Neuromarketers: The new influence-peddlers?

by Jim Schnabel

March 25, 2008

The Nielsen Company, an advertising services conglomerate that provides the famous “Nielsen ratings,” recently announced that it is getting into the controversial new field of “neuromarketing.”  Nielsen said that it had purchased a significant share of Neurofocus, a Berkeley, Calif., company that uses brain-imaging and other neuroscientific techniques to study consumers.

Neurofocus is just one of many companies, institutes and university laboratories that claim to use neuroscience to get inside consumers’ heads.  Until now this field has been of relatively minor importance within the ad industry, but Nielsen’s investment suggests that neuromarketing’s star is on the rise.  The news also highlights ongoing concerns that a science meant for humane purposes may be used instead to influence people against their better judgment.

“I think advertisers eventually will use these tools to find clever ways of tickling the brain that otherwise they would not have been able to find,” says Martin Paulus, professor of psychiatry at UCSD.

Does neuromarketing work?

Traditionally, advertisers have used survey and focus-group techniques—much like those of academic psychologists—to judge audience reactions to ads and hone their campaigns for maximum effectiveness.

Neuromarketers claim that by using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and other imaging technology to study the brain’s reactions directly, they can get much more detailed and reliable information.  “Our breakthrough techniques,” claims Neurofocus on its Web site, “utilize advances in measuring attention challenges, emotional engagement, and memory/retention to measure the effectiveness of advertising.  Our measurements are precise, unambiguous, and repeatable.”

To some who observe the field, the promise of neuromarketing is itself an advertiser’s come-on.  “I don’t see any evidence so far that it’s superior to focus groups,” says Jonathan Moreno, a medical ethicist at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of the Dana Press book Mind Wars.  “Some of this work is being done, and I keep hearing about bits and pieces of it.  But I think it is a little harder to do and more complex and expensive than they realize, and when they do it—well, I don’t know that any real blockbuster advertising strategy has emerged.”

Richard Glen Boire, a senior fellow of the Center for Cognitive Liberty and Ethics in Davis, Calif., takes much the same view.  “Overall, neuromarketing has a very sexy name and helps advertisers justify big bills to their clients, but I think that so far it’s largely hype.”

Worth keeping an eye on

“The proof would be as follows,” says Paulus.  “You prospectively design an ad with your fMRI tools, and you show me that with this ad I was able to sell so much more with these tools than without them.  That’s the proof that you need to show me that this really works.  And we really are not there yet.  So in that sense, yes, we’re still in the hype phase.”

But Paulus, who uses fMRI to study psychiatric patients, thinks neuromarketing eventually will benefit from his and other academics’ research into brain pathways that contribute to preferences and decisions.

“I’m personally interested in using fMRI for medical predictions,” he says.  “For example, are you becoming an addict or not, are you staying sober or not?  So I have a certain optimism that these kinds of predictions can actually be made.”

Functional MRI studies already suggest that activation patterns in certain brain regions can be used to predict, at least weakly, human preference and behavior, especially economic behavior.

In a January 2007 paper in Neuron titled “Neural Predictors of Purchases,” Stanford neuroscientist Brian Knutson and colleagues used fMRI to scan subjects while they considered purchases.  The researchers found that “activation in regions associated with anticipating gain [the nucleus accumbens] correlated with product preference, while activation in regions associated with anticipating loss [the insula] correlated with excessive prices.  Further, activation in a region implicated in integrating gains and losses [the mesial prefrontal cortex] correlated with reduced prices.”  To Knutson and his colleagues, “these findings suggest that activation of distinct brain regions related to anticipation of gain and loss precedes and can be used to predict purchasing decisions.”

Similarly, in the Journal of Neuroscience last September, John O’Doherty and associates at Cal Tech reported using fMRI to study volunteers taking part in a food purchase test.  “[A]ctivity in the medial orbitofrontal cortex and in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex,” they wrote, “encodes subjects’ willingness to pay for the items.”

In one of the most widely-reported pieces of research in this area, which appeared in Neuron in 2004, Baylor College of Medicine neuroscientist Read Montague and his students used fMRI to study volunteers as they performed a blind taste test of Pepsi vs. Coke.

“We could see, when we were squirting fluids in their mouths,” Montague remembers, “what they were going to pick on the taste test, by whether or not two of three regions—the ventral midbrain, the ventral striatum [which includes the nucleus accumbens] and the ventral medial prefrontal cortex—were ‘on’ more for one than the other.”

Hidden influences

Paulus suspects that as fMRI studies and other tools of neuromarketing come to be used more extensively, advertisers will make use of cues whose influence might never have been noticed with traditional techniques.  “Maybe it’ll be a certain color in the background.  Maybe it’ll be the frequency with which a stimulus is being presented.  Maybe it will be the tones, the sounds that will be presented.  All these are things that a subject who was part of these questionnaire studies wouldn’t have been able to verbalize, yet they would clearly influence the way he or she responds.”

The prospect of neuromarketing-powered advertising that is significantly more manipulative than consumers face now might still be some way off.  But Paulus worries that it might be approaching with stealth.  “The real problem is going to be not the kinds of studies that you read in Science, Nature, or any of the scientific journals,” he says.  “The real concern is going to come from those studies that are probably already ongoing, that’ll never be published ...  And believe me, it’s not just advertisers.  Our government is also interested in this.”

Virtually no one in the field believes that neuromarketing technology, as Boire puts it, “will turn consumers into robots who can’t resist making a purchase.”  But advertisers could easily find neuromarketing worth the cost if it buys them even a little extra influence over consumers.  “If it is worthwhile then they’re going to pursue it,” says Paulus, “and I know of companies that are already doing it.”

“I do think that we might later see required disclosures of some type if the technology becomes very effective,” says Boire.  “Perhaps a small icon that indicates that neuromarketing was used in the creation of the product or marketing of it.  Or we might see some companies adopt a No-Neuromarketing position, much as we see on some personal products a note that they are not tested on animals.”