Stirring the Neuromarketing Pot


The gloves are coming off in the debate about which neuromarketing technologies are most effective. The initial “neurostandards” report from the Advertising Research Foundation didn’t pick any winners from the different approaches to measuring consumer response; the draft report was as carefully worded as a negotiated United Nations resolution. But Dan Hill, president of Sensory Logic (an ARF participant) isn’t being as cautious in explaining why facial coding is more effective than brain scan and biometric approaches.

In a post at titled Neuromarketing not ready for the mainstream?, Hill talks about competing technologies:

EMG [bio feedback] provides an incomplete reading of brand building preference because it reads only two facial muscles and requires sensors.

…the reality is that these techniques promise more than they can really deliver. EEG [electrical activity on or just below the scalp] is merely a complex arousal measurement tool that can’t access the deeper parts of the brain where emotional reactions are centered. Second, in trying to read valence based on a left brain/right brain split assumes a fundamentally flawed approach/withdrawal model. That’s because anger, which is an approach but a negatively valenced emotion, cannot be identified using EEG or separated from happiness responses. Thus no accurate positive/negative reading can be taken.

Hill continues, characterizing fMRI as expensive, claustrophobic, and in general not ready for prime time. He writes off current fMRI use by saying,

The human brain is our personal 3.5-pound universe, and anybody who tells you that they know precisely what each part of the brain signals when it lights up through reading blood oxygen levels is either a liar or a fool.

While I’m not sure that some of the fascinating fMRI work being done in academic settings like Carnegie Mellon and Stanford can be dismissed that casually, I do hope that Hill’s outspoken commentary stimulates more public debate. Ideally, neuromarketing firms with case studies and data that can withstand scrutiny will be motivated to make some of this information public. If that happens, Hill will have served the nascent and still controversial neuromarketing industry well.

Hill is the author of About Face and Emotionomics, both of which deal with gauging customer emotions to improve marketing and products.

  1. Jennifer says

    I find this debate about tests needing to bear peer scrutiny to be curious. No other form of market research or marketing needs to answer to their competitors except through the acquisition of clients and ROI.

    While standards would be good for the neuromarketing consumer, isn’t ROI its own standard? And an effective one at that.

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Jennifer, I agree, ROI is the best metric of all. I’m not hung up at all on “standards,” and indeed, I’m not sure what kind of meaningful standards can be established.

      What I would like to see, though, is some published data validating these techniques. This isn’t answering to competitors so much as proving to potential clients that the money they are spending will get them something. Perhaps some neuromarketing firms do make such data available to clients on a confidential basis, but until others can see and analyze the data a whiff of pseudoscience will stick to the whole field of neuromarketing.


  2. Jennifer says

    Definitely agree, and my guess is that neuromarketing firms can make the data confidentially available to prospects, but my understanding is that it’s the clients, not the agencies, that are causing the witholding of information/data. Partly, I imagine, because they’re not comfortable yet letting consumers know they’re using the techniques, and partly because they want to keep their marketing secrets away from competitors.

  3. Alain Nonyme says

    Dan Hill disappoints me a lot with these disingenuous critics of neurosciences.

    Paul Ekman in “What the face reveals” (page 216, second edition) from which Dan Hill learned everything he knows about Facial Coding : “Currently we are using functional MRI to examine more precisely the brain activity that distinguishes [genuine] smiles from other smiling and other emotional expressions.”

  4. Rich and Co. says

    This is simple. If you sell your services and use the term “science” then you must deliver scientific techniques, methodologies based on tested theories — or you not telling the truth.

    The current gold standard for science is double-blind, peer-reviewed studies — and multiple ones.

    In addition, all science theories/claims must also be falsifiable. There must be the technical ability to prove them wrong.

    Now, will these facts and criteria stop anyone from selling and buying anything improperly called “scientific” — of course not. Look at the millions of people who buy magic bracelets or other infomercial stuff “scientifically proven.”

    We would further suggest that if, even basic, neuromarketing claims could be proven academic and universities would be all over it because of the funding potential and we would have a lot of evidence. Instead, we have none.

    Someday they may be true — but when. Years, decades, longer?

  5. Shaun says

    Hi Roger,
    I find it very perplexing that you are still calling for the validation of neuromarketing techniques when the proof exists on your very own website.
    (Silberstein, R.B., and Nield, G. N. Brain activity correlates of consumer brand choice shift associated with television advertising, Int. J. Advertising 2008: 27: 359-380).
    Another good example, can be found on the very first neuromarketing study: Coke v Pepsi (

    The techniques that neuromarketing companies use are well established, with EEG being around for the last 80 years and fMRI for at least 20 years. I find these calls to validate the efficacy of these techniques somewhat baffling when these same tools are not only have told us so much about how the brain functions, but also used to diagnose life threatening illnesses. But for whatever reason, when we apply these very same techniques to ‘marketing’, its ‘pseudo-science’ and we have to validate what we measure.

    If it is case studies you are looking for, I’m sure they can be found easily enough on some of the websites of these companies.

    I am currently completing a PhD in neuroscience and I have an interest in marketing and from where I stand the two can work well with each other.

    1. Roger Dooley says

      What’s really lacking, Shaun, is solid validation of the ability of neuromarketing tools to accurately predict buying behavior. By solid, I mean properly controlled experiments that would pass muster for publication in an academic journal. There actually aren’t many public case studies, and case studies rarely include proper controls. A good example is the New Scientist neuromarketing experiment. The neuro-optimized cover sold a surprisingly high number of newsstand copies, but the test wasn’t controlled in a way that proved the effectiveness of the technique.

      Note that I’m not saying I’m skeptical of the neuromarketing work being done by reputable companies. I’ve been following the industry since its earliest days and think it’s full of promise. Rather, I think the market as a whole will be more accepting of the neuromarketing premise when there’s a base of published research that validates the techniques.


  6. Rich and Co. says

    The promise of neuromarketing is great, the current reality is not — as it should be. We are 120% for neuromarketing but we don’t want it spoiled here in the early years by false promises and hype-masters.

    Remember, the promise of neuromarketing is that it will be far more reliable, predictive, object and scientific than any other form of marketing knowledge. That is a big promise but one that is possible.

    For example, genetic work in medicine promises to be far more effective and save more lives than other forms of medical science — but so far, it cannot.

    We campaign for some humility and modesty in neuromarketing claims. Those can be effective sales tactics as well. The “loudest voices” usually don’t know that much more than anyone else — often less.

  7. Alain Nonyme says

    Accordingly to Dan Hill’s article (‘infomercial’) the only way of truly knowing what consumers think of advertisements is to interpret their facial expressions… like he does. Anyone who pretends he can measure brain activity for marketing purposes is either delusional or a fraudster.

    Instead of winning me over his side, he convinced me that slanderous tactics employed to hurt competitors are tell tale signs of insecure, immature businesses on decline.

    Maybe he should revise his marketing tactics.

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