After being long underway, the study by Schaefer et al on how we perceive familiar car brands is finally out, in NeuroImage. Basically, they showed different car brands to subjects; some brands were culturally well-known to the (European) subjects, while other brands were less/not known. Known brands included BMW and Mercedes-Benz, unknown brands included Buick and Acura.
The main study was comparing the activity when looking at known brands from unknown brands. This gave a significant activity in the medial prefrontal cortex.
The strange thing about this study – and IMO something that confuses the interpretation – is the task that the subjects were to perform:
(…) subjects were instructed that they will see logos of familiar and unfamiliar car manufacturers and that they should imagine using and driving a product of the brand they see. If they would see a logo of a car manufacturer they did not know, they should imagine driving and using a generic car.
So here I lie looking at a brand of Acura, knowing that it's a car, and then trying to imagine how it is to drive this car. I have no idea how it looks, and I might even let myself imagine quite a bit how it looks. My first impression about Acura is a "made in Taiwan" fringy feeling. Not a good car. So I imagine driving some kind of uncomfortable car that can barely take my 193 cm and 100 kilos, tilting ot one side … and so on. Then I get the Porche logo and think straight away about that particular Porche my neighbour has. Now I'm driving it, with all it's neat features and noisless interior.
My point is here: known brands don't require deliberation per se. You automatically think about one particular car type, it's visualized immediately. The unknown car brand at most produces some kind of general car-ish automobile, and you have to deliberate more on how you're driving it. So there is a definite visual imagery difference between the two conditions.
In order to circumvent this problem one should rather use all kinds of known product brands that are known, e.g. including Fiat, Opel and Renault. This would make it possible to compare the effect of known vs. unknown brands, and avoid the muddled brand by socioeconomic status confusion.
The researchers furthermore argue that "it seems that the imagination of driving a familiar car had led the subjects to develop self-relevant thoughts". Sorry, what does that mean? Self-relevant thoughts? So my imagination about driving an uncomfortable car was not a self-relevant stream of thoughts? I strongly oppose such a speculation. What is even more problematic with such a claim is that there are no reports about what the subjects actually thought during the study. So even speculating is very problematic. Which leads me to think about a recent article by Friston and colleagues (PDF) that criticizes this very tenet in neuroimaging studies.
The authors speculate that "the way how brands affect our behavior can be described with the idea of somatic markers based on the theory of Damasio". Following the connectivity between the amygdala and the medial prefrontal cortex, this is a likely suggestion. However, bear in mind that the somatic marker hypothesis is very problematic, and researchers such as Edmund Rolls is fighing against it with very good evidence.
Here is the abstract:
Brands have a high impact on people's economic decisions. People may prefer products of brands even among almost identical products. Brands can be defined as cultural-based symbols, which promise certain advantages of a product. Recent studies suggest that the prefrontal cortex may be crucial for the processing of brand knowledge. The aim of this study was to examine the neural correlates of culturally based brands. We confronted subjects with logos of car manufactures during an fMRI session and instructed them to imagine and use a car of these companies. As a control condition, we used graphically comparable logos of car manufacturers that were unfamiliar to the culture of the subjects participating in this study. If they did not know the logo of the brand, they were told to imagine and use a generic car. Results showed activation of a single region in the medial prefrontal cortex related to the logos of the culturally familiar brands. We discuss the results as self-relevant processing induced by the imagined use of cars of familiar brands and suggest that the prefrontal cortex plays a crucial role for processing culturally based brands.