The prospect of using neuroscience to improve the practice of marketing is equally exciting and worrying. On one of their beta posts for a new blog on the Future of Marketing, The Institute for The Future offers some links to articles on the application of neuroscience to advertising. 

On the one hand, there’s a geewhiz factor to the notion of mapping the brain’s response to advertising, and using that data to shape more effective ads. There’s also an obvious ethical debate that will arise from perfecting the art of persuasion by science. Not to mention a legal one: Can you imagine what the defense of Big Tobacco would have been if they were using scientifically designed manipulation techniques to motivate buyers?

But beyond the obvious technological, political, legal and ethical questions–which will be the press fodder that boosts this topic into the mainstream–there are some practical business questions that always seem to get lost in the noise. Is there really a competitive advantage for most companies in diverting funds to manipulation technologies and away from just building better products and experiences?

One of the examples cited in the research is the mapping of brain patterns after the subject was exposed to a cola drink, without an associated brand, and then after. When just drinking samples of carbonated sugar water, the subject had little preference. But when sugar water was linked to a few cola labels, the brain patterns went off the charts in showing a preference for Coke. Great. Undoubtedly there’s something to learn from that. But will it help Pepsi create a more successful product?

You could compare the Coke response and the Pepsi response and draw the conclusion that Coke’s marketing, which is really the major substantive difference between the two brands, is just better, and Pepsi’s better improve. But any time you’re measuring a person, an organic brain, you can’t separate out the lifetime of baggage that comes with it. It may look like just a set of brain waves, which Pepsi could theoretically try to emulate by testing a new brand mix. But what you can’t see is the memory of drinking a Coke on a summer day at a family picnic. Or laughing so hard at the joke your best friend told one time at the ice cream shop when you were 10 that the Coke came streaming out of your nose. Those memories are anchored to the brand and inseparable from the brain waves that show preference in a lab. So what will Pepsi emulate?

Coke didn’t create those experiences, even if they effectively enshrine them in their advertising to enhance recall. They’ve had good, consistent marketing over the course of most people’s lifetime, and a long string of personal experiences have been attached to the brand. I’m not sure how knowing what the impact of those experiences look like in the shaping of preference-oriented brainwaves on a CRT scan will help Pepsi create a more successful product today. 

I can see the application of monitoring brain waves as a supplement to product response studies and focus groups,so that Pepsi can isolate the most appealing ad, and I suspect that’s probably the point. But I also suspect that isn’t sexy enough to push neuromarketing into the mainstream press and boost interest in the technology and the companies that create it. Far better to amaze and frighten us a little with the prospect that companies will be able to engineer desire from whole cloth. Just think of the consequences!

One thought on “Neuromarketing

  1. That Boy

    Look for the April issue of Scientific American Mind. It’s a great review of current neurological studies and advancements. There’s also an interesting article on the source of creativity.

    They deserve kudos for their honest approach to the work being done with fMRI’s and marketing. Alas, they still don’t go far enough in debunking this marketing fad. I’ll cut to the quick: we will never find the neurons that tell us to buy Coke over Pepsi. (Alright, never say “never.” Let’s try, “not in my lifetime”) And yet, that’s what many marketers are looking for.

    This is not a Cartesian issue to me, it’s a technological one.

    fMRIs can only show the amount of blood flow to a particular region of the brain. It does not show neural activity, only the traces of it (much like a physicist work in subatomic particles). By the time the fMRI shows the blood flow, the thoughts the subject held have passed. Further, we are no where close to understanding the interaction between the regions. In the end, we can only get generalities. Granted, much better generalities than ever before, but nothing on which to base a marketing plan.

    Finally, we are dealing with murky subjects. We are poor judges of our own thoughts and feelings. Even if MRIs could identify the exact neural activity happening in the brain at a given point, the subject has to be able to articulate their exact thoughts at that very moment.

    Anyone who’s done research on purchasing behavior knows what a frustrating endeavor that is. Behavior is driven by a blend of perception, immediate experience, and short term/long term memory. And the whole process is driven by emotions and feelings. Our cognitive mind simply can’t assess and report on these accurately.

    So, if a agency guy in a black turtleneck and soul patch starts talking to you about your customer’s prefrontal cortex, show him your posterior gluteus. It’s too early for that. Someday we might be able to develop pharmaceuticals that will make you choose a hybrid over an SUV or zap someone into buying a Forman’s Grill, but not today

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