The trouble with any buzz industry is that it tends to be judged by its lowest common denominator. Neuromarketing, a term to describe the study and application of the brain’s responses to marketing stimuli, suffers from just this problem. In this article, we’ll attempt to dispel some of this industry’s greatest misconceptions with a list of 5 things you didn’t know about neuromarketing.

The Origins of Neuro-Misconceptions

Neuromarketing emerged in 2002, when the term was coined by Ale Smidts as the first consumer neuroscience companies were established. A year later, neuromarketing was on the cover of Forbes magazine with the title, “Pushing Your Buy Button: Neuroscience Meets Marketing”. Soon after, New York Times Magazine published “There’s a Sucker Born in Every Medial Pre-Frontal Cortex.”

So began a decade of critical responses toward neuromarketing. Pressure to publish and promote has led many within the industry to jump to conclusions and to exploit information that is often more complex than it appears; the innovative, colourful brain scans and heatmaps of neuromarketing tempt us to essentialise, when this is precisely the opposite goal.

At the crux of neuromarketing, though, is a group of scientists who, as Galileo once said, are simply attempting to “measure what is measurable, and make measurable what is not so.” Broad journalistic strokes and unqualified companies with dubious stakes mask research at the forefront of an investigation into the contemporary understanding of human emotion, desire, attention, and that holy grail of brain sciences: consciousness.

5. There Are no Rules of Thumb or Quick Wins in Neuromarketing

Let’s face it: marketing is a field of secrets and tricks, where testing and experimentation often take a backseat to boardroom intuition and “eureka” moments. Perhaps herein lies the problem of marrying marketing with science. Afterall, there are no absolutes in science; in order for an idea to be validated, it must be rigorously, iteratively tested. Each new finding in a fMRI, EEG, or eye-tracking lab contributes to a tiny piece of a very big puzzle, which is inherently problematic for the fast-moving world of marketing and advertising.

This is not to say that, in the past 10 years, consumer neuroscience research has not made leaps and bounds in both commercial and non-commercial research. Google, Hyundai, CBS, and Pepsi are advocates of the field, and have all gained considerable insights as a result of their collaboration with neuroscientific research.

What plagues neuromarketing are the attempts to claim wins too early, when results cannot yet be accurately measured – or are far too complex to explain to the rest of us. And yet, there are branches of neuromarketing research that have achieved impressive advances: “. . . [studies of] basal and complex cognitive tasks such as seeing contrasts, colors, or complex shapes such as faces and houses have made impressive achievements in their research”, said Tebartz van Elst, Head of the Section Experimental Neuropsychiatry and spokesman at the South German Brain Imaging Center at the University Hospital Freiburg, when speaking about setting a slower pace of the talk on “revolutionary” neuromarketing gains.

4. Covert Persuasion – or “Brandwashing” – Isn’t the End Goal

Back in 2003, Ralph Nader’s advocacy group Commercial Alert targeted Brighthouse Institute for Thought Sciences – who conduct fMRI studies for client companies at Emory University – with an open letter discouraging academics from conducting consumer neuroscience research. This, coupled with a slew of skeptical mainstream reporting, served to reinforce public understanding early on that the primary goal of neuromarketing was to exploit the human subconscious with a special form of “brandwashing”, or branding through brainwashing. While studies have shown that “priming” consumers with covert marketing stimuli does affect buying decisions, no credible neuromarketer would claim to be able to read or manipulate minds:

“Neuromarketing may distinguish whether a person’s emotional response is positive or negative, but not whether the positive response is awe or amusement. “This is not a mind reader,” Dr. Knight {professor of neuroscience and psychology at Berkeley, and chief science advisor at NeuroFocus} says in a New York Times article. “We can only measure whether you are paying attention.”

3. Neuromarketing Isn’t Just About fMRI and EEG Anymore

While the foundation of neuromarketing was built around research using electroencephalographs (EEG) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) systems, its embrace of artificial intelligence is possibly its most notable advance in the last few years.

Companies like EyeQuant (developed and patented at Caltech, USC and the UOS) are able to instantly predict where a user will look when they arrive on a web page by using machine learning techniques to produce software that doesn’t rely on clunky apparati. Instead, neatly-honed, highly precise predictive visual attention analysis is modelled on hundreds of eye-tracking studies conducted in their researchers’ labs at the University of Osnabruek, with results that are over 90% accurate when compared to a traditional eye-tracking study. The outcome is a new, cloud-based branch of neuromarketing that keeps studies and research firmly in the university lab, while providing results in a matter of seconds.

Agencies and e-commerce companies are just beginning to embrace predictive analytics for their flexibility throughout a campaign, from the data-gathering stage, to design, to finding an objective angle in meetings with clients.

2. Most of What You’ve Heard About the Workings of the Brain is Misleading

It’s often reported that the brain only “dedicates about 2% of its energy to conscious activity”. While this, and other pop-claims about the workings of the brain sound impressive, they’re misleading: There is no current method of measuring “conscious” brain activity, let alone a set of clear parameters for understanding what consciousness really entails. Similarly, research has shown time and again that there is no clear distinction between the right and left brain when it comes to creativity and logic, despite how tempting the idea seems.

Much of the research and reporting surrounding the field goes off-track when it comes to defining and studying complex (and often contradictory) ideas, like “desire” and “the unconscious”. In a recent Telegraph interview, author of “Unconscious Branding” Doug Van Praet raised this telling example:

“. . . In studying the human brain, we have to be comfortable with paradox and contradictions. For example, [Van Praet] says you can like an ad and it can create a positive emotion, but if it doesn’t leave you with an appropriate and corresponding set of associations and emotions for that product, it’s no use to the company trying to sell it.”

So, how do you know what to listen to, and what to discard when even reputable publications like Forbes and the New York Times over-assert findings? Take what you read with a grain of salt; if a piece of news feels too good to be true, it probably is.

1. Just Because an Agency Offers Neuromarketing Services, it Doesn’t Mean They’re Scientists

“The rubric for picking a good [firm] is making sure it was started by a scientist, or has a good science advisory board . . . This is a field where scientists are very, very skeptical, and we should be. It’s easy to feel like you’ve discovered some big, important truth when you see that the brain has done something that correlates with behavior. And it’s just as easy to overstate our conclusions.”

This quote from a 2009 Forbes article on neuromarketing by Harvard Business Marketing professor Uma R. Karmarkar perfectly sums up the need for rigorous background checks before a company chooses a neuromarketing firm.

Fabian Stelzer, EyeQuant’s CEO and co-founder, suggests a four-step approach to finding the best neuromarketing companies:

  1. Background check: Is the company affiliated with a credible University or research institute with published articles in neuro-scientific journals?
  2. Be aware of jargon: “Dubious firms often betray themselves by the language they use in marketing material,” says Stelzer.
  3. Evaluation check: Credible companies should be able to explain their research, operations, and evaluation methods without reverting to buzz terms.
  4. Reality check: If you’re still concerned or not sure that the company in question will add value to your business, ask for case studies and references.

Quantifying the Consumer

There’s a marketing maxim that goes: “50% of my advertising doesn’t work. I just don’t know which 50%”. By attempting to understand and measure the consumer brain’s responses to what has become a ubiquitous aspect of our daily lives – branding and advertising – neuromarketing caters both to the study of neuroscience in general as well as to companies looking to gain measured, objective insights into their customers. Good for science, good for brands.