Neuromarketers may be their own worst enemies. Neuromarketing, and its slightly more established sibling, neuroeconomics, are exciting areas in which new research findings pop up every week. Unfortunately, the rush to commercialize the technology seems to lead to an overabundance of hype and claims that are difficult to back up. A good example is the recent New York Times Op-Ed piece This Is Your Brain on Politics which we chronicled in Political Neuromarketing.
Any publicity is good publicity, right? In this case, perhaps not. This editorial described the rather bland conclusions from an fMRI study of a small number of voters as they reacted to different candidates in the current presidential primary race. This wasn’t necessarily a bad study, but perhaps it wasn’t the best one to put forth in such a visible location. The respected science journal Nature published its own editorial, Mind Games, which was harshly critical of the NYTimes piece:
The op-ed work has not been published in a peer-reviewed journal, and the article is self-evidently too insubstantial in scientific detail to assess the strength of either the methods or the data. A group of cognitive neuroscientists was swift to object to its conclusions – which veer close to a modern-day phrenology – in a response to The New York Times.
The results described in the op-ed are apparently the claims of a commercial product posing as a scientific study.
Reaction around the blogosphere was almost entirely negative:
- Mind Hacks – Election brain scan nonsense
- The Doctor Weighs In – Shame on the New York Times
- Natural Rationality – Brain and Politics: Anatomy of a Scandal
- The Neurocritic – This Is Your Brain on Bad fMRI Studies
- Brain in a Vat – Bloggers Against Un-Reviewed Research
It would be easy for a self-proclaimed neuromarketing missionary to dismiss the outcry as a Luddite over-reaction. Unfortunately, that’s not the case here. There is plenty to criticize in the article, and we didn’t see any vigorous defense emerge to blunt that criticism.
One might still consider a prominent Op-Ed piece in the Times to be worth enough to weather the blistering critiques. How many marketers, political or otherwise, read Nature? Or blogs that mostly post about neuroscience? Still, we wish neuromarketing companies would go public with data that is a bit more bulletproof than what was presented in the controversial Times piece. Having the nascent neuromarketing business compared to phrenology leaves a lingering whiff of pseudoscience in any discussion of the topic. University researchers interested in exploring the topic may be dissuaded – who wants to be involved in something that seems related to parapsychology? (We do note that even parapsychology attracts a few scientists – Harvard researchers just published fMRI research that debunks the notion of ESP. )
We found the partnership between OTOInsights and Indiana University encouraging – we hope that some academically solid neuromarketing research emerges from this effort.
What the neuromarketing industry really needs is peer-reviewed research that ties together brain scan results (or other neuro-data) and actual market performance. Marketers do split-run tests all the time to compare different ads, products, prices, etc. How difficult can it be to run this kind of test in conjunction with some neuro-data collection to take data interpretation beyond the realm of guesswork? Doing so and releasing the results for public scrutiny would silence most of the critics and set the stage for far wider acceptance of neuromarketing techniques.
Until there is some unassailable data published, neuro-skeptics will continue to make snide references to phrenology. Let’s hope those days are soon behind us.