Advertising Age’s Mya Frazier has taken neuromarketing to task in Hidden Persuasion or Junk Science? Despite the alarming title, the article itself is reasonably balanced in content if not in tone. Frazier highlights some of the same neuromarketing problems we have identified here – overselling the power of the current technology to predict consumer behavior, drawing sweeping conclusions from tiny sample sizes, and assuming that all consumers have the same motivations. She interviewed quite a few of the major players in the field, and the article is definitely worthwhile for anyone looking for a current, if skeptical, assessment of the state of the art of neuromarketing.

Frazier begins with a profile of M. K. Pradeep and his Berkeley-based company, Neurofocus. Pradeep’s firm uses relatively inexpensive EEG (electroencephalography) and eye-tracking equipment to measure consumer reactions to ads. The equipment is readily portable, and allows quick setup and fast-turnaround testing in different geographic markets. After painting a rather hucksterish portrait of Pradeep, Frazier quotes Stanford neuroeconomics researcher Brian Knutson as comparing EEG techniques to “standing outside a baseball stadium and listening to the crowd to figure out what happened.” She follows up with neuroscientist Joshua Freedman, chief scientist at FKF Applied Research, calling EEG information “worse data than you’d get by just talking to people in focus groups.” Both Knutson and Freedman prefer fMRI (functional magnetc resonance imaging) data, which can show levels of activation in specific brain areas. (Knutson has been a lead researcher in some of the most exciting neuroeconic research to date – see Brain Scans Predict Buying Behavior and other Knutson mentions here.)

Frazier describes FKF’s use of fMRI:

Through his work with FKF, Mr. Freedman said he’s confirmed a consistent reality about human behavior: People tend to lie. “The ads that evoked the strongest emotions and are really firing up their brain, they tend to be relatively dismissive of,” he said. “Ads that are pleasant pabulum, they’ll say they are great, but their brain isn’t lighting up at all. That’s the problem with focus groups: People don’t really bare their soul. They are trying to protect their souls.”

She then proceeds to quote Paul J. Zak, Director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies and a professor of economics at Claremont Graduate University as being “highly skeptical of FKF’s methods” and as saying, “the payoff is pretty low for marketers.”

While the tone of the article seems negative, Frazier is certainly correct in pointing out that people selling neuromarketing services can get carried away. To the extent that the article encourages marketers to adopt healthy skepticism when viewing the latest brain-based marketing panacea, she has performed a valuable service. However, we would have liked to see an acknowledgement that neuromarketing and neuroeconomics are still in their infancy, and that there is plenty of reason to be optimistic that more research and better equipment will result in new levels of both understanding and predicting consumer behavior.