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The Prospects and Limitations of Neuromarketing
Companies bring an emerging science to the art of marketing.
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The Scientific Approach

Interest in similar studies arose quickly. If related insights for other markets could be leveraged, they could provide valuable information beyond what traditional market research could accomplish. In the following years, a raft of neuromarketing firms appeared and a fledgling industry was born. Techniques from the experimental sciences began to be packaged together. Among the ones commonly seen are the following:

  • Electroencephalography (EEG). This technique records electrical activity (brainwaves) along the scalp produced by the synapses in the brain firing. It's usually done with a cap of electrodes. An EEG can't pinpoint electrical activity to specific points on the brain, but does give a real-time record of a subject's attentiveness and engagement.
  • Advanced polygraph. Polygraphs, or lie detectors, use a combination of metrics, such as pulse, blood pressure, and galvanic skin response (GSR), to measure states of arousal. There's quite a bit of crossover in what is measured with EEG. When a polygraph is bundled with an EEG, it's done to build confidence between the two metrics.
  • Eye-tracking. Cameras are mounted above the eyes and hooked up to computers that measure with precise accuracy where a subject is looking. These data are taken in real time and read against EEG and GSR to pinpoint what a subject is reacting to. This is particularly useful in studies that deal with videos or visual branding materials.
  • Voice-layering. The voice of the subject is recorded and subjected to software analysis to gauge emotional state based on her tone of voice. This might provide some insights beyond just the literal things subjects say. While not a surefire metric, it does provide a normalized point of reference beyond just the subjective notes from the study.
  • FMRI. In this noninvasive technique, blood flow is measured with radio waves. The waves pick up different responses from oxygen-rich and oxygen-poor blood, and the contrast between the two gives scientists a picture of where oxygen is being deployed—which parts of the brains are active and require more blood to do their work.

A typical study might use EEG, polygraph, and eye-tracking in conjunction to measure participant response to an ad or packaging or whatever is being studied. The trials look a lot like normal focus group studies. Subjects might be shown and asked to engage with two similar products. They're asked a series of questions, as in any focus group, but they're also wearing an electrode cap and an eye-tracking rig, and their pulse and GSR are being taken in real time. These added measures give context to subject responses within a timeline.

None of the neuromarketing firms CRM spoke to for this article actively use fMRI scanning as part of their process—though there are firms that do. Part of the reason that they don't is the cost. FMRI machines cost upward of $1 million, and the use of someone else's can cost thousands of dollars an hour. According to a 2007 Businessweek article, a company in the heady, prerecessionary world of 2007 might have expected to pay between $50,000 and $100,000 to scan 10 to 20 subjects—apparently no discounts go into effect the more brains you image.

Apart from cost, however, there are technical limitations to what can be done with fMRI that prevent some neuromarketing firms from using the technique. While it provides high-resolution insights into localized areas of brain activity, fMRI cannot give a moment-by-moment account. "The spatial resolution is not very high," Salesbrain's Renvoise explains.

It is not possible, for instance, to use an fMRI to get a real-time picture of what areas of the brain are responding to an advertisement second by second. Even if it were, though, the problem of interpretation would remain.

"Almost all the stories you see [about] neuromarketing, at least the ones that are using MRI, [suggest] we can tell by which parts of the brain are turned on how a person is feeling about a particular product they're looking at," Dr. Poldrack explains. "That approach to understanding the MRI data has been shown to be really problematic."

The brain doesn't have a one-to-one mapping capability, he adds. While there are areas associated with certain emotions, like fear with the amygdala, these areas are not limited to that one emotion. The amygdala, for example, is involved in a number of emotional responses unrelated to fear, some of which include very positive responses. With respect to the amygdala, activity suggests a heightened emotional state, not a precise emotional state. Yet misconceptions abound.

The Skeptics Speak

In 2011, The New York Times published a piece by Martin Lindstrom, an author of several books on the psychology of advertising and a columnist for Fast Company, Time, and The Harvard Business Review, among others. The article, titled "You Love Your iPhone. Literally," suggests just that. Using fMRI-scanning techniques in a study conducted with Mindsign Neuromarketing, Lindstrom found activation in the insular cortex of the brain when subjects were exposed to audio and video of a ringing iPhone. Lindstrom claimed this area is associated with feelings of love and compassion.

"The subjects' brains responded to the sound of their phones as they would respond to the presence or proximity of a girlfriend, boyfriend, or family member," he writes. "In short...they loved their iPhones."

What Lindstrom didn't mention is that the region he targeted as a kind of "love zone" is actually active in as many as one-third of all brain imaging studies, and that it is more often associated with negative emotions than positive ones. Dr. Poldrack argued just this in a letter to the editor published in The New York Times shortly thereafter. His letter was cosigned by nearly 50 neuroscientists from institutions all over the world, including Harvard, Duke, Princeton, Brown, Cambridge, the University of York, Aix-Marseille, the University of Zurich, Stanford, and Cornell.

"The problem with these stories is that they're a Rorschach. You can say whatever you want," Dr. Poldrack says. "There's a lot of studies that show different parts of the brain lighting up, and if you isolate one you can use it to tell a particular story."

Even some neuromarketers are wary of such studies.

"We're skeptical of a lot of research," Renvoise says. "People look at two different packages and they tell you this one is better because it triggers a reward area in the brain. But just because...the reward area of the brain was consuming more oxygen doesn't mean...other neurons are not also firing out."

But the allure of fMRI and narratives about intensely localized brain function that can pinpoint specific emotions to specific areas remains as seductive as ever. In part, one could say, this is because the brain is so sexy. A 2007 study by David McCabe and Alan Castel, published in Cognition, found that articles summarizing cognitive neuroscience findings that also had a picture of the brain were more readily accepted than articles with bars and graphs, topographical maps of brain activation, or no image at all.

"Brain images...provide a physical basis for abstract cognitive processes, appealing to people's affinity for reductionistic explanations of cognitive phenomena," the paper explains. In other words, if you want to sell something, slap an image on it.

But this doesn't mean many techniques neuromarketers use are without merit. They're tools that require proper context and expectations.

"It's not mind reading," Stauch explains. "We can't see what you're thinking. We can't be sure that you're going to go out and buy the product."

Neuromarketing is conducted in an artificial environment and that places limitations on the applicability of the findings in the real world. However, it does provide insights that could never be gleaned in the real world. You couldn't ask someone watching a commercial if they were more engaged at second seven than they were at second eight, but with EEG, you can find out. You can't ask a person looking at a print ad with a dog, a product, and a price whether he spent more time looking at the dog than the product, but you can figure it out with eye-tracking. And, moreover, you can use EEG on top of that to trace out if someone who responded positively to an ad was even engaging with the product or whether she was just smiling at a dog.

What the Future Holds

Neuromarketing, at not even 10 years old, is far from a mature field. Even the field of science it's based on, neuroscience, is in its early days. It's only been a little more than a hundred years since Santiago Ramon y Cajal argued that neurons were at the center of the nervous system, and less time since that was readily accepted by the scientific community. Many questions about the human mind remain to be answered.

As such, neuromarketing is really a heuristic approach. It has limitations and advantages, and is more costly than traditional focus group testing. But if you're considering launching an expensive ad campaign or undergoing an expensive rebranding, it makes sense to grab what insights you can. It won't, however, give you a window into the subconscious or a scientific guarantee. There is, in some quarters, real hyped talk about what can be delivered.

Neuromarketing is just now defining its best practices. And with many vendors entering the field, it's something of a Wild West still. Big claims are made, but the data supporting them are often less forthcoming. It's important to understand what neuromarketing can and can't achieve, lest one waste more money than a natural-born sucker in a tenderloin poolroom.

The more honest vendors today will acknowledge the limitations of their art and advise accordingly.


Eric Barkin is an award-winning filmmaker and writer. He is currently at work on his first feature film, The Only Genuine Wild West Show.


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