Anna Peters 

Neuromarketing isn’t a discipline that I’ve ever had a chance to work with. But a recent lunchtime chinwag on the application of brain studies to market research resulted in a lively debate. And if something can cause that much shouting around a lunch table, it must be worth investigating further… 

Opponents of neuromarketing, Russ Wilson & Skaiste Trumpickaite argued that:
Neuromarketing is just not that useful because, right now, we only understand the basics; we can use techniques to tell us if there is an emotional response, but we don’t have the nuanced understanding to know if this is positive or negative.

Of course, combined with another form of research, neuromarketing helps to build a picture and a robust understanding of what is going on in consumer’s minds. But results from comparative studies between consumer reported emotions and neuromarketing studies are so similar we have to question what additional data is it bringing, and if it is worth the huge costs associated with brain-scanning equipment.

And it’s these prohibitive costs which have meant that base sizes remain low. So even if neuroscience did give us new insight, then could we truly trust it? The issue of trust issue is further brought to life by a few fishy studies that show that a dead salmon produced similar brain patterns to a human.

But if the opponents are right, and if neuromarketing is bonkers, then why has Nielsen just bought Neurofocus? Why has DDB appointed an academic as a resident scientist to apply neuroscientific theory and psychological testing to enhance client ad campaigns? And why are the likes of Intel, PayPal, Pepsico, Google, HP, Citi, and Microsoft are spending millions?

Proponents of Neuromarketing, Anna Corden & Anna Peters argued that:

  • It has a strong academic heritage.  Neuromarketing may have only been about for the last ten years, but neuroscience has a rich academic history and it has helped make a difference to lives, and ‘proper’ scientists are being acknowledged for their contributions in this area. If the discipline is so rooted in ‘proper’ science, then how can it be of limited interest to us as market researchers?
  • The ethics are no more a worry than with any other research technique.  The ethics of neuroscience are brought into question: what right do marketeers have to peer inside our brains? Perhaps my stance on this is a little too Bill Hicks, but I don’t think any marketer has the right to a consumers inner world without permission. More importantly, I don’t think this is a concern limited to neuromarketing: any research method that happens without informed consent is invasive and taking advantage of the consumer.
  • It’s not as invasive as you might have thought. Brain machines and clunky scanners were brought to mind during our lunchtime debate – but technology is advancing so quickly that in just a few years’ time we won’t be limited to EEG machines. An example of this is the way that your iPhone can now collect biometric data, and who’s to say that the in the future neuroscientific interventions won’t be just as discrete.
  • It’s part of a wider cultural conversation.  Just last weekend the Barbican, London, hosted a ‘brain weekender’ – a public discourse that centred on the brain, consciousness and making sense of it all. And since neuromarketing is now a part of these wider cultural conversations, market researchers owe it to themselves to be a part of this conversation too.


The debate rages on
The lunchtime tussle wasn’t a debate between experts; it was just a conversation between enthusiasts with an opinion. And whilst enthusiasts will never be the people to close the debate once and for all, they will be the ones to keep it going. So what’s my perspective on Neuroscience now that we’ve had the lunchtime debate? Well, I certainly appreciate that today there are challenges to the true value that neuromarketing can bring to brand owners. But I have to say, I am a little bit seduced by the potential of tomorrow…what brand-owner doesn’t want to know what consumers really want? And ultimately, who doesn’t want greater self-insight?