Neuromarketing at New Scientist


For a field that some pundits dismiss as pseudoscience, neuromarketing scored a coup when New Scientist had Neurofocus optimize their cover design, and then wrote about the process. To be sure, the well-regarded science mag was cautious in its commentary, but they were happy to claim to be the world’s first neuromarketing-influenced magazine cover.

For our experiment, we tested three alternative covers on 19 male subjects who sometimes buy New Scientist at the news-stand. They saw each cover for a total of 36 seconds, and each image was followed by a series of written words to test whether the covers had primed them to the concepts “eye-catching”, “intriguing” and “must-buy”.

Once the testing was complete, NeuroFocus ran the data through what Smith calls its “secret sauce analysis” to produce an overall score of their neurological effectiveness. The average score for target material put through this analysis is 5 out of 10. All our covers did better than that but the winner did particularly well, with a score of 8.2. NeuroFocus recommended we use it. So we did. [From New ScientistMind-reading marketers have ways of making you buy by Graham Lawton and Clare Wilson.]

The New Scientist article provides some nice background on neuromarketing and the differences between fMRI and EEG as used for neuromarketing.

That the selected cover (center image) proved to be more engaging doesn’t seem all that shocking. The other two covers have the same text, “Shattering Spacetime,” compared to the rather apocalyptic “End of Spacetime” on the winner. The alarming tone in the latter cover is enhanced by the subhead, “Has the fabric of the universe unraveled?” While logic would tell us that the universe didn’t self-destruct when we weren’t looking, the idea of such a disaster is no doubt more interesting to the threat-monitoring firmware in our brain.

While the New Scientist article promises that a future post will let us know how well the selected cover sells, the data won’t be particularly meaningful without a control group. If only the scientifically-minded folks at the magazine had held out for a split-run test that included a “losing” cover design, we’d have a great case study to report on in a month or two.

  1. Matt Fox says

    Roger, that’s funny. They went through all the science to determine the best option but didn’t use the only scientific method to test the result. Too bad. I would have loved to see a split test result on this.

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Yep, of all publications, you would think that New Scientist would strive for something more meaningful than, “We’ll let you know if we sell a whole bunch of copies!” Still, it’s kind of neat that they tried neuromarketing at all.


  2. Brendon Clark says

    True true, you’re both right. I agree with your response to Matt, it’s good that they tried. I wonder if some of this, applied to standard print, would significantly change what gets produced. I’m thinking particularly of DM pieces, which led me to wonder also about customised and personalised print. Any experts out there got an opinion?

    Does the same science that might dictate how we organise a web page apply also to a cover? Does the same science for a cover also apply to additional pages. Are we looking at a page building template for web and print that will maximise uptake and action?

    Love to read some thoughts, thanks.

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Brendon, I’m sure that catalog covers can be evaluated with neuromarketing techniques. The good part is that closing the loop – i.e., doing the brain/biometric work and then evaluating the performance of different designs for real customers – is very straightforward.

      I used to be in the catalog biz, and we often compared the performance of different cover designs. It was very simple to randomly distribute 50,000 copies of an alternate cover in a mailing of 500K pieces, and then compare sales performance.


  3. Graham Lawton, New Scientist says

    Good points. We considered doing a split cover run but the cost and logistics are a nightmare. To get any useful data you have to get sales figures broken down by region, which we can’t do with our existing system.

    We do have a control, of sorts – we have an estimate of what we would expect this cover to sell at this time of year.

    1. Roger Dooley says

      I’m sure the logistics of newsstand distribution make split runs difficult, Graham. Here’s a thought: it’s common in both web and print ads to feature a cover from a recent issue. I’m sure testing the cover designs in that manner would be far more straightforward and the results would still tell us something.

      Thanks for stopping by, and be sure to tell us how actual sales compare to your baseline estimate.

      Oh, and I haven’t read the actual issue yet – is it OK to buy green bananas, or is the space-time continuum likely to rip apart in the next few days? 🙂


  4. Ron Wright says

    Hi Brendon and Roger –

    Over at Sands Research (a competitor to NF), we have several clients on the print and logo side. Unfortunately we cannot disclose some very interesting results for a major national publication (both cover and internal pages). We ran EEG and Eye-tracking plus utilized a mobile system for recording data when a participant sorted their mail. Brendon I am sure your DM folks would be interested in such a study of the brain’s response in mail sorting!

    One of our first neuromarketing studies we performed was working with Sam’s Club on selecting their new sustainability “green” logo which is used throughout their 600 stores. Choosing from ten different designs, the results are analyzed using multi-dimensional scaling and a briefing on the study can be found on our website:'s_Case_Study.aspx

    Directly related, we are seeing a substantial increase in using neuromarketing services for testing product packaging also. Again all are EEG and Eye-tracking combined studies.

    The field continues to expand into many new areas.

    Ron Wright
    President / CEO
    Sands Research Inc.

  5. Brendon Clark says

    Ok, this is good, thanks. Roger, a good mechanism. I’m working with smaller numbers (this is New Zealand after all!) but the model still applies.

    Ron, thanks. I’ve checked out your link and will spend a nit more time there yet.

    Where I’d really like to get to is a direction on an interesting debate going on. We produce a fully customised and personalised magazine, so you, your name and information we know about you is presented throughout, in articles, adverts, etc. One advertiser even researched lowest temperatures all around the country so they could personalise their ad for heating. We print on the fly, dropping in new data as we print.

    Now, how to get the best take up per page. Personalisation is great. But then… neuroscience vs standard design intelligence vs aesthetics…


    1. Roger Dooley says

      Personalization is powerful, Brendon. While I haven’t seen any brain scan studies of reactions to personalized content vs. generic, I’m pretty sure there would be a higher level of activation and engagement. And my own direct marketing experience certainly bears out the idea that personalization boosts response.

      As far as weighing neuro-studies vs. tried-and-true design techniques, I don’t think there’s a conflict at all. While there’s occasionally a surprise (e.g., the yogurt study), nine times out of ten neuromarketing will simply confirm what we already know from years of experience and split run testing.


  6. AJ says

    MB has a case study on Neuroscience and DM from a project we did with Royal Mail a while back. You can find it here:

    We didn’t really look at personalisation, but rather the differing impact of physical versus virtual media.

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Thanks for the link, AJ. I wrote about that study here: Paper Beats Digital for Emotion.


  7. Marianthi Rontiri says

    Dear Mr Dooley,

    Where could one possibly find the detailed results of this survey? I would like to know the exact scores in each metric (attention, emotion, retention, purchase intention, novelty and awareness) for each cover page.

    Thank you in advance,

    Marianthi Rontiri
    MSc Marketing, University of Bath

    1. Roger Dooley says

      I don’t know if that info has been released, Marianthi, but you might try contacting Graham Lawton at New Scientist. Good luck!


  8. dng1985 says

    I just saw this but here is a thought: has it not occured to anyone to take these 3 covers to the test using conventional marketing methods?

    Is it really worth all the “voodoo” neuro-stuff? Or could someone have told you that say the center cover is the best for a lot less money with conventional methods?

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