Automotive News Europe reports that DaimlerChrysler, Ford of Europe and other carmakers are using medical research tools to probe the consumer brain to better sell cars.

Among the provocative, early results from electrodes-on-the-scalp and Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scanner research: images of sports cars affect the pleasure centre of the male brain the same way as sex, chocolate and cocaine.

The field of neuromarketing is still in its infancy, but already consumer advocates including Ralph Nader are objecting, saying it is manipulation or even a form of mind reading.

For carmakers, the ultimate goals are insights into designing cars that are easier to use, sculpting cars with greater consumer appeal and creating advertisements that build strong emotional bonds with the brand.

Ford, 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 Ford of Europe manager of marketing, communications and training, Matthias Kunst.

Several European academics are working with carmakers on basic neuromarketing research. Some US researchers have established consultancies that are already advising carmakers and other consumer product companies about marketing.

In Germany, the DaimlerChrysler Research Centre has been at the forefront of neuromarketing, funding several research projects in the Psychiatry and Diagnostics Radiology departments at University Clinic Ulm.

Initially DC approached Ulm, asking it 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 a MRI scanner, a medical device doctors normally use to look for tumours.

Researchers showed the volunteers 66 pictures of sports cars, sedans and small cars, and asked them to rate the cars on attractiveness.

Unsurprisingly, the men said sports cars were significantly 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: expensive, small and sometimes dangerous. But it appears sports cars serve a social function by demonstrating wealth and social dominance.

"It's similar to the peacock's tail," Walter says. "It doesn't have any use for fighting or gathering food. In evolutionary terms, why should it play part in attracting females? Because if [a male] can afford to invest so much energy in a useless thing, he must be strong."

In December, US consumer group Commercial Alert demanded the US Office for Human Research Protection investigate whether Emory researchers violated federal human-research guidelines.

Automotive News Europe noted that motor industry critic Ralph Nader is chairman of the group's advisory board.