Neuromarketing: The Future?
These days it seems everyone has jumped on the ‘neuro’ bandwagon. While this huge explosion of neuroscience is very exciting it is difficult not to be skeptical, and a little concerned, by some neuro-related claims… Here I explore neuromarketing, asking what is it, and what the implications are for science and society? Can we really be sure its claims stand up to the test? And, if so, is it even a good thing?
What is Neuromarketing?
The term ‘neuromarketing’ was invented by Ale Smidts is 2002, and describes a new field of marketing research that aims to study consumers cognitive and emotional responses to marketing stimuli. Researchers in this field use neuroimaging techniques, such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) or electroencephalography (EEG), to measure changes brain activity when participants posing as consumers view adverts or make decisions. fMRI measures changes in blood flow, which is thought to provide an indirect measure of brain activity. The underlying assumption is that when an area of the brain is in use, blood flow to that region also increases. EEG records electrical activity along the scalp, which is thought to be associated with neurons (brain cells) communicating with one another. The aim of utilising techniques such as this is to try to understand how and why consumers make decisions, and which parts of the brain may underpin this.
There is some evidence supporting marketing’s ability to alter consumer behaviour. Pepsi and Coca-Cola are very similar in chemical composition, yet consumers maintain a behavioural preference for one over the other. In a 2004 study by McClure and colleagues participants were given the “Pepsi Challenge”, a blind test of Coca-Cola and Pepsi, whilst their brains were scanned using fMRI. In one condition participants did not know which drink was which; here 50% of participants chose Pepsi. In this condition, activity in a region of the brain associated with reward (ventromedial prefrontal cortex) was found to predict participants’ preference for Pepsi or Coca-Cola. In a second condition participants were told which drink was which; now 3/4 said that Coca-Cola tasted better! Interestingly, their brain activity also changed in this condition. Areas of the brain associated with high-level cognition and memory (dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, hippocampus and midbrain), were also recruited when participants sampled Coca-Cola, but not Pepsi. The authors suggested that participants may be relating Coca-Cola to their previous experiences and memories associated with it. The results were argued to indicate that preferences may be biased by cultural information.
What Is The evidence?
Neuroscientists and cognitive scientists have raised concerns about the credibility of the enterprise. Whilst interesting findings may be established in the lab, what does this mean for the real world? Seeing a region of the brain associated with pleasure light up when people are presented with a picture of a particular product they like, does not necessarily translate into these people going and buying the product, or altering their buying activity on the basis of a clever advert. On the other hand, studies like that of McClure et al. demonstrate the potential of successful brands and marketing campaigns to influence our behaviour, and perhaps even perception. But one of the aims of neuromarketing is to investigate our reactions before a product is even launched, during the development stages. It remains unclear whether neuroimaging provides any better data than other marketing methods for such endeavors (see Ariely & Berns, 2010). There seems to be a misconception that neuroimaging techniques provide a portal into consumers’ minds and behaviour. These techniques are undeniably useful, but the underlying technology is still developing, and so the data generated must be considered carefully.
Consumer advocate organisations have criticised neuromarketing’s ethical scruples. Neuroethics is a new strand of neuroscience, which as the frontiers widen further and further, is asking exactly these kinds of questions. In a 2008 publication Murphy et al. outlined two possible types of risks associated with neuromarketing; firstly the protection of people directly involved in the research, and secondly the protection of consumer autonomy if neuromarketing is found to be effective in predicting consumer behaviour.
The first is fairly straightforward to solve, providing those running the studies do so in a regulated manner in accordance with neuroimaging conducted for scientific or clinical purposes. However, concern has been raised over the lack of current regulation (see Ariely & Berns, 2010). For instance, there remains unease as to whether neuroimaging information will be used to discriminate against individuals or particular groups. Furthermore, scanning a large number of individuals always raises the possibility of detecting clinically abnormal results, which demands skilled interpretation and may require referral.
The latter, protecting consumer autonomy, has been labeled ‘stealth marketing’, referring specifically to the tools of neuromarketing, which may in the future “provide sufficient insight into humans neural function to allow manipulation of the brain such that the consumer cannot detect the subterfuge and that such manipulations result in the desired behaviour in at least some exposed persons” (Murphy et al., 2008). Whilst this is not currently possible with the technology available, if it were developed Murphy et al. (2008) argue it “would represent a major incursion on individual autonomy”. Putting scientific issues to the side for a moment… If companies are dead set on influencing us subliminally by studying our ‘subconscious’ responses to products or advertising campaigns, then are we left vulnerable? Whilst this does not seem likely to happen any time soon, it raises concerns about the widespread use of neuroimaging techniques. And, if these technologies were developed begs the question; will we be able to make fully informed decisions about which goods we buy and why?!
Hope or Hype?
It seems that there is a lot of promise and interest in the field of neuromarketing, but also a lot of unknowns and potential risks. The work of those such as McClure et al., raises interesting questions about how cultural information becomes embedded in the brain, and how the marketing of ideas affects decision-making, relevant to both scientific researchers as well as marketers. However, whether neuroimaging provides an efficient tool to answer this question is yet to be shown.
Some have argued companies fixation with neuromarketing is a fad, and that it is too expensive to be rolled out in a big way. However, new enterprises such as that of NeuroSpire (www.neurospire.com), which aims to offer neuroimaging techniques to companies at a cheaper cost by turning it into a “DIY affair”(Lecher, 2013; see ‘Popsci’ reference for original article), may represent its future. Opposing this burgeoning business either on scientific or ethical grounds may be futile. Thus, it seems that scientists and consumer advocate organisations should seek to help companies to engage in neuromarketing in a safe and regulated manner.
Ariely, D., Berns, G.S. (2010) Neuromarketing: the Hope and Hype of Neuroimaging in Business. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 11(4), 284-292. DOI: 10.1038/nrn2795.
McClure, S.M., Li, J., Tomlin, D., Cypert, K.S., Montague, L.M., Montague, P.R. (2004). Neural Correlates of Behavioural Preference for Culturally Familiar Drinks. Neuron, 44, 379–387.
Murphy, E.R., Illes, J., Reiner, P.B. (2008). Neuroethics of Neuromarketing. Journal of Consumer Behaviour, 7, 293–302. DOI: 10.1002/cb.252.