FEATURE8 October 2010

Duane Varan on standards for neuromarketing


The project leader of the ARF’s neuromarketing standards initiative tells us about what he hopes it will achieve.

Neuromarketing divides opinion. Proponents see it as the future of research; critics say the claims are overblown and unproved.

A recent article in the Harvard Review of Psychiatry highlighted questionable claims, oversimplification and a lack of transparency in a field whose academic foundations “are difficult to identify”.

Now eight suppliers have agreed to submit their neuroscientific and biometric research practices to peer review as part of the Advertising Research Foundation’s NeuroStandards initiative, which is backed by research buyers including General Motors, American Express and MTV.

We spoke to Duane Varan of Disney’s Media and Advertising Research Lab, who is leading the ARF standards project, about the state of neuromarketing and what the project hopes to achieve.

Research: What prompted the NeuroStandards initiative?
DV: We gave a presentation on behalf of Disney Media Networks at the ARF’s Re:think conference in March, where one of the points was that we’d been pitched by a lot of companies providing these services, which looked interesting, but where we wouldn’t use any measures that we didn’t feel were properly validated. There were a lot of questions around the methods, and in many cases a lot of the responses we got were black box.

We don’t necessarily need to know how it works but we did need to have some independent process to show that the measures were doing what people thought they were doing. That was the need, and we certainly realised that other networks and advertisers would be in a similar position.

There was a recent Harvard Review of Psychiatry article which compared the neuromarketing area with neuroeconomics – whereas neuroeconomics is evolving in a very healthy way, neuromarketing is being done increasingly in secrecy, behind closed doors, and the article warns that if the neuromarketing industry doesn’t get its act together pretty soon it may face increasing regulation. This initiative predated that article but that’s precisely the point.

Will those black boxes be opened?
The review panel will engage in a dialogue with the different research suppliers. That doesn’t mean that that’s going to be exposed to the market. Ultimately the study is evidence-based – whatever claims the suppliers make, they’ll be backing that up with supporting assets. It’s not requiring them to expose their methods to the general public, but the market will be satisfied that there will have been an independent peer review process. You can’t have credibility around an initiative of this kind unless it’s this independent process. It’s no different than the independent peer review around a journal article or anything else.

Some of the claims made about neuromarketing are quite grand. What do you make of those?
Within any company there’ll always be tension between the sales and the research influences. For many companies in this space the research influence has dominated but, for some, the sales influence has dominated. But when you come from a research position you welcome independent peer review.

What will come out of the project?
There’ll be a white paper which, for prospective clients, advertisers and networks, will help articulate the type of questions they will be asking, and the strengths and relative limitations of the different methods. It should help them understand the relative merits of whether or not this occupies bandwidth in an organisation.

Will the benefits go beyond just the firms taking part?
Yes, you can see the participants as a band of suppliers, but also as a reflection of different methods, and it’s actually very exciting when you look at it that way. These are a range of non-verbal techniques that are very cutting edge: facial coding, biometrics, EEG, FMRI. The suppliers are all outstanding ambassadors of these methodologies.

Has the hype around neuromarketing been damaging?
I don’t want to comment myself. The trial is a way of testing all that. It could be that there’s nothing fishy at all, but this is what the process is all about. I don’t want to give the impression that the tone of the review is critical – really the ARF sees the promise and the potential. I don’t think we’ll end up with a dissing exercise. All the suppliers recognise that their methods will have their limitations, but above all they’re really eager to demonstrate the strengths and potential and added value that these techniques can bring.

1 Comment

14 years ago

Thanks Robert for this interview with Prof. Varan and discussing the progress of the ARF neuromarketing standards initiative. After two decades of exceptional growth of cognitive neuroscience in academic research, it is exciting to see this knowledge being applied to consumer insight. Sands Research is looking forward to working with its colleagues in the project to help clarify what is possible in a very open approach. No one methodology is a "magic bullet" defining purchase intent but we firmly believe, combined with traditional methods, the data adds unique insight and the edge for clients. The advancements in understanding how the brain functions and the decision process works will have the same impact on changing market research services as our advancement in the knowledge of say the visual process has created many new and improved vision products or the muscular system has created new sports equipment. The MR field should look at this process as a way to improve on its performance as a provider of consumer insight. Again thanks to Prof. Varan and the Advertising Research Foundation for stepping forward to lead the process of bringing the cognitive neuroscience and market research worlds together. Advancements and understanding of this "new" field will only come about via open discussion and discourse supported by proven, credible peer reviewed methodologies. Ron Wright CEO / Sands Research Inc. www.sandsresearch.com

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