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Neuromarketing: Hacking Kids' Brains

It's been a few weeks since I started to delve into neuromarketing. It started with an older article I came across while researching my novel. It was about Cheetos's Orange Underground advertising campaign that poked fun at the idea that we all get a little guilty pleasure zing when we have the cheesy orange powder on our fingers. Cheetos took their kid-friendly character and made him into a subversive figure that encouraged adults in their cheesy-powdered petty revenge against annoying coworkers, rude airline passengers, etc. The concept was fun and it won awards. But best of all for Cheetos, website visits and sales went through the roof.

What a lot of people don't realize, though is that the whole wild idea behind the entire marketing concept came from neurological testing of subjects to find out why they enjoyed Cheetos. How do they do it? With a lot of expensive equipment like fMRIs and EEG scans as well as physiological tracking of eyes, facial muscles, respiration, sweat, and pupil dilation. The weirdest part? Nothing about this approach to advertising is new.

Neuromarketing firms such as NeuroFocus (later bought and folded into market research company Nielsen) use tests like these to determine why people like or prefer certain foods, colors, packaging, name it. Then they use this information to fine-tune products to appeal to us better. There's even a certain number of times someone has to see a product, whether on social media or in real life, for us to develop a preference for it. If all of this sounds eerily like they're hacking our decision-making centers to find out what makes us choose one bag of chips over another, you're right.

As I said, this isn't really new technology. It's just being refined at an alarming rate. In an excellent piece by Harvard Business Review, author Eben Harrell talks about a 2004 study done by Emory University that showed test subjects reacted differently to soda if they saw the label first. Results of the test demonstrated that the brain reacted minimally to unlabeled soda samples and lit up when a logo was shown before drinking it. Test subjects experienced the same soda differently based on the brain's exposure to a particular brand. That's really telling. Harrell's article is an excellent crash course on what you need to know about neuromarketing and I suggest you check it out.

What does this have to do with you or your kids? Plenty, it turns, according to the National Policy & Legal Analysis Network to Prevent Childhood Obesity (NPLAN) report which warns of a growing concern for protecting adolescents from this kind of marketing. It is a multilayered, scientifically constructed approach to influencing children. How does it work? Neuromarketing uses techniques founded in neuroscience to develop digital marketing techniques designed to trigger subconscious, emotional responses. It's high-tech and very effective, especially on kids. How do they do it? Let me tell you...

The first approach is when advertisers use product placement in video games, which is not that original. The problem is that games are becoming immersive. They're more like experiences than games. Augmented or virtual reality games induce 'flow' which is a state of full absorption or involvement in what you are doing. It's why people can lose track of time on games or apps. They're completely drawn into the virtual world. This type of state creates a lower natural attention defense. In other words, you're less likely to really think about what you're being shown or told. It's not just a cute drawing of a tiger on a box anymore. Kids are interacting with, gaining reward points from, and integrating characters from products into their imaginary play life. Brand loyalty is built into their childhood memories.

Add to that the sneaky second arm of the marketing approach, which is social media. Marketing companies use controversial surveillance techniques and purchase data sets on users' online behavior such as what brands they like or interact with. Companies track which viral campaigns capture their attention and what links they click on to better learn their preferences and dislikes. So all the kid apps and social media apps on their phones and tablets are making a running list of everything your kid visits and watches. And all of this is for sale.

One of the scariest of these approaches is the use of location targeting and mobile marketing. This kind of data collection, the movement of young people via their location-enabled apps, allows data brokers to link the point of influence to the point of purchase. Where did they see it and where did they buy it? Was it Target, the mall, online, Amazon? This helps them better entice purchases and brand recognition by deliberately targeting promotions to their travel and social habits in real life. Pop-ups, coupons, sale alerts, emails, codes they win in their games...all of it is designed to get them to buy something. Problem is, with all of that influence, is it truly their decision?

Some of the biggest users of this kind of neuromarketing are the junk food giants. Soda companies, chip, cereal, and fast food brands all rely heavily on this constant influence and according to NPLAN, this kind of marketing may coincide with rising obesity rates across the board. Most dramatically in adolescents. And it's not just food. Its everything. From clothing brands to music industry campaigns, kids, particularly teens are big money. According to the Advertising Research Foundation, purchasing influence is rising with estimates of over $700 billion in 2009.

With the rapidly expanding digital marketplace and creation of ever more immersive games, safeguards need to be in place to ensure child and teen safety. There needs to be a balance between allowing the full and exciting enjoyment of modern gaming and media consumption and protection against unfair and deceptive marketing techniques. There should be oversight, support, and education on how to be a safe and responsible consumer in the digital world.

For now, talk with your kids and help them see how influential and effective these techniques can be and how to recognize the difference between popular products and quality products. They aren't always the same. Take time to educate them on digital citizenship, safe privacy practices for their devices, and healthy spending habits. And most of all, as my mom would say, 'Go outside once in a while.'

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