Ford Motor Co., for example, says it hopes neuromarketing techniques will help it understand how consumers make emotional connections to brands.
"By no means do we want to give consumers the impression that we are trying to read minds," said Matthias Kunst, manager of marketing, communications and training at Ford of Europe.
Several European academics are working with carmakers on basic neuromarketing research. Some U.S. researchers have established consulting firms that already are advising carmakers and other consumer product companies about marketing.
In Germany, the DaimlerChrysler Research Center has been at the forefront of neuromarketing, funding several research projects in the psychiatry and diagnostic radiology departments at the University of Ulm in Germany.
DaimlerChrysler initially asked the university to study how consumers evaluate vehicle interiors. The academics said their techniques weren't suited to do that, but they agreed to conduct research on car exteriors.
In the Ulm study, 12 men who were highly interested in cars were placed in an MRI scanner, a medical device doctors normally use to look for tumors. Researchers showed the volunteers 66 pictures of sports cars, sedans and small cars and asked them to rate the cars on attractiveness.
Not surprisingly, the men said sports cars were more attractive than sedans or small cars. But what interested researchers were the specific brain areas that showed activity when viewing a sports car. The part of the brain associated with rewards was more active for sports cars than for sedans and small cars.
"A sports car is a symbolic character because it indicates social dominance," says study senior author Henrik Walter. "It's a very expensive car."
Sports cars are an impractical means of transport: small, expensive and sometimes dangerous. But it appears sports cars serve a social function by demonstrating wealth and social dominance.