Neuromarketing: Pseudoscience or the Future of Advertising?

Marketing 2015-04-28

What is Neuromarketing?

Neuromarketing is a term that was coined in 2002 by Dutch marketing professor Ale Smidts, but studies have been conducted in this area since the early 1900s. As the name would suggest, this term refers to the application of neuroscience to marketing. It often involves the direct use of brain imaging and scanning technology to measure the response of a subject to a marketing stimulus, such as an advertisement.

Two of the main technologies used by neuromarketers areelectroencephalograms (EEGs) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). These techniques can both be used to detect changes in activity in the brain specific to an area.


What can it be used for?

Neuromarketing has been discussed in recent years as a successor to traditional self-reporting pen-to-paper methods used in marketing, such as surveys and focus groups. With this application in mind, many companies have been exploring this route as a potentially lucrative market to break into. The ‘copy testing’ market is worth about$750million per year globally and is part of a larger global market for ‘ad effectiveness research’ that’s worth an estimated $2.5billion.

In theory these neuromarketing techniques can be used to observe which stimuli activate certain areas of the brain. This information can then be sold to companies as a prediction of how successful their advertisement or product will be. Neuromarketers monitor certain areas of interest such as the ventral striatum (part of the reward system in the brain) and the frontal lobe (deals with emotion and processes information).


Neuromarketing Infographic 


Case Studies:


The concept of advertising psychology is not a new phenomenon; many companies have already trialled it in some form. A particularly popular technique that’s paved the way for others is the Zaltman Metaphor Elicitation Technique (ZMET), a technique that aims to use neuroscience to gain profitable insights into consumer attitudes.

Numerous large companies have trusted this technique for their campaigns, including General Motors, Nestle, Procter & Gamble and Coca-Cola. A particularly impressive example is the launch of Febreze. After this campaign the Marketing Director of P&G put its unexpected success down to ZMET, claiming that it enabled them to double their sales volume.

The Pepsi Challenge

A well-known example of using neuromarketing to understand consumer-purchasing decisions is the ‘Pepsi Challenge‘. In general, when subjects participate in a blind-taste test between Coca-Cola and Pepsi, Pepsi wins every time. To try and understand why this wasn’t translating into sales, neuroscientist Read Montague carried out a study using an MRI. He found that when participants were told which was which, their preferences shifted three-to-one in favour of Coca-Cola. It was also observed that Coke produced heightened activity in prefrontal cortex (part of the frontal lobe involved in higher thinking) and the hippocampus (assists in thinking).


Another example of a large corporation utilising neuromarketing is PepsiCo’s Frito-Lay. This company took the results of neuromarketing studies into consideration when making its ads, products and packaging. They found that using matte beige bags of crisps featuring potatoes, and other ingredients perceived to be healthy, on the packaging didn’t trigger activity in the anterior cingulate cortex (area of the brain associated with guilt). Based on these findings Frito-Lay stopped producing the shiny packaging in favour of this version shortly afterwards.


So, it is clear that there is some faith in these techniques as they are playing a role in key decisions. This is further reinforced by the accuracy of predicting the outcomes of these decisions. For example during the 2011 Superbowl, Volkswagen’s ad for the VW Passat featured a little boy dressed as Darth Vader attempting to use ‘the force’ on the car. This advert was named the 2011 ‘best commercial’ by Adweek and has now reached over 61 million views on YouTube. This was exactly in line with what Dr Sands; of leading neuromarketing firm Sands Research, found. He claimed that this ad achieved the highest neuro-engagement score he had ever seen.



Benefits and Challenges:

It is claimed that 95% of decision-making processes are sub-conscious and that the rational reasons for a decision are often invented after a subconscious, emotional decision has already been made. Scientists at the Max Plank Institute also found that, by observing brain signals, it was possible to predict people’s choices seven seconds before they made their decision.

With this in mind is it really possible to entrust self-reporting methods with results with such a large financial stake?

Many critics argue that neuromarketing is not yet proven to be any more accurate than these traditional methods and even if an ad can create a positive emotion, does this necessarily mean that it has also created a good association with the product?

The data neuromarketing is able to provide may also be more complex if a company is targeting a global audience. For example, even if a product could provoke similar neural responses in American and Asian subjects, the marketing implications could be completely different due to cultural differences in the expression of emotions such as happiness.

Neuromarketing has already been utilised in many ways, from improving adverts and product packaging, to predicting the next box-office hit or chart-topping single. Despite this, there are definitely many critics in the field; many still see neuromarketing as a pseudoscience, as just an attempt to make the art of advertising into a science.


So, what do you think, does neuroscience have a role in the future of marketing?

Let me know @PranikaAtNotch