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The first batch of information from the Advertising Research Foundation (ARF) NeuroStandards Collaboration Project has been released, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, the main conclusion seems to be that more research is needed. A draft of a summary document shows equivocal results. On one hand, the committee found that neuromarketing techniques can “provide important, valuable new insights for the evaluation of commercials and other visual stimuli.” On the other hand, the report notes, neuromarketing studies “should not be regarded as providing conclusive scientific evidence about research objectives—specifically, such concerns as which of several commercials or which elements of a commercial will sell more product.” The draft put particular emphasis on this statement:

Even though neuromarketing research has made remarkable progress during the last decade, both the underlying science and the application of the science to marketing are still developing and there are a number of questions and concerns that surround the field.

The draft focuses on a key challenge facing neuromarketers: commercials and other video content present viewers with complicated and overlapping stimuli, so determining exactly what might cause an observed change in biometrics, EEG patterns, etc., can be difficult. Some of the specific insights include:

Varied response time. One might think that measuring second-by-second response to elements of a commercial might be fairly easy. Comparing the video timeline to the responses would show corresponding spikes, peaks, valleys, etc. While that may happen, a complicating factor is that humans take varying lengths of time to respond to different stimuli. An image of something that could pose a danger, like an image of a snake, is processed more quickly than less threatening images. Further complicating analysis is that sometimes we anticipate what will happen next, muddling the timeline.

Preceding content. Our reactions to a given stimulus aren’t always constant; they are influenced by what came before it. And, again, we have the complexity of untangling which stimuli (images, sounds, words) are causing a particular effect.

Predicting consumer behavior. One key, if unsurprising, conclusion is that it’s hard to predict future behavior from studying reactions to an ad:

Measuring “attention” (and related reactions such as approach-withdraw and arousal) is less complex than measuring specific emotions and purchase intent. The experts’ consensus is that reactions to one specific region of the brain cannot always be interpreted as indicative of one specific emotion.

The initial phase reaches the (obvious?) conclusion that advertisers shouldn’t abandon traditional market research techniques, and that neuromarketing studies should be a complement to, not a replacement for, other methods that have been proven effective.

It appears that the group will plow forward and attempt to shed more light on the effectiveness and limitations of neuromarketing techniques. They hope to develop best practices recommendations, conduct a symposium and seminars for ARF members, and publish a white paper on the NeuroStandards study for publication in the summer of 2011.

None of these findings should be a huge surprise to Neuromarketing readers. There’s little or no published data that validates neuromarketing studies as a predictor of real consumer behavior. At the same time, there’s little doubt that a variety of neuromarketing techniques can measure how people are responding to ads, products, etc., offering the promise of insights into consumer reactions for those who can properly interpret those metrics.

Stay tuned, we’ll keep you posted as more data emerges from the ARF project.

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