Since the introduction of health warnings on packets, cigarette sales have actually gone up. Smokers have ‘trained’ themselves to ignore the on-pack warnings and see only the brand design.

Our subconscious does most of our decision making. That’s why we go in search of real value but end up buying an expensive brand. Or we visit the Polling Station determined to vote one way but at the last moment vote the other. And now, thanks to Danish researcher Martin Lindstrom’s worldwide probe into our brains we have a better idea of what is influencing us and why.

For instance, when he showed pictures of cigarettes to a group of smokers, their nucleus accumbens — the area of the brain that deals with addiction and reward — predictably started to buzz. Then he showed them some anti-smoking messages and the result was exactly the same. Apparently, when faced with the message ‘Smoking kills’, the subconscious simply cuts straight to the craving.  Hence, most anti-smoking messages are no better than adverts for cigarettes.

Next he moved on to my specialism.


Here his subjects had images of both chocolate bars and cigarette packets flashed before their eyes. Using a sophisticated fMRI scanner, his team observed how various parts of the brain lit up in response. The results were clear. The more rational a person believes himself to be, the less likely that he will be in control of his choices.

Let’s move on to the ‘amygdala’. That’s not a new confectionery bar but rather the name of the most potent brain zone for consumer motivation. My wife has a room named after it where she keeps all her shoes. This part of the brain is where we register fear, anxiety and dread and it’s particularly useful for political campaigns. If you hit it right, as the Conservatives did in 1979 with their ‘Labour isn’t working’ slogan, it will wipe out all the nuances of debate and get you elected.

According to Lindstrom, UK advertisers will be spending more than £50 million a year on neuro-marketing by 2017.

And then he winked and rubbed his hands together.

I made that bit up.

Of course, the sinister element is that once a company or political party understands your subconscious better than you do, manipulating your behaviour is easy.

One of the key reasons humans are such mad shoppers is dopamine, a euphoria-inducing hormone released by the brain that induces a feeling of security and self-righteousness whenever we hand over a credit card. It’s why we find it so much easier to stick a £900 item on a store card than if we had to physically hand over the cash.

In fact, the last time I bought something expensive for cash the assistant had to prise the notes from my grasp as we wrestled around on the floor.

That shopping is the new religion is no longer a creaky old cliché – it’s more like scientific fact. In previous posts, I’ve recounted how Pepsi activates the ventral putamen in most consumers, which gets stimulated when we find tastes appealing.

But with Coke there is additional activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, the region dedicated to higher thinking and discernment. So, although consumers prefer the taste of Pepsi they keep buying Coke.

That’s the power of branding and its influence. The more rational you think you are, the less likely you are actually in control of your choices.