What’s Up With Neuromarketing?

As a student of neuropsychology, I spend part of my time keeping up with the current literature on research and practice. It’s a daunting task, to be sure, and one can’t possibly stay abreast of it all. Such is the way. Most of what I read in professional journals will never make it to the general public. There are several reasons for this, but they mainly have to do with the fact that most publications and original projects deal with incremental changes in a particular field, rather than redefining their field’s paradigm(s). This is a grand public misperception and one that I won’t even attempt to address here.

Occasionally, though, there are “big breakthroughs” in a particular field. If you were to ask the lead researchers on one of these, they would tell you every time that this “breakthrough” was in fact an indirect product of years of research, some of it failed, that was conducted by many other individuals in their field. Science is cumulative and sequential (mostly), so generally when paradigm shifts occur it’s because there is an overwhelming amount of supporting scientific evidence.

I’ve been seeing some news lately about a new field known as “Neuromarketing”. The basic premise is this: large companies have been hiring neuromarketing specialists to improve sales by using findings from imaging or EEG “studies”. The neuromarketers are touting the ability to use these results to streamline ad campaigns for product lines. This is based on showing people ads or products, and whenever an area of the brain really lights up the fMRI (or whatever technology they’re employing) it means they’re on the right track! Putting aside the fact that our brains didn’t evolve to prefer one brand’s product over another, and that brain functions don’t localize so neatly (especially not for what neuromarketers are claiming), there is no scientific evidence to support their claims.

It is also important to understand that something like an fMRI (Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) isn’t just laying around waiting to be used. Getting research time on these machines is difficult, and it comes at a financial and temporal cost to researchers. I think this is what I really take issue with. Large companies are able to pony up the cash to buy time for what may very well be bogus marketing “research”. Medical researchers, on the other hand, are stuck writing grants, hoping for the time and money necessary to do work that might advance our understanding of the human nervous system.

Counterpoint

There actually is somewhat of a basis for neuromarketing – at least the theoretical part. It’s essentially applied social psychology with a neurological bent to it. Social psychologists have been studying the cognitive and social bases of behavior as they relate to decision making since the inception the field. As such, investigating the neural substrates involved in these processes could lead to some cool outcome data. For neuromarketers to announce “we’ve arrived!”, though, is more than a little premature. These guys are knee deep in neuromarketing, and have an impressive list of accomplishments and publications to boot. The articles are what I would expect to see in neurology, neurophysiology or neuropsychological journals, and are no doubt in line with their graduate training. None of them have doctorates in, or with specialties in, neuromarketing. In fact, there isn’t a doctoral level training program for neuromarketing that I could find, except for the one in the screenshot below.

Searching for a Doctorate in Neuromarketing

Deciding to dig deeper, I conducted a PsycInfo search of all articles with the word “Neuromarketing” in the title. This search generated a grand total of TEN articles from peer reviewed journals. Of these ten, only one was an original scientific study1, and was only loosely related to neuromarketing. As a contrasting reference, a PsycInfo search with “Neuroimaging” in the title yielded 1,924 results, 1,332 of which were from peer reviewed journals. A Google Scholar search for “Neuromarketing” in the title, excluding citations, will yield a total of 24 results. A standard Google search will get you about what you’d figure – several hundred thousand hits. The top hits will come from people that are, not surprisingly, trying to sell you on the effectiveness of Neuromarketing.

At this point, it should be fairly clear to you where science is and is not focusing its efforts.

So, what do you think? Maybe I am missing something here. As a scientist, I do have to concede that without empirical data one way or the other, neuromarketers could be right. The qualifier here is that my authority comes from an understanding of the scientific method, which is telling me that these guys are skating on thin ice at best.


  1. Gakhal, B.; Senior, C. (2008). Examining the influence of fame in the presence of beauty: An electrodermal ‘neuromarketing’ study. Journal of Consumer Behaviour. 7 (4-5), 331-341.
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