OPINION15 September 2010

Brain sells: Cutting through the neuromarketing hype


The world of neuroscience is full of grand claims and big personalities. Is something being lost amid the noise?


Neuromarketing is sexy. Not only does it involve all sorts of fancy gadgetry, it also produces the kind of insights into what makes us tick that we all enjoy hearing and talking about. The problem is, it’s too sexy. The findings of brain-scanning research often arrive accompanied by a hype that seems unbecoming of science, as well as an aura of certainty that, even when the research appears robust, can leave one feeling suspicious.

“NeuroFocus’ AK Pradeep is insistent that neuroscience will transform research and marketing, and that the only thing holding most companies back is fear of change”

That’s not to say that neuroscience isn’t a fascinating field. When our reporter James Verrinder volunteered to have his own brain scanned by NeuroFocus, he was impressed by the power of the technology to reveal things that he wouldn’t have been able to put into words. NeuroFocus’ CEO AK Pradeep is insistent that neuroscience will transform research and marketing, and that the only thing holding most companies back is fear of change. He may be right. But there are reasons the area is regarded by many with caution.

Two years ago Martin Lindstrom published the bestseller Buyology, which saw the author named by Time Magazine as one of the world’s 100 most influential people. The book was based on a major neuroscience study involving more than 2,000 participants.

Lindstrom, like Pradeep, is a slick ambassador for neuromarketing, convinced that we are on the cusp of a revolution. He makes his living as a branding expert and even seems to have branded himself, appearing always in a trademark black shirt. Lindstrom’s book was aimed at a mass audience, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but his willingness to leap from statements about parts of the brain “lighting up” to glib conclusions about what this must mean feels rather unscientific. Although he acknowledges the limits of what we understand about the brain, the book lacks the sense of caution that should result from this. Lindstrom is to be applauded for making Buyology an accessible read, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that something important was lost in the process.

It was also worrying to find that some of the book’s references (in the first edition at least) pointed to blog posts, and in at least one case to a comment posted on a blog by someone who didn’t even give their real name. This unnamed source was being used as evidence for a fairly trivial point about product placement in the movie ET, so it was no reason to doubt the primary research Lindstrom had conducted – but such a haphazard attitude to referencing in a high-profile book on neuroscience was surprising.

“Hype means it is very easy to get carried away with exaggerated claims [for neuroscience]. The results don’t stand on their own: you have to combine this with something else”

Graham Page, Millward Brown

Most market researchers, we’re glad to say, are pretty level-headed when it comes to brain science. Graham Page, who heads the dedicated neuroscience practice at Millward Brown, enjoys fancy gadgets as much as the next man, but he knows the importance of keeping a sense of perspective. Page warned at this year’s Research conference that “hype means it is very easy to get carried away with exaggerated claims [for neuroscience]. The results don’t stand on their own: you have to combine this with something else.”

Millward Brown isn’t the only research giant that’s investing in brain science – Nielsen owns a stake in NeuroFocus, and TNS’s shopper research subsidiary TNS Magasin uses mobile brain-scanning devices in its research. But there are plenty of others who think these people are wasting a lot of time and money, and that areas like behavioural economics and social science offer more usable insights – not to mention a lower electricity bill. Doesn’t it make more sense to sit back and let the learnings of neuroscience trickle through into other research practices?

More recently New Scientist dabbled in neuromarketing to help design one of its front covers. The magazine designed three covers and, with the help of NeuroFocus, used electroencephalography to measure the responses of 19 people to the three options and pick the most effective one.

New Scientist reported that the issue carrying the chosen front cover saw a 12% sales uplift compared to the same date last year, but without a control group it’s impossible to tell if this resulted from the impact of the cover or from other factors – such as the publicity the stunt got in publications including the New York Times. Deputy editor Graham Lawton hailed the experiment as “a big success”, but acknowledges that it’s not enough to provide evidence of a causal link, and said the magazine has no plans to repeat it.

Meanwhile AK Pradeep of NeuroFocus, quoted in New Scientist’s press release, claimed the results provided “clear, unmistakable and very public validation for the core science that underlies what we do”. A Research Live reader countered that the results only offered validation that “publicity and word of mouth drive sales”.

New Scientist’s study also raised the hackles of some women readers because all the participants were men (apparently “more meaningful” results can be obtained if all subjects are the same sex). One reader wrote in to ask whether it had occured to the editor that the winning cover “bears a strong resemblance to a woman’s breast”.

Although you’d need a vivid imagination to see a breast in the cover image (which depicts a swirling galaxy), it’s odd that it took a reader to highlight the maleness of the study as an issue.

“Neuroscientists sometimes are naive in respect of the kind of work they do and the potential for it to be misquoted”

Professor Gina Rippon

As it happens, the supposed differences between men’s and women’s thinking and behaviour are one of the topics where neuroscience is most frequently cited, and most frequently attacked. In a new book called Delusions of Gender, psychologist Cordelia Fine takes aim at “neurosexism”, criticising those who misinterpret neuroscience findings in order to sell popular books about why women buy so many shoes, or why men don’t talk about their feelings.

Fine argues that the complexity of the brain “lends itself beautifully to over-interpretation and precipitous conclusions”, feeding existing stereotypes and preconceptions about innate gender differences.

Gina Rippon, professor of cognitive neuroimaging at Aston University, agrees that research into sex differences in the brain has often been “misleading and misogynistic”. But it’s not always the fault of the scientists themselves – at least not directly.

Rippon told the BBC’s Today programme yesterday: “Neuroscientists sometimes are naive in respect of the kind of work they do and the potential for it to be misquoted. People who do research into sex differences lay themselves open to what I call the populist books or ‘neurotrash’ where people quickly adapt a particular finding to suit a hypothesis that they’re trying to support without really checking their sources carefully.”

Proponents of neuroscience may be right that its impact is going to be huge. But in the near term they might also want to think about how they and their peers are perceived, what they do to ensure their work is properly interpreted by others, and whether a little restraint might be in order.


14 years ago

A great article with which I completely agree. I have just finished reading "The Buying Brain" and while it's full of great ideas (and well written), there is far too much sales material and far too little hard science and real evidence, particularly to justify claims that the techniques are "better than" other approaches (I felt the same about Buyology). I sincerely believe that the techniques can offer some great business insights, in tandom with other tools. However, like all methods they are not the answer to every question and will never be. For example, the brain does not work in isolation but is driven by context and social relationships, which I do not see in any of the neuroscience studies. I feel a bigger challenge for market research is to take on board the fact that our approaches to asking questions have hardly changed in 50 years and reflect a rational view of humans which is (nearly) 50 years out of date. We need to radically change the way we measure and understand behaviour. Neuroscience offers some answers, but there is much more to do.

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14 years ago

I found Buyology to be a frustrating read because of all the cheap shots at established research methods. It is essentially an anti-research book. At one point, LIndstrom claims that neuroscience will replace opinion polling. This stepped into the realms of science fiction. Although we're a conservative bunch, most researchers like gadgets and are not resisting change when it comes to neuroscience, we're just practitioners being practical. I'm looking forward to the day when consumers and citizens can scan their brains with their smartphones and send us a feed for analysis. And no doubt, some will put it on their Facebook profile along with their metabolism monitor and heartbeat!

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14 years ago

Excellent article! In Science, any new method or technology goes through the growing pains that we are experiencing now with the application of Neuroscience to market research. These growing pains are exacerbated by the fact that many of the methods, fMRI (brain scanning) and EEG (brain waves) are complex. As practitioner it is important not to overstate the insights gained and to manage expectations of clients. These methods are just another tool in the tool box and are not going to replace other proven tools. To help sort through these issues out, the Advertising Research Foundation has initiated ad open trial with a council of respected academics to review the results. This type of peer reviewed science is exactly what the young field needs. See www.neurotrial.org

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14 years ago

There is no need to over analyze why people buy what they buy. All you need to do is look inside your own cupboards. WHY do you buy what you buy? When you make out your list of needs do you put a brand on it? Do you put, I need Wonder Bread OR do you just put..bread, milk, toilet paper etc? There is no science needed to tell me that when I go to fullfill my list I will be looking at quality and price period. Instead of all this science non sense we need national brand ratings that involve why people buy the brands they buy just as we have the Neilson ratings for TV. If we use science to rate brands and have actual brand experiences documented it not only gives use customer usage feedback but it becomes a customer service as well. A brand marketing plan should ALWAYS be customer focused. How can we get our potential customer to TRY our brand? Samples are out BUT allowing them creative interaction will get them involved. Brands need street teams just as artists do. Why not use satisfied customers to promote the brands they love? Allow them access to your own Brand TV Broadcasting channel that offers entertaining programs build around the creativeness of the brand users? We need to get out of the WIIFM mode and get in to the "What ADDED value can our brand give to our current and future customers.

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14 years ago

"Proponents of neuroscience may be right that its impact is going to be huge. But in the near term they might also want to think about how they and their peers are perceived, what they do to ensure their work is properly interpreted by others, and whether a little restraint might be in order." I am pleased to state that "the peers" are moving forward to ensure work is properly handled. Today (Sept. 28th) the Advertising Research Foundation is announcing their Neurostandards Trial Study and bringing together many of the leading neuromarketing firms to clarify what is and is not possible via this technology. Full disclosure, I am the CEO of one of the firms - Sands Research Inc. (www.sandsresearch.com). However, Dr. Pradeep and NeuroFocus decided not to participate in this key study where findings will be presented next March at the ARF's 75th Anniversary Conference. Advertiser and media sponsors for the neurostandards study include General Motors, Clorox, Hershey's, American Express, MillerCoors, Campbell Soup, Chase, Colgate-Palmolive, NBC, ESPN, Turner Broadcasting, and MTV Networks.

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13 years ago

The fundamental assumption that bouys Neuroscience is that 'it measures the reactions we have which are immediate and below the level of consciousness' or that it 'gives the researcher direct and unfiltered reactions, rather than reactions which are censored and edited.' I feel the logic can be flawed. In my experience, consumers in most cultures are pretty in touch with how they are feeling and are quite up front in expressing themselves (that is w,hy they agree to take part in survesy in the first place). I also find that for most advertising, it does not touch us THAT deeply that we have a hard time processing it. If we dislike it, we express that well, and openly. In only a few instances (out of thousands) have I seen ads which msy spike a core emotive response that is not picked up in traditional probes. Usually they are tangled up with either racial, deviantly sexual or spiritual issues -- things that evoke societal taboos... and most ads tend to shy away from that landscape.

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