Neuromarketing: Revolution or Disillusion?

Dr. Laurent Hermoye, CEO

Dr. Laurent Hermoye
CEO

Laurent Hermoye

An article published in the prestigious journal Nature Communications [1], by a team led by Dr. Dmochowski at Stanford University, made headlines all over the world. Neuromarketing: Revolution or Disillusion? The opinion of Dr. Laurent Hermoye, CEO of Imagilys, and expert in neuroimaging.

Reading consumers’ minds or even finding the “Buy Button” is the secret dream of most marketers. Modern neuroimaging techniques offer a window to the brain at work. Can they help to design powerful brands and optimal advertisements? Neuroimaging techniques have been applied to a broad range of contexts: clinically, to diagnose and treat patients; experimentally, to better understand the brain and its diseases. Their extension to market research is appealing. Emotional processes are known to play a major role in purchase decisions, even outweighing rational processes in some cases. Standard market research, i.e. qualitative and quantitative market studies, product tests, pre- and post-advertising tests, sample the conscious side of the brain, whereas neuromarketing aims to probe both its conscious and unconscious sides.

The princeps paper was published in Neuron in 2004, by McClure and colleagues [2]. Using functional MRI, they studied the footprint in the brain of two popular soda brands: Coca-Cola and Pepsi. They noticed that although the subjects preferred Pepsi during blind trials, they preferred Coca-Cola during non-blind trials. This preference was associated with greater activations of a memory-related area, the hippocampus, in line with Coca-Cola’s powerful branding.

fMRI is the gold standard for brain imaging, but it is expensive (approx. $1,500 per subject) and cannot be applied for field studies. Other methods, less expensive and more portable, have also been applied for neuromarketing purposes. Electroencephalography (EEG), measuring the electrical activity of the brain through a cap of electrodes positioned on the head, is the most interesting one. Its ability to sample the brain activity at a high rate, its portability, and its low cost compared to MRI, make it the first choice for most neuromarketing companies. However, its measurements are limited to the surface of the brain, whereas the emotional brain is mainly made of deep structures. Each technique has known limitations, and none of them is a mind reader.

Neuromarketing

Companies offering neuromarketing services have flourished all around the world, sometimes based on solid scientific grounds, but other times on crappy assumptions. Several issues make the interpretation of neuromarketing experiments particularly tricky. The brain’s organization is complex. In the 19th century, phrenology was parceling the brain into functional units, dedicated to various functions, such as adhesiveness, cautiousness, hope, etc. This theory has since then been swept away. The problem is well illustrated by New York Times’ popular article “You Love your iPhone. Literally”, reporting a study by San Diego-based firm MindSign Neuromarketing. From the fact that being in love and hearing a ringing iPhone both activate the insular cortex of the brain, the author, a well-known neuromarketing opinion leader, inferred that the subjects were in love with their iPhone. This conclusion breaks the basic rules of logic. As Molly Crockett’s excellent TEDx talk “Beware Neuro-Bunk” describes, the insular cortex is also activated by a lot of other tasks and emotions, including anger, disgust, and pain, making such a conclusion unfounded.

Should companies invest in neuromarketing studies? For small companies, I would say no. They have other priorities and the return on investment of a neuromarketing study is debatable. For large groups, especially in the FMCG industry, and for academics, I would say that neuromarketing is a market research technique worth considering. It won’t replace other market studies; it will be complimentary.

Is it ethical to probe a person’s brain in order to optimize a marketing campaign? The question is debatable, as discussed in the editorial of prestigious Lancet medical journal “Neuromarketing: beyond branding”. Most companies using neuromarketing keep it confidential. However, as in all other brain processes, purchasing decisions, at the center of our economy, are worth being studied. In addition, neuromarketing is a measurement method, like any other market research technique. It’s not a stimulation technique. Similarly, a thermometer measures the body temperature. It does not influence it. The “Buy Button” does not exist in our brain!

References

[1] J Dmochowski et al. Audience preferences are predicted by temporal reliability of neural processing. Nat. Commun. (2014) 5:4567.
[2] McClure et al. Neural correlates of behavioral preference for culturally familiar drinks. Neuron (2004) 44:379-387.
[3] L Hermoye. Neuromarketing. Symposium Neuroradiologicum, The World Congress of Neuroradiology. Bologna, Italy (2010).
[4] Votre cerveau les intéresse. TV News Report. France 2 (2011).
[5] Les neurosciences au secours de la pub. Le Monde, France (2009).

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