Imagine a world in which tiny cameras in your smartphone or laptop spy on your facial expressions, letting website designers know, moment by moment, where they are hitting—or missing—the mark. Where retailers track the brainwaves of shoppers, using the data to craft more alluring aisles. Where advertisers monitor the eye movements and sweat rates of viewers to help them select which commercial to air in that coveted Super Bowl spot.

No need to imagine.

In the brave (and arguably creepy ) world of neuromarketing, each of these scenarios is already playing out in real life. Armed with high-tech biometric and neurological tools and a blossoming body of research on how purchasing decisions are subconsciously made, more companies—from food giants Cargill and Frito-Lay to market research leaders Symphony IRI and Nielsen—are mining deep into the minds of potential consumers.

"There is absolutely no doubt that a major part of our decision-making process is subconscious; but until recently, our brains were like a black box," says Roger Dooley, a marketing consultant and founder of the blog neurosciencemarketing.com. "With the strides in neuroscience in the last 10 years, we now have the tools to see what is going on inside. It is going to transform the field of market research."

Although not many companies within the natural, organic and healthy products market are yet embracing neuromarketing tools, this could change soon, as marketers strive to better understand what really drives consumer shopping preferences and behaviors.

Designing the perfect label

When the fledgling California Olive Ranch set out to design the bottle for its new, fresh, extra-virgin olive oil, it bypassed surveys and focus groups and opted instead to probe consumers' gray matter.

electroencephalography (EEG) sensorsTwelve men and twelve women filed into the bustling San Francisco offices of NeuroFocus Inc., where they were fitted with a swimming-cap like device loaded with 64 electroencephalography (EEG) sensors, before having a seat in a comfy living room in front of a giant screen.

As images of labels flashed on the screen, the sensors fired 2,000 times per second, measuring electrical activity in the brain and the corresponding levels of the subjects' attention, emotional response, and memory, as specialized cameras tracked the people's eye movements.

According to the results, the consumers' brains preferred a clutter-free, natural image, showing the product itself (the olive), slightly off-center to the left. That's precisely the label consumers see today on the new California Olive Ranch bottle.

So, why didn't the company just ask consumers what they thought?

"Because people have very poor introspection into their own feelings," says A.K. Pradeep, a fiery and verbose India-born engineer who founded NeuroFocus in 2005.

Research shows that people have a hard time articulating what they felt in that split-second when they saw a label on a screen, or tasted a new energy bar. Furthermore, the mere act of trying to synthesize that feeling into words can change the way they feel about it. Throw in a few loudmouth volunteers who dominate a focus group and sway others to see things their way and the data can get even more fuzzy. Meanwhile, Pradeep says, people from some cultures tend to be more docile and want to please the interviewer (they all tasted great!) while others tend to be more outspoken and hyper-critical.

"Neuromarketing frees you from the linguistic, social and socioeconomic biases that plague surveys and focus groups," Pradeep says.

The company also offers a service called the "Total Consumer Experience," in which test subjects look at a package, break it open and taste the contents—their EEG cap tracking brain activity throughout the entire process. Because the results are purer, Pradeep argues, a test group can be as small as one-tenth the size of a conventional focus group.

Such research may sound like science fiction, but the CEOs of companies large and small are beginning to buy it. Recent NeuroFocus clients include Frito-Lay (which used NeuroFocus technology to help the company craft potato chip bags and ads with more appeal to women), Microsoft, Campbell Soup, The Neilsen Company, and New Scientist Magazine (which tested brain waves when choosing a recent cover).

Pradeep says the company has doubled its revenue every year of its operations.

"Focus groups are a stone-age tool," he says. "Measuring things directly at the brain takes us many steps closer to the truth."

It's written all over your face

According to Dan Hill, the same could be said about research that measures facial expressions.

Hill's company, Sensory Logic, videotapes focus group participants and examines the movement of 43 muscles in their faces—all with the goal of deciphering which of seven emotions the subjects are experiencing.

Sensory Logic has been conducting such research since 1998, but it's only been in the past few years that the marketing world has begun to embrace the power of facial coding. What's driving the growing interest? Two factors are the proliferation of webcams and a lengthy discussion of the research in Malcolm Gladwell's best-seller Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking.

Hill argues that, while brain-wave measurements are good at tracking what you are paying attention to, they tend to fall short on deciphering why.

"I can have an intense, emotional reaction to Khadafi, but it doesn't mean I want to buy something from him," Hill says.

Thus far, all tests conducted by Sensory Logic have been done with the consent of those tested, and Hill (a former regulatory analyst for consumer affairs) vows to keep it that way within his own company. But he concedes that such technology could be used in a more subversive manner by less-savory marketers.

"With all the things that cameras are in today, I believe this will become ubiquitous," says Hill. "I can see a day when there will be billboards that will be able to read your facial expressions and adjust the nature of the advertising based on your reaction, or where you could go to a site's home page and they could sense whether you were in a flipped-out versus blessed-out mood and send you toward appropriate advertising."

It doesn't end there.

On April 15, a new company called Affectiva—born out of an MIT lab studying how to better understand the emotions of autistic children—launched a new USB-compatible wrist band that measures emotional arousal (essentially the "the fight or flight" response) via changes in the skin. By pairing this with largely automated, computer-analyzed facial recognition software, a marketer can analyze every brow furrow, scowl, or sweaty palm (or rather wrist) of viewers hundreds of miles away.

"The consumer has the opportunity to communicate more than ever before if something annoys them or they like it, if they are frustrated or if something is making their life better," says Rosalind Picard, PhD, founder of the Affective Computing Research Group at MIT and co-founder of Affectiva. "By communicating that more accurately, they should end up with better products and services."

Shortfalls and darksides

Harvard Neurologist Edison Miyawaki, MD, travels the country talking to business groups about the very real neurological basis for purchasing decisions. But when it comes to things like EEG for market research, he considers himself a "skeptic." Sure, such tools may be able to measure the activity in your brain at the time you first spot that organic granola box, but it doesn't take into consideration your memory of the last time you ate granola, or the article you just read about its health benefits, or your overall mood when you walked in the store.

"You can't judge all time by looking at one spot in time," he says. "This is not the holy grail."

As Jeff Hilton, co-founder of Integrated Marketing Group (IMG), which specializes in health, lifestyle and natural products, notes, these techniques have been around for years and at best have achieved only limited penetration. "Natural product industry research budgets, limited as they are, are much better spent using more traditional research techniques," he says.

Others are opposed to neuromarketing on more ethical grounds. At least one consumer watchdog group, the Center for Digital Democracy, has vocally opposed the proliferation of such research programs, as "new forms of subliminal persuasion."

The Advertising Research Foundation (ARF) was so concerned about the burgeoning field that it recently launched the Neurostandards Collaboration Project to scrutinize the science (or lack thereof) behind these technologies and to develop standards.

And of course, the looming, largely unanswered question: Will neuromarketing help companies sell more products?

Concerns aside, companies are beginning to eat up neuromarketing.

Before launching the multi-million dollar media campaign for its natural sweetener, Truvia, Cargill enlisted the help of neuromarketing company EmSense, which provides an EEG/biometric combo device. In March, business consultancy firm Symphony IRI added EmSense technology to its offerings.

"It will never be a replacement" for survey work and one-on-one discussions, says Larry Levin, executive vice president for consumer insights for Symphony IRI. "But alone, they don't show you second by second how their heart and bran and sweat glands are reacting as someone walks down the aisle. To be honest, we are pretty enthralled."