AdAge: Neuromarketing or Neurohype?


Advertising Age’s Mya Frazier has taken neuromarketing to task in Hidden Persuasion or Junk Science? Despite the alarming title, the article itself is reasonably balanced in content if not in tone. Frazier highlights some of the same neuromarketing problems we have identified here – overselling the power of the current technology to predict consumer behavior, drawing sweeping conclusions from tiny sample sizes, and assuming that all consumers have the same motivations. She interviewed quite a few of the major players in the field, and the article is definitely worthwhile for anyone looking for a current, if skeptical, assessment of the state of the art of neuromarketing.

Frazier begins with a profile of M. K. Pradeep and his Berkeley-based company, Neurofocus. Pradeep’s firm uses relatively inexpensive EEG (electroencephalography) and eye-tracking equipment to measure consumer reactions to ads. The equipment is readily portable, and allows quick setup and fast-turnaround testing in different geographic markets. After painting a rather hucksterish portrait of Pradeep, Frazier quotes Stanford neuroeconomics researcher Brian Knutson as comparing EEG techniques to “standing outside a baseball stadium and listening to the crowd to figure out what happened.” She follows up with neuroscientist Joshua Freedman, chief scientist at FKF Applied Research, calling EEG information “worse data than you’d get by just talking to people in focus groups.” Both Knutson and Freedman prefer fMRI (functional magnetc resonance imaging) data, which can show levels of activation in specific brain areas. (Knutson has been a lead researcher in some of the most exciting neuroeconic research to date – see Brain Scans Predict Buying Behavior and other Knutson mentions here.)

Frazier describes FKF’s use of fMRI:

Through his work with FKF, Mr. Freedman said he’s confirmed a consistent reality about human behavior: People tend to lie. “The ads that evoked the strongest emotions and are really firing up their brain, they tend to be relatively dismissive of,” he said. “Ads that are pleasant pabulum, they’ll say they are great, but their brain isn’t lighting up at all. That’s the problem with focus groups: People don’t really bare their soul. They are trying to protect their souls.”

She then proceeds to quote Paul J. Zak, Director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies and a professor of economics at Claremont Graduate University as being “highly skeptical of FKF’s methods” and as saying, “the payoff is pretty low for marketers.”

While the tone of the article seems negative, Frazier is certainly correct in pointing out that people selling neuromarketing services can get carried away. To the extent that the article encourages marketers to adopt healthy skepticism when viewing the latest brain-based marketing panacea, she has performed a valuable service. However, we would have liked to see an acknowledgement that neuromarketing and neuroeconomics are still in their infancy, and that there is plenty of reason to be optimistic that more research and better equipment will result in new levels of both understanding and predicting consumer behavior.

  1. Mark says

    Think it would be a really good thing if all neuromarketing had just the kind of health warning you suggest.

    Can I suggest this for starters:

    “This is based on a very naive and simplistic understanding of how brain activity, different stimuli and behaviour are connected. Indeed, their is precious little evidence linking specific brain activity and specific consumer-type behaviour as yet, but we haven’t really got time to explain that rather embarrassing gap in our approach. Please do not be misled by the high tech nature of our equipment into thinking this research will give you any greater certainty about what will happen if you do X or Y; we’re still very much guessing here.”

  2. VgP says

    Don’t draw sweeping comments/conclusions about a technology – When you are just reviewing about a topic just draw a boundary and stay within your limits in articulating your inconsistent or rather immatured understanding about this technology…………

    Can u please share any facts to dispute or criticize the results of this science.

    I am open to ‘conventional market research’ as well as this advanced neuromarketing research –

    Our organisation have benefited immensely with conventional approach but of late thru’ this technology.

    we got some quick results which is proven right with a tedious 4-6 month market research campaign.

  3. Roger Dooley says

    I think you missed the point of my post, VgP. I think the technology holds a lot of potential. I’m glad to hear that you are experiencing positive results – if you are willing to share, please let me know. One thing the neuromarketing industry is short on is published data that ties brain scan or similar data to actual marketplace results.


  4. Caroline says

    Thanks, Roger, for a more balanced view of neuromarketing than was presented in the recent Ad Age article. There is indeed much promise in the application of neuroscience to marketing. I think it will be an established part of market research in the next few years and companies will benefit enormously from it. It will take a few years for the science and the marketplace to figure out where the exact fit is for this new field, but people are very receptive to it.

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