NeuroscamIt’s been a rough few days for neuromarketers. First, Matt Wall of Slate wrote a thoughtful article, What Are Neuromarketers Really Selling?. Then, PopSci jumped on the bandwagon and writer Shaunacy Ferro published Why Neuromarketing Is A Neuroscam. Ferro quoted Wall’s article but added an even more provocative headline.

The subtitle of Wall’s piece is, “The poor data and shoddy logic behind a hyped business boom” – certainly sounding like an indictment of the fledgling neuromarketing industry. But is this warranted?

In fact, despite the provocative headlines, Wall’s article focuses on one topic, the reliability of EEG data gathered using headgear with a small number of dry contacts. Within this scope, Wall raises some good points. Academic studies using EEG don’t use the convenient little gizmos one can pop on a subject’s head in seconds. Rather, they use messy conductive gels and large numbers of contacts to gather more data and better data.

Wall is also correct in writing that many neuromarketing firms base their techniques and claims of effective ad or product studies on their unpublished proprietary data, making it difficult for outsiders to verify these claims. I’m sympathetic with this sentiment – one reason for the ongoing credibility gap in neuromarketing is that most industry players have forged ahead without peer-reviewed studies or even publicly accessible data. And, when neuromarketing studies are disclosed, the data is usually anecdotal (see, for example, Neuromarketing at New Scientist).

The disconnect in the Slate piece (and the subsequent PopSci rehash) is between the attention-getting headlines and the content of Wall’s narrowly focused article. The truth is that neuromarketing encompasses far more than dry-contact EEG studies. Biometric measurements, eye-tracking, facial coding (both automated and manual), and other technologies are being used both alone and in combination to gauge customer reactions to products and ads. Wall mentions fMRI as if it is solely the province of academia. In fact, even that technology, which allows 3D imaging of brain activity vs. the surface measurements of EEG, is being used in neuromarketing studies.

Data is emerging that suggests an even brighter future for neuromarketing. Carnegie Mellon researchers recently published work showing that specific emotions could be identified from brain activity.

Commercial acceptance of neuromarketing is growing as well. At Forbes, I wrote about Coke’s adoption of neuromarketing for all projects involving quantitative ad studies.

When I spoke at the Neuromarketing World Forum in Sao Paulo a few months ago, one of the most exciting aspects of the conference was that a variety of neuromarketing companies are starting to make some of their data and results public – not quite the same as being published in Neuroscience, but welcome progress.

Personally, I like an even broader definition of neuromarketing that includes the use of brain and behavior research to improve marketing. That is, my view of neuromarketing encompasses the development of rules and techniques based on how humans process information and behave rather than studies of specific ads or products.

In short, Wall raises some good points, but the headline writers at both Slate and PopSci ignored the details of the article in striving for punchy, click-worthy headlines. Let’s call it Headlinescam

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