thinking about neuromarketing

For years, most criticism of neuromarketing has been either alarmism (“OMG! They are reading my thoughts to make me buy stuff!”) or outright dismissal (“There’s no valid science, they are all charlatans!”). In the last few weeks, however, a couple of thoughtful blog posts popped up that are worth a read.

In The Seven Sins of Neuromarketing, Prefrontal.Org author Craig Bennett takes neuromarketing to task, but in a well-reasoned manner. The majority of the field’s “sins” enumerated by Bennett relate to a lack of academic rigor in neuromarketing science: unpublished data, questionable statistical analysis, no peer-reviews, uneven quality of commercial neuromarketing firms, etc. – some of the same issues I have been raising for years, expressed in a detailed and thoughtful way. While some neuromarketers may not agree with everything Bennett says, he makes good points. Bennett thinks the true value of neuromarketing is obscured by these factors, and concludes:

There is certainly significant value to using neuromarketing methods in consumer research. Why else would companies like Nielsen Holdings be investing in neuromarketing firms like NeuroFocus? One of the biggest problems is that the true value of these methods is obscured by those who treat it as a gimmick and have the loudest voice. The next ten years will represent a true shakedown of the neuromarketing industry. Companies that are able to provide real value to their customers will live on while those who simply seek to make pretty pictures will fall by the wayside. It will be a fascinating time to be an observer of the business and politics in this emerging field.

In Dodging the one-sided approach to neuromarketing at BrainEthics, cognitive neuroscientist Thomas Zoëga Ramsøy offers another alternative to the neuroalarmist approach by pointing out two areas where neuromarketing can have positive contributions beyond helping companies sell more soap and soft drinks. For starters, Ramsøy thinks neuromarketing is an opportunity for academics:

In this way, neuromarketing is an academic approach to better understand how information leads to changes in attention, emotional responses, preference formation, choices and learning. While most discussions of neuromarketing is unidirectional – neuroscience tools being used to test marketing efforts – this take suggests that neuroscientists should cherish the golden opportunity to use marketing and consumer actions to better understand the human mind.

In the portion of his post with the forbidding name of “debiasing aberrant behaviors,” Ramsoy suggests that the better understanding of consumer behavior provided by neuromarketing can help consumers make fewer irrational (and bad) decisions:

Our choices are suboptimal and there is much room for improvement. With the knowledge gained from neuromarketing and related disciplines, we can put this knowledge to use. Consumers can be trained in making better decisions, better at controlling the decision making process and having an improved insights into factors affecting one’s choices. Based on this, debiasing decisions is a means to improve overall wealth for each individual, and to take better control of one’s own mind and behaviour. If is anywhere the famous dictum dictum “know thyself” would make sense, this is it.

Ramsoy even suggests that health could be improved by early detection of some truly aberrant behaviors.

Nobody likes criticism, but neuromarketers should be pleased that critiques like these are thoughtful and represent an opportunity to move the industry forward.