ARF on Neuromarketing: Not So Fast



The first batch of information from the Advertising Research Foundation (ARF) NeuroStandards Collaboration Project has been released, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, the main conclusion seems to be that more research is needed. A draft of a summary document shows equivocal results. On one hand, the committee found that neuromarketing techniques can “provide important, valuable new insights for the evaluation of commercials and other visual stimuli.” On the other hand, the report notes, neuromarketing studies “should not be regarded as providing conclusive scientific evidence about research objectives—specifically, such concerns as which of several commercials or which elements of a commercial will sell more product.” The draft put particular emphasis on this statement:

Even though neuromarketing research has made remarkable progress during the last decade, both the underlying science and the application of the science to marketing are still developing and there are a number of questions and concerns that surround the field.

The draft focuses on a key challenge facing neuromarketers: commercials and other video content present viewers with complicated and overlapping stimuli, so determining exactly what might cause an observed change in biometrics, EEG patterns, etc., can be difficult. Some of the specific insights include:

Varied response time. One might think that measuring second-by-second response to elements of a commercial might be fairly easy. Comparing the video timeline to the responses would show corresponding spikes, peaks, valleys, etc. While that may happen, a complicating factor is that humans take varying lengths of time to respond to different stimuli. An image of something that could pose a danger, like an image of a snake, is processed more quickly than less threatening images. Further complicating analysis is that sometimes we anticipate what will happen next, muddling the timeline.

Preceding content. Our reactions to a given stimulus aren’t always constant; they are influenced by what came before it. And, again, we have the complexity of untangling which stimuli (images, sounds, words) are causing a particular effect.

Predicting consumer behavior. One key, if unsurprising, conclusion is that it’s hard to predict future behavior from studying reactions to an ad:

Measuring “attention” (and related reactions such as approach-withdraw and arousal) is less complex than measuring specific emotions and purchase intent. The experts’ consensus is that reactions to one specific region of the brain cannot always be interpreted as indicative of one specific emotion.

The initial phase reaches the (obvious?) conclusion that advertisers shouldn’t abandon traditional market research techniques, and that neuromarketing studies should be a complement to, not a replacement for, other methods that have been proven effective.

It appears that the group will plow forward and attempt to shed more light on the effectiveness and limitations of neuromarketing techniques. They hope to develop best practices recommendations, conduct a symposium and seminars for ARF members, and publish a white paper on the NeuroStandards study for publication in the summer of 2011.

None of these findings should be a huge surprise to Neuromarketing readers. There’s little or no published data that validates neuromarketing studies as a predictor of real consumer behavior. At the same time, there’s little doubt that a variety of neuromarketing techniques can measure how people are responding to ads, products, etc., offering the promise of insights into consumer reactions for those who can properly interpret those metrics.

Stay tuned, we’ll keep you posted as more data emerges from the ARF project.

  1. Ron Wright says

    Hi Roger –

    You are correct on your observations about the ARF NeuroStandards Study’s first report and I know Sands Research and several other vendors agree that our methods should not be looked at as some holy grail of consumer purchase intent. We consistently relay to potential and existing clients, our results are a complement to and not a replacement for existing research activities.

    This complmentary approach was expressed in the first report and this important point “It also is worth remembering that no methodology – including those traditionally employed by market research – provides absolute certainty and that all data need interpretation and validation.”

    It should be noted that it would be difficult to also provide distinct guidelines under the numerous methodologies that were lumped together as “neuro”. The EEG and fMRI providers have extensive scientific papers and validation from the medical field related to their measures where facial encoding and biometrics are quite different.

    The significant take away from the Study and actually the whole ARF 75th Anniversary Conference is how much influence the application of Neuroscience is now flowing through the market research community. Neuroscience, if not the central focus, was oftened mentioned in the various speaker’s talks at the Conference, standing room only in the panel discussion session of the NeuroStandards Study, comments about RFIs and RFPs now having questions about a vendors “neuroscience capabilities” and from the “World of Kantar” booklet describing “Neuroscience” as one of their core capabilities.

    We look forward to working with ARF on the next steps and their planned, NeuroStandards 2.0 Project. However, I believe the influence of neuroscience will be picking up a few speeding tickets as it blasts past the slow sign.

    All the best,

    Ron Wright
    President / CEO
    Sands Research Inc.

  2. Roger Dooley says

    Thanks for the first-hand perspective, Ron!


  3. Rich and Co. says

    If you “are” a hammer — you want everything to be a nail. If you are selling a brain technology — everything is about competitive differences in technology. Not so.

    The immense and likely decades long challenge to cognitive/neuro-behavioral science, let alone narrow specific applications like marketing, is that there is currently very little decent descriptive or theoretical work in the field. Without theories and testing/experiments testing theories — applications are far (far) behind the basic, hard, dull usually failing science work..

    However, hope, other emotional needs and pop notions drive most of buying even in business services.

    Let us give an analogy. Let’s move to medical sciences which are related since we are all talking about physiology. The medical science concerning diagnosis , explanations and treatment and medical explanation of stoke is very primitive and minimal. Quite similar to neuromarketing.

    However, people want hope so healthcare entrepreneurs have created “stroke centers” — these are immensely profitable and popular.

    Now the medical value of stoke centers is zero. The palliative care value is high if we measure money spent on them and patients using them.

    Neuromarketing is in the newborn and “palliative” stage. The scientific and practical value is yet to be discovered — regardless of the all the scanners and head-gear.

    Yet, there does appear to be real value from using brain and other advanced sciences insight — without even putting anyone in a machine.

  4. Duncan Smith says

    I agree with Ron. Did anyone actually expect the ARF to say that studies around the world using fMRI, EEG, Biometrics and facial encoding would yield identical results? I certainly didn’t. The ARF dipped their toes in to see what vendors offered. This Neurostandards study was always only going to be a ‘first step’. The big ‘stop’ picture above hardly helps in realistically summing up the study. It’s true many so called neuromarketing companies really do need to pull their socks up. There is still some bad science out there and over claiming. I applaud the ARF in saying that more validation is needed – of course it does. I just hope that Neurofocus and Emsense get on board. Until they show some transparency there will always be trust issues in the field.

  5. Rich and Co. says

    The hold-out firms will never participate — so give up on that dream.

    What the industry, and the ARF to some degree, are pretending is that it is a matter of “headgear” — it’s not. The basic science and theory building hasn’t even begun. That work takes decades.

    Look, many more people buy magic copper bracelets than go to the doctor for say heart disease symptoms (were guessing). If people can sell something, what is the motivation to address difficult questions?

    People are buying “neuromarketing” — that’s all the “proof” and evidence most people need, Not the ARF, but, in all frankness — their report is pretty unimportant.

    Look at the vast numbers of people that believe in “The Secret” and mind over matter. Selling (false?) hope is always a great money maker.

  6. Duncan Smith says

    Rich,when you say ‘The basic science and theory building hasn’t even begun’ – you’re wrong. Neuromarketing has developed form decades of peer reviewed academic research. With all respect – from your comment you probably don’t know what we do and why we do it. If you are to win a debate on this blog – as a scientist you need to give evidence. Neuromarketing doesn’t sell ‘hope’ it adds a few easy to understand metrics to the mix and is used to help inform what aspects of a campaign draw attention and elicit emotional reactions. We don’t just make it up. Some may oversell, granted and some clients like the PR but this is not the big picture or a true reflection of the real benefits of incorporating neurometrics into a campaign. Please don’t lump all of us together with the phrenologists!

  7. Rich and Co. says

    Sorry, we have had this discussion on the Linked In neuromarketing group — the science of cognitive neuroscience and behavior is still very primitive. Neuromarketing isn’t even a footnote yet in that credible area of science.

    There is no evidence:
    – That neuromarketing indicators can even be called “metrics”
    – The indicators can be tied back to anything having to do with behavior or even neural processing because there is no neuromarketing theory let alone testing of theory needed to make such claims.

    What we have is a bunch of jury-rigged, “home-made” technology (somewhat) adopted from cognitive science. That’s fine — experimenting has to start somewhere. But to claim any significance or tie in to any behavior, let alone buying behavior — is simply untrue.

    However, if someone is selling neuromarketing, defensive responses are expected. Don’t quit your day job.

  8. Duncan Smith says

    Whilst I am in agreement that the science is just beginning I would like to make just a couple of points. Not every vendor is investing time and money in developing fancy headgear, and many of us use products that are in widespread use within academia. Secondly, the point about indicators not being tied to behaviour is a little naive, given some current approaches. Many academic and private institutions are developing measures (I will refrain from using the roughly equivalent term metrics) based upon the exact notion of predicting behaviour. Let me explain. If you can induce two distinct patterns of behaviour in a participant and then monitor the physiological differences elicited, you can in the right circumstances take this knowledge of the physiological response to predict behaviour. In our work all participants must complete a series of psycho-behavioural tasks prior to even beginning a study so that we can in essence “learn” to predict their behaviour.

    I hope that this helps clarify some fundamental approaches to the field.

  9. Rich and Co. says

    If we want to sell something (right now) we will take whatever short-term and expedient explanation (story) and sales pitch that works — we will tell people what they want to hear. That’s how it goes. That’s capitalism and how business works.

    In fact, you can’t usually do any business unless you tell clients what they already know and want to hear. So people selling neuromarketing will always portray the “glass as half full” and clients want to buy it anyway — no one is forcing neuromarketing on any clients. Fair enough.

    In terms of disclosure — we are marketers not sales people — so take a longer term prospect development as opposed to deal closing perspective.

    So whatever technologies, references to science or studies/”evidence” will be cited to support giving clients what they want to pay for.

    Among us professionals, we need to accept that the glass is both half-full and half-empty. It is not the sales person’s job to communicate the half-empty part. It is however, the role of the professional community.

    We further propose that if we all want a solid and practically valuable neuromarketing profession — which pretty much everyone wants — we are best to focus our brain power — not just on the immediate tactical problem of paying our bills (very important) — but also building a very solid, evidence-based body of knowledge and practice.

    As we have said that is likely:
    – Long hard work
    – No one will pay us to do so
    – In fact, it will be resisted

    We think it is vital for all neuromarketing practitioners and firms to thrive. Well no the “bad guys.” We have even started a Linked In group to support this:

    Neuromarketing Expert Discussion Group – Conflict-Free — Join us here:

    But asking hard-questions, critical thinking and arguments are some of our best tools to assure the growth and respect of the industry. It is actually dangerous no to do so.

    The sales part will take care of itself – as long as clients demand and are willing to pay for what they want. But let’s also be very tough minded and demand the best evidence, professional standards and practices. Shall we?

  10. Annie Pettit says

    We need to remember that no matter the method, 100% perfect predictions will never be possible. We need to remember that there are limitations and measurement error around every method. As long as these are expressed carefully in the research results, researchers should be free to hypothesize and generalize and push our industry forward. Backward boring thinking will get us nowhere.

  11. Duncan Smith says

    Annie, I love your way of thinking. Leave the dinosaurs for the archeologists.

  12. Rich and Co. says

    That’s silly platitudes. We are a long way from even 20% predictions. “Backward boring thinking” is the reason we can fly in planes, construct bridges, have successful surgery and drug treatment, etc.

    Kicky and new is likely just a temporary media/pop fad. Without solid evidence — who cares and who wants to pay for it?

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