Buy Buttons and Neuro-Nudges


I have a love-hate relationship with the “buy button in the brain,” first popularized by my virtual friends Christophe Morin and Patrick Renvoise in their book, Neuromarketing: Understanding the Buy Buttons in Your Customer’s Brain. The “buy button” is a brilliant metaphor – it cuts through the jargon of neuroscience and business with admirable simplicity and tactile overtones. Our brains like metaphors and sensory imagery, and the buy button offers both.

The Dark Side of Simplicity

The buy button has two drawbacks as a metaphor for what neuromarketing can do. First, it’s derided as overly simplistic by neuroscientists. They note that human decision making is complex and often involves a delicate balancing act between various areas of the brain as well as both conscious and non-conscious factors. I’m sure even Morin, now a card-carrying neuroscientist himself, would agree that the metaphor sacrifices some neuroscientific accuracy in favor of simplicity.

The second problem with the buy button is that scares the bejesus of gullible consumerists who believe that marketers actually can create ads that turn consumers into drones incapable of making their own decisions. As ludicrous as this sounds, every few months a consumerist critic (or, as I prefer to say, a “neuro-alarmist”) trots out the buy button rhetoric as a call to action against corporate evil.

Enter the Neuro-Nudge

Not long ago, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein wrote Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness. That book, also highly recommended, focused on the power of decision architecture to influence behavior. Making a 401K retirement plan an opt-out decision instead of opt-in increases participation, for example – a highly desirable goal in a nation where defined benefit pension plans are all but gone.

I like the term “nudge” a lot, as it implies a gentle push but neither coercion nor certainty of outcome.

I’ve been using the term “neuro-nudge” in my more recent neuromarketing speaker gigs, and I feel it captures the essence of much of the advice you’ll find here at Neuromarketing and in my book Brainfluence. None of these techniques will overcome a terrible product or awful marketing. Rather, in conjunction with a solid product and well-executed marketing, they can provide a little push in the direction of turning a browser into a buyer or a prospect into a customer.

I also like the neuro-nudge metaphor because it applies to many situations – non-profit fundraising, for example, or management/leadership topics.

Got Metaphor?

What do you think about buy buttons and neuro-nudges? More importantly, do YOU have a good metaphor for what brain and behavior-based techniques can accomplish for marketers? Leave a comment with your thoughts!

  1. Ryan Seamons says

    I like to think of the power marketers as the basketball metaphor – finding a sweet spot when shooting. Although it doesn’t fully encompass the user interaction, I think that it’s important for an element of balance to exist in neuro-marketing. Try too hard as a marketer, and you’ll overshoot.

  2. Sylvain Desfossés says

    I prefer the term “Neuro-swing” that refer to Golf. Business people love this sport. Everybody know how it difficult to find the good swing.

    Note : I hate Golf ! 🙂

  3. Diana Lucaci says

    I see the traditional surveys and focus groups as the ‘film camera’ of market research. Brain and behaviour-based techniques provide better customer insights. So Neuromarketing is like the ‘digital camera’ of market research. I think it’s about time that we go digital, and get actionable Marketing insights directly from the brain.

    “Film Camera”
    1) People don’t say what they think. 2) Formulating questionnaires is very time consuming, and risky! 3) Traditional market research has become more about providing data, then insightful Marketing strategy.

    “Digital Camera”
    1) No need to ask any questions, hence the brain cannot lie. 2) No questionnaires needed. 3) Neural data combined with Marketing Strategy expertise results in actionable strategy recommendations.

    For a visual of this metaphor, check out slide 13 of this presentation: Neuromarketing Overview – Market research challenges (

  4. Milly says

    Small remark about the above mentioned “opt-out decision instead of opt-in increases participation” – might be, however many countries have deemed the procedure illegal. So marketeers not only must implement an “opt-in” technique, sometimes it Must be a “double opt-in” too …

    The opt-out technique must have been overused and tricked unaware customers into highly questionable deals already … 🙁 Maybe proof that “black sheep” are first movers – they discover, rely upon und unfortunatelly overuse neuromarketing ?

  5. Chester Butler says

    Roger, interesting tag “neuro-alarmists. I just reread Quirkology by Richard Wiseman. His history of the subliminal experiments in the 1950’s and the resulting public outcry underscores the dramatic reaction that can materialize. Wiseman would like your tag, I think.
    Of course, marketers and sales people can fool themselves into believing they have discovered the “silver bullet”. In my industry, my favorite example of a marketing and sales “silver bullet” is the concept of neurolinguistic programming. I remind my students that silvers bullets usually only kill werewolves and sales!
    My favorite metaphor? Brains are the pilots of human beings. They perform the take offs, the landings and handle in flight emergencies. But most of the day, the being is on auto pilot. My job as a marketer and salesman is to shake the pilot awake long enough to make them aware that there is a UFO outside their window… And it’s on sale at your local UFO dealership. Come on in and experience the thrill of flying your own luxury UFO. Take a free test flight, today. Once you flown a UFO, you’ll never go back to jets. Call me now for your free test flight. Zoom, zoom! …. Sorry, Roger, I went to auto pilot for a moment.

  6. Brendon B Clark says

    Thanks Roger – good read. I recently read this metaphor for The Teenage Brain: A V8 car with no steering wheel.

    Fits with my experience…

  7. Erik du Plessis says


    Here is the video I now show at conferences

    I always compare this with the MOST INFLUENTIAL BOOK ABOUT ADVERTISING: The Hidden Persuaders.

    This book caused subliminal advertising to be banned in most countries. No other book has achieved such an achievement. This despite the fact that the authors of the original experiment admitted that it was an hoax.

    I asked the ARF and they said that to this day the code of conduct for TV stations state that they will not broadcast a subliminal advertisement. The last complaint was in 1996 against a grundge band.

    Despite this we have books talking about the pre-ponderence of subliminal ads as if they happen all the time, rather than complaining to the authorities.

    Watch the video to see where claims about buy-buttons bought us. They had the FBI and the USA senate investigate universities trying to raise funds via fMRI scanning of people making decisions. The threat: stop all subsidies to the university.

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Thanks, Erik, that video is typical of the sort of simplistic neuro-alarmism one sees whenever the popular press talks about neuromarketing.

      On the other hand, I kind of like the “spellcaster” designation. I feel it needs some kind of a costume to go with it, maybe even a Harry Potter-style wand.


  8. Erik du Plessis says


  9. Chester Butler says

    Wow, interesting video, Eric. I really did not realize the fear was that focused. I mean, i knew it was there but not organized. Thanks for sharing the link.

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