While the idea of the reptilian brain has been around for years, a new science has popped up to support the idea of a "gut-level" car purchase. It's called neuromarketing. Researchers are using high-tech science and technology to discover exactly what our brains respond to in advertising. Machines like fMRIs take images of a subject's brain while he or she looks at automobile ads. When different centers of the brain are engaged by the ads, these specific areas change color on the scan. Researchers also track eye movement and heart rate to see what grabs people's attention.
By appealing to the reptilian brain, car manufacturers are hoping to override the little voice in our heads that asks, "Will I ever take this SUV off-road?" The reptilian brain doesn't care about the actual utility part of the sport-utility vehicle; it simply likes that the vehicle -- and therefore the driver -- appear to be able to take on anything. Of course, according to a "60 Minutes" report from 2003 at the height of SUV mania in the United States, only 5 percent of SUV drivers ever actually drove their vehicle off-road [source: Leung].
The reptilian brain cares about two things -- sex and survival. When you let it pick a car, it'll pick one that conveys one of these things, and preferably both. For instance, while the SUV gives the impression of being bigger, badder and more "menacing," according to the "60 Minutes" report, Rapaille points out that best-selling American sports cars, like the Ford Mustang, Thunderbird and the Chevrolet Corvette, have serious sex appeal.
Up next: The fate of the SUV and the reptilian brain that loves it.