Adweek, in 4A’s Planners Define Their Lot, states that a former ad exec “convincingly shot down the legitimacy of neuromarketing”. Here’s the complete description of the supposed shoot-down:

Mark Earls, the former executive planning director of Ogilvy & Mather, convincingly shot down the legitimacy of neuromarketing, comparing it to “navigating to Mars armed only with a [flashlight], a stick of gum, some tarot cards and an abacus.”

We weren’t able to access the text of this speech, but we did find a summary of his key points at the Fallon Planning blog in Interesting People Say Interesting Things. Apparently, Earls’s first point was that the technology just isn’t good enough yet. Secondly, he thinks that our brains are part of larger decision-making systems within our bodies and that looking at brains to determine how decisions are made is too simplistic. Furthermore, he noted, everyone’s brain is different and data from one brain won’t help predict what someone else’s brain will do. His third point was more philosophical. According to the Fallon blog (which apparently has a disabled SHIFT key):

the desire for neuromarketing to be the silver bullet stems from our uniquely western concepts of materialism, positivism and individualism. we think that all things can be represented how they are, that things are certain and can be measured, and that the truth about human behavior lies in individuals. not necessarily the case for any of these three ideas. he concluded by saying that if we’re trying to influence mass behavior, then that’s what we should be focusing on, and that talkability is a great indicator of effectiveness because it measures mass impact rather than individual impact.

I don’t want to try to debate a second-hand account of Earls’s remarks. No doubt he made some good points. The Adweek conclusion that neuromarketing was shown to be illegitimate, though, is troubling. It seems that all too many people who should know better narrowly define neuromarketing as using fMRI scans to determine the effectiveness of ads.

Would-be neuromarketers have brought some of this criticism on themselves, by implying that there was a “buy button” in the brain (great imagery, but a huge oversimplification) and by pushing commercial use before basic research.

I would certainly agree that some proponents of ad optimization using brain scans are getting ahead of the hard science. We like to point out the “Super Bowl study” as a good example of the vagaries of interpreting fMRI scans (see comments on the fMRI analysis of the SuperBowl ads in Super Bowl Ads: GoDaddy Girl 1, Neuroscientists 0). While the promise of measuring real-time brain activity while subjects are viewing ads has plenty of sex appeal, the research to definitively correlate ultimate consumer behavior with brain scan data hasn’t been done, or at least hasn’t been published. So, those minimal fMRI studies that have been published are easy targets for critics.

In reality, debunking neuromarketing is to deny that human behavior has neurological underpinnings. Clearly, advertising is a form of stimulus that affects subsequent behavior and decisions. And, long before neuroscience, savvy marketers knew that not all advertising effects were the result of conscious and logical analysis by the individual. If one users our preferred definition of neuromarketing (What is Neuromarketing?), the concept can’t be found illegitimate. To be sure, one can criticize some efforts to employ neuromarketing as junk science (or junk marketing), but those issues occur in any new field: the hype gets ahead of the data.

Thinking about the nascent state of neuromarketing, I thought of some of the early patent medicines cobbled together by quick buck artists. These were sold as cure-alls with no research or even much scientific logic to back them up. Using those over-sold pills as an indictment of the potency of pharmaceuticals isn’t dissimilar to pointing out flaws in a few fMRI marketing studies as indicative of the potential of neuromarketing. Today, thousands of well-researched pharmaceutical products have greatly improved the human condition. While we have no such grandiose expectations for neuromarketing, we can expect the quantity and quality of research to expand and the effectiveness of the solutions to increase dramatically. (And I don’t think most of today’s neuromarketers are the equivalent of nineteenth century patent medicine sellers – they are more like the early chemists who knew that medicines could be effective, but had to develop the science and tools along with the compounds themselves.)

Arguing that brains are different is about the same as saying people are different. Both are true, yet we still conduct research using surveys, focus groups, and many other techniques that use individual responses to predict group behavior. And while it can’t be argued that the brain is part of a whole body system, the field of neuroeconomics is starting to uncover the basic mechanisms for human decision-making. Ultimately, I think this neuroeconomic research will drive the growth in neuromarketing. As we better understand the neuroscience of decision-making, we’ll better understand how to craft marketing approaches that work and perhaps more importantly, how to improve products and services so they are inherently more satisfying to their user.

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