Buyology by Martin Lindstrom


Buyology: Truth and Lies About Why We Buy

Buyology by Martin Lindstrom is a compulsively readable (at least for marketers) account of a research project that spanned three years and cost $7 million. Lindstrom’s team used both fMRI and EEG technologies to study what was really going on in the brains of consumers as they watched commercials, thought about brands, and much more. This body of research is surely the biggest compilation of neuromarketing data ever, and the results are always fascinating and sometimes surprising. Here are just a few examples of what the Buyology researchers found:

Cigarette Health Warnings Stimulate Smoking. While it’s accepted wisdom that printing health warnings on tobacco product packages doesn’t have much of an impact on smoking behavior, the researchers found that the warnings had no effect at all on the cravings of smokers. This applied not only to the rather subtle messages on US packaging, but even packages that included bold text and gruesome disease photos. None, zero, nada. Even worse, they found that the health warnings stimulated the subjects’ nucleus accumbens, an area associated with cravings! The researchers concluded that the warnings not only didn’t help, but triggered a stronger craving. The very warnings intended to reduce smoking might well be an effective marketing tool for Big Tobacco!

Product Placements Almost Never Work. With TV commercial viewing under pressure from TiVO/DVR fast-forwarding, greater viewing of commercial-free DVDs, etc., advertisers are turning to placing their products inside the content of television shows and movies. With this approach, even if viewers avoid watching any 30-second spots, they can still see the stars of the show typing on an Apple Computer, drinking a Pepsi, and so on. Sounds great, but Lindstrom’s research showed that almost all product placements are ineffective. Using EEG testing, they found that typical product placements caused no increase in brand recall. The only product placements that DID produce such effects were those which were heavily integrated into the content and actually made sense in their context. For example, people tended to remember the Aston Martin brand in Daniel Craig’s first James Bond movie, Casino Royale, (perhaps aided by the brand’s association with the series dating back to Sean Connery), but not FedEx or Louis Vuitton whose placements weren’t central to the plot or even related to the on-screen action in any significant way.

Strong Brands are like Religion. When the research team compared consumers’ brain activity while viewing images involving brands, religion, and sports figures, the activity evoked by strong brands was much like that caused by religious images.

Brain Activity Accurately Predicted TV Failure. Using EEG technology, the researchers measured the brain activity of subjects while screening three new television shows: The Swan, How Clean Is Your House, and Quizmania. Of the shows, How Clean Is Your House was found to be most engaging, and The Swan the least. When the shows actually aired in the UK, the ratings the shows developed mirrored the predictions of the researchers. Lindstrom predicts that this kind of successful application of neuromarketing will reduce the number of product introductions that fail, and prove to be a more reliable tool than traditional market research techniques like surveys and focus groups.

The various chapters of Buyology are fleshed out with plenty of data from other research, some of which I’ve covered here in Neuromarketing. Lindstrom integrates the older data with his newly released information in an effective and engaging way. Lindstrom’s voice is clear, and his enthusiasm genuine.

What else could one ask for? I hope the research Lindstrom’s team conducted is also published in a way that opens it up for scholarly review. If there is a problem with neuromarketing today, it’s that there is little or no academic research that validates the ability of brain scans, be they EEG or fMRI, to predict results in the marketplace. The volume of data collected in this study would make it a great starting point for academic critique.

Overall, Buyology is a must-read for marketers. Neuromarketing devotees will appreciate the vast amount of new data, while those new to the field will find the book an excellent primer. Buyology begins shipping on October 21, 2008.

  1. Alex Davis says

    In addition to changing the way marketing research is performed and improving accuracy, Buyology some important ideas that will be valuable to employ inside the retail environment.

  2. Vanessa Holmes says

    I would agree that Buyology contains some fascinating insights; however, I also agree that the data would be more useful if the research methodology and findings were published in a way that opened them up to more rigorous scholarly review.

    As the book reads now, Buyology seems to include numerous necessary but insufficient conditions. For example, before measuring neural activity in the brains of smokers (in response to cigarette logos, cigarette packs and subliminal imagery) smokers were required (as a necessary test condition) to abstain from smoking for two hours prior to the test. Respondents involved in tests to gauge brain activity in relation to anti smoking warning labels, were required not to smoke for a total of four hours (although it is unclear at what point this timeframe kicked in).

    In this light, one question that seems to emerge from these conditions is the possible impact on research findings, brought about by the extent to which test subjects may have experienced abstinence based cravings during test time. Moreover, it is commonly understood that cigarette cravings become intensified when smokers are faced with stressful situations (McLernon & Gilbert, 2005; Erblich et al., 2005). On that basis, Lindstrom’s own comparison of an MRI test experience to feeling “as if you are being buried alive in a phone booth” seems well worth noting. Additionally, when referring to test respondent “Marlene” Lindstrom observes that even before the FMRI scan, whilst engaging in the written questionnaire, Marlene was “twirling her pen around in her fingers as though she was about to ignite the thing”. This strongly suggests that cravings in Marlene’s brain may have been active even before the FMRI test had begun.

    Following a similar line of thought, perhaps it would also be worth questioning possible affects of the sequence in which the tests were carried out. For example, if subliminal images (thought to cause higher craving responses) were shown after the respondents viewed the branded images; would the affects of time lapsed and image sequencing not be as pertinent to the results as the potential affects induced by the branded and subliminal images themselves? This may be particularly relevant if smokers were not given the opportunity to reduce cravings by smoking in between tests. Indeed, research by Bovbjerg and Erblich (2006) suggests that abstinence-induced cravings to smoke are predicted by CBF increases (abstinence minus satiety) in the right OFC, right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, occipital cortex, ACC, ventral striatum/nucleus accumbens, thalamus, amygdala, bilateral hippocampus, left caudate, and right insula. This data suggests that increased activation in the brain’s visuospatial and reward circuitry underlies abstinence-induced cravings to smoke. Note that the nucleus accumbens, the same area that Lindstrom describes as showing a pronounced response in relation to cigarette warning labels, packs and subliminal imagery, is also activated by abstinence-induced cravings.

    In addition, the relationship between test images is not sufficiently clear. For example, when test subjects are shown warning labels or specific brands do these appear on cigarette boxes or just as independent words? One reason that this may be important is that the size and shape of a cigarette box, with or without branding, would probably have strong associative value for any smoker. After all, it is the box that is carried around on the person and opened and closed on a regular basis. I would argue that there is therefore strong possibility of ritualised behaviour around the box. This may also be relevant given the unique shape and dimensions of a cigarette box, which is more or less common across most brands. In this light, if warning labels and brands were shown to respondents on boxes, how can we even be sure if it was the box, the brand or the warning label that stimulated activity in the brain’s craving spot?

    Another point that seems worth addressing is the question of how test imagery benchmarked? Without a proper indication of benchmarking across tests, method seems reliant on a sort of inverted association testing. In this way Lindstrom may lay himself open to criticism for finding what he brings. On that basis, it seems interesting to note that none of the findings from this new body of research appear to challenge any of Lindstrom’s earlier held ideas. Rather, they appear mainly to substantiate the ideas he laid out in Brand Sense prior to conducting all this research. This of course stands in direct contradiction with the statement he makes on the books jacket cover “How everything we believe about what we buy is wrong”. I guess by “we” he must mean everyone except for Martin?

    Finally, there also seems to be insufficient explanation and consideration of the mind-brain-body relationship. For one thing, activating a craving is different to reflecting on it, which is again different to making a decision to act on it. Surely, if that were not the case, nobody would ever quit.

    In summary, I would say that although neuroscience may well have much to offer, I think we would do well not to toss the baby out with the bath water. Not “everything” we believe about why we buy is wrong, there are many valuable insights to be gained from other disciplines of study and there are also many other very talented branding practitioners, marketers and academics that are worth paying attention to. I have to admit – the omnipotent undertone of this book got under my nose!

  3. James says

    THEIR SECOND BIG SPONSOR – quote- : “Hakuhodo is already working on an advertising and marketing campaign for one big client, the American Tobacco Company. The agency is creating billboard ads and is setting up product distribution and a trade show for the company. ”

    well, say no more

    3) third sponsor Freemantle Media is owned by Bertelsmann AG which owns Random House / Doubleday which is promoting the Buyology book and expects it to be a best seller

    flawed , non peer reviewed and manipulated neuro science reports like this give the non ‘Whitecoat’ scientists a real headache.

  4. Vanessa says

    Hi Roger – I seem to remember seeing a section on Lindstrom where you tracked increased interest in neuromarketing in relation to marketing hype around Buyology. I am struggling to find that data now – could you possibly redirect me? Thanks 🙂

  5. admin says

    Hi, Vanessa, the post you are looking for is here: Bloggers and the Buyology Neuromarketing Bubble. Thanks for stopping by!


  6. Vanessa says

    Thanks! I think it’s great data because accademics often tend to forget the important role that practitioner literature plays in establishing interest in a field of study…

  7. clay says

    Neuromarketing for tabacco companies has increased due to the fact they are no longer allowed to advertise publicly at all. But now, since they are targeting our brains and triggering something deep inside our minds, is it even fair for smokers now? Before smoke ads were clear and present, now they lie hidden beneath other things and small clues hint our brains at cravings. I don’t know if this form of advertisment should be allowed.

  8. Thomas Z. Ramsøy says

    Dear all,

    The whole Lindstrøm idea is flawed. let me give you a few markers (I’ll put this at my blog as well):

    1) CLAIM:”Cigarette health warnings stimulate smoking?”
    This is based on the claims that the cigarette ads led to stronger activation of the nucleus accumbens (NAcc). This structure has been associated with reward and reward expectancy. Therefore, Lindstrøm suggests that the ads leads smokers to expect pleasure through smoking.

    This inference is a logical mistake that is often referred to as “reverse inference” (google it, but see here: Generally, as a neuroscientist, I also know that the NAcc is also involved in the response to fear, aversion and especially the prediction of something aversive. So rather than Lindstrøm’s suggestion, it may be that smokers actually experience DISPLEASURE when seeing the ads… Gives a different spin to that story, right?

    2) CLAIM:”the largest neuromarketing study…, scanning the brains of 2.000 subjects.”
    I should say that 1.900 of those were scanned using EEG and in particular SST (see next point). There are a few issues with this: for example, why do you need so many subjects for your effects? In general, a group of 20-30 people is often enough to give you good data. But if your effects are really small, you’ll have to boost your statistical power by e.g. including more subjects. I wouldn’t think much of effects that required that many subjects to show anything…

    3) SST, or Steady-State Topography is an innovative use of the EEG recording. It is, really. But it’s validity, and what it measures is really VERY limited to the scalp, and VERY limited to a few particular uses. One of it’s users, Richard Silberstein, who did the Lindstrøm recordings) actually has a nice approach, and has a sober and careful view of it’s uses (e.g. that it needs validation and development). So the method is really not useable to extract the gross and general findings that Lindstrøm tends to think he can.

    4) where is all this published??? If this is science, why have we not seen anything in scientific journals, let alone ANY peer-reviewed journals??? This is the very hallmark of the Lindstrømian approach: claim a lot, document nothing… Just showing a few flashy images won’t do. I can make them through virtually any fMRI or EEG analysis myself

    So people, use your logic and statistics, and ask the critical questions before jumping on the Lindstrøm bandwagon

    Best wishes,
    Thomas Z. Ramsøy, PhD

    Decision Neuroscience Research Group
    Copenhagen Business School

    Danish Research Centre for Magnetic Resonance
    Copenhagen University Hospital

  9. Robert Pauley says

    Dr. Ramsoy, It appears you have done some research on this. Do you know of or can you recommend some scholarly reading for marketing people like me? I’m currently learning about this at my university and would like to explore further.

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