For many, the term ‘NEURO MARKETING’ will conjure up images of wicked scientists controlling the minds of consumers, coercing them into making purchases they neither want nor need. For others, neuromarketing represents an exciting opportunity to tap into the collective public mindset and develop products that cater for specific needs. But what is neuromarketing and does it have the potential to affect how marketing is conducted in the future?
Neuromarketing refers broadly to the usage of data from neuroscientific research, principally that which has been obtained from brain scanners such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) units, in order to obtain information about the consumer response to either a product or a method of marketing that product.
How does it work?
There are certain areas of your brain that are associated with certain feelings, for example, activity in the nucleus accumbens (NAc) is associated with a feeling of reward. Knowing this, neuromarketers place people in fMRI scanners, present them with products or advertisements and then assess whether these regions or other regions of interest become more or less active. If then, for example, the NAc becomes more active, this can be used as evidence that the product is ‘more rewarding’.
Let’s be honest, companies are not interested in the brain. They are interested in maximising profits, whether this is by reducing the cost of marketing or increasing the money-making potential of their particular product. From this point of view, it is not always clear if the process of neuromarketing will add or decrease value.
“neuromarketers… reading your mind…”
When compared with traditional marketing techniques such as market surveys and focus groups, neuromarketing is very expensive, costing as much as £1000 per hour in an academic setting and even more commercially. Companies therefore must be confident that the money they will lose by using the neuromarketing approach is going to be recovered by enhancements made to their product as a result. This means that the information gathered from neuromarketing must be of greater value than that obtained from other marketing techniques. In other words, neuromarketers must be sure that ‘reading your mind’ will give more accurate information than simply asking you your opinion, an assumption that will not always be true.
However, neuromarketers can gain important contextual information that subjects may find it hard to convey such as the complexities of taste or odour. Furthermore, people are not always good at giving an accurate representation of what they are feeling if they are not offered some sort of incentive, such as money, for it being correct. Performing an fMRI potentially circumvents this problem by going directly to the source of the thought; cutting out the middle man.
When is neuromarketing being used?
Neuromarketing isn’t exactly prevalent, largely because of the high cost and poor understanding assoicated with it. At present, companies often use it to assess the impact of a particular advertising campaign on the attractiveness of a product. These sorts of studies are ideal for neuromarketing as it is easy to present subjects sitting in a largely inaccessible fMRI machine with advertisements that are visual in nature.
Consumption items (particularly drinks) have also been administered whilst subjects are in fMRI scanners to more fully ascertain the complex effect of that food or beverage. For example, a group were given two identical wines that they thought were different and had different prices ($90 compared with $5 per bottle.) People reported enjoying the expensive bottle more and this correlated well with the activity of a region of the brain known as the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) (Plassmann et al., 2008.) In fact, the OFC is often associated with the perception of pleasantness and, in contrast, the insula seems to be associated with aversive feelings or ‘disgust’.
“the greatest potential for savings come from using neuromarketing at the product development stage.”
It is becoming clear though that the greatest potential for savings come from using neuromarketing at the product development stage. This allows fine adjustments to be made to a product before the costly process of manufacturing and marketing has even began to take place, thereby fine-tuning the product for its eventual release. However, as the field of neuromarketing is in its infancy, there is yet to be a consensus about precisely how or when it should be used.
How might neuromarketing be used in the future?
The possible uses of neuromarketing are numerous. For example, one promising use might be in the field of architecture. It is possible to show people very accurate virtual representations of blueprints to try to assess which aspects of a proposed building elicit positive or negative responses, and adjust them accordingly prior to construction.
Also, when subjects are presented with feature films, they have been shown to exhibit largely stereotypical brain activity in response to the various sections. Given the vast budgets that are already put into movie marketing, it seems feasible that production studios of the future will conduct screenings for people in brain scans to find out which bits of the film should be taken out of the final edit. Not exactly in the spirit of artistic license, but then those that have seen any ‘blockbuster’ will know that Hollywood abandoned the concept of art a long time ago.
What’s potentially good about neuromarketing?
First of all, regardless of your feelings on it, when used correctly, marketing ensures that products that we want end up on shelves whereas products we don’t, don’t. If neuromarketing is of more benefit to marketers than traditional techniques, there will be far more products that people like to see inside shop windows as opposed to things like the Microsoft KIN.
“corporate interest in how the brain works can mean but one thing: funding.”
Secondly (and more importantly to a neuroscientist), corporate interest in how the brain works can mean but one thing: FUNDING. Science is a notoriously precarious profession that involves constantly reinventing and re-branding your work to attract investment from mostly governmental sources. As the economic crisis sweeps around the globe, purse strings continue to tighten, pushing hardworking scientists ever closer to the breadline. Neuromarketing represents a field that can be used to gain invaluable information about how our brains work that will continue to be invested in heavily, assuming that it bears fruit for the contributors involved.
What might be bad about neuromarketing?
Well, to take the second point of the previous section, companies are not actually interested in how a brain works, they are interested in profit. This means that whilst they will be studying brain activity in response to various things, they are not necessarily concerned with what feelings they elicit, but rather if that activity is correlated with an increase in likelihood of purchase. This could result in a plethora of data about what brain regions are involved in the process of buying, but no significant contribution to how the mind actually works.
“designers of food products can refine them… until they have an item that is literally impossible to turn down”
Secondly, these techniques could be used to create a product that is simply irresistible to humans. This may seem unlikely, but as we begin to understand what makes up the faculties of taste and motivation to consume more completely, designers of food products can refine them and refine them until they have an item that is literally impossible to turn down. That said, these same tools could be used for good rather than evil, as health products could also be fine-tuned to make them more appealing to the masses.
So, what’s going to happen?
It is hard to say how much neuromarketing will be used in the future as it will depend entirely on how the research develops. It is unlikely to replace traditional marketing techniques entirely due to its low cost-effectiveness. However, it is very likely that it will be used in certain scenarios when the data obtained from market research is simply insufficient or at the early stages of product design.
In my opinion, neuromarketing should not be viewed as inherently pernicious, but rather a useful tool in the development of products and furthering our understanding of how the mind works. However, we should monitor the progression of the field very closely, as it does have the potential to manipulate people into buying things they don’t want or adopting beliefs that serve corporate or even political interests.
Then again, people said that about subliminal advertising…
References and further reading
Plassmann, H., O’Doherty, J., Shiv, B. & Rangel, A. Marketing actions can modulate neural representations of experienced pleasantness. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 105, 1050–1054 (2008).
Ariely, D. and Berns, G. S. Neuromarketing: the hope and hype of neuroimaging in business Nature Reviews Neuroscience 11, 284-292 (2010).