporiums. How can merchandising industries convince shoppers to have an MRI every time they step into Macy's?
According to unnamed sources, the answer is easily within reach. S&S has learned of unconfirmed reports that major retailers are now in secret negotiations with the Department of Homeland Security. The expectation is that President Bush, shortly after his State of the Union Message, will announce that in order to defend the safety of decent patriotic consumers, all people entering shopping malls or other commercial havens will have their brains routinely scanned for "evil thoughts and intentions." That way, "evil doers can safely be weeded out, and the sacred right to shop, enjoyed by real Americans, will be able to proceed unimpeded."
A hush-hush back-up plan, just in case this new policy is seen as an incursion on people's rights, is to set up an MRI Portrait Studio where, for five dollars, consumers can receive framed portraits of their and their children's brain scans. Coupons offering "deferred payment" on all items purchased on the day the portrait is taken will appear to more than offset the five dollars spent, and will encourage shoppers to have a portrait taken every time they go shopping. This one could take off and would have the added attraction of gleaning profits from those "evil doers" who are in the mood to shop.