David Penn

First published in Research World January/February 2011

I’ve been thinking and speaking quite a lot this year about neuroscience and its younger cousin, neuromarketing. It’s clear to me that, while the technology of neuroscience has made big strides in the last few years, two big unanswered questions remain: firstly, how reliable are the metrics it generates? Particularly in comparison with their conventional market research counterparts and, secondly, just how objective is neuromarketing?

Flatteringly, I seem to have been dubbed an ‘expert’ on these matters; in fact, my recent session at the ESOMAR Congress was called ‘Ask the Expert’ – an accolade I’m happy to accept, even though I don’t run a neuromarketing company, have an fMRI scanner, EEG equipment, or even an eye-tracker. So, why then do I feel qualified to speak on the subject? Because neuromarketing is not, in my view, synonymous with neuroscience – neuroscience gives us plenty of clues about how to do market research better, without ever having to connect an electrode to someone’s scalp, put them through an fMRI scanner, or ask them to don a nifty electronic vest that records their bodily responses.

In fact, I detected some healthy scepticism in Athens (and elsewhere) about the benefits of using such invasive techniques and an equally healthy interest in the alternatives. Why?

There’s still a dearth of really convincing case studies which prove the reliability of neuromarketing. Neurofocus’ boss, AK Pradeep’s recent book , The Buying Brain, provides some seductive rationales for the use of EEG (and other neuromarketing techniques) , but surprisingly few killer examples. Martin Lindstrom’s Buy.Ology has some nice case studies (many generated by his own experimental programme) but is often maddeningly vague on the details. In fact, if Lindstrom’s work is as groundbreaking as he says, it surely merits a proper scientific write-up in a learned journal. He suggests (among other things) that his experiments prove that warnings on cigarette packs actually encourage smoking (by activating reward centres in the brain) and, even more controversially, that the same parts of the brain light up when religious zealots (such as nuns) view sacred images as when brand loyalists view their favourite brand.

Despite some great advances made in the practical applications of neuromarketing techniques to market research (particularly EEG) since I first started writing about it 6 years ago, practitioners eem, if anything, more cautions now than they were in 2004. The prevailing wisdom can be roughly summarized as:

  1. This is really, really interesting.
  2. Use with caution
  3. And … always use in conjunction with conventional research

It’s the last of these that puzzles me. I’ve yet to hear a neuromarketer confidently advocate the use of his methods as a stand-alone – which is rather ironic given that the whole point of neuromarketing – initially, at least – was that it was an alternative to conventional research. Wasn’t it meant to blow away all that silly post rationalised nonsense (both quant and qual) that masquerades as consumer insight?

This brings me to the second big issue: objectivity. The world of marketing and advertising is full of competing theories about how consumers make decisions and process information. Surely a neuroscientific approach help us to settle once and for all some of the thorny issues – particularly in areas such as advertising research in which so many competing theories have currency. After all, science only gives us one answer – or does it?

A few years ago, I became concerned about the efficacy of many of the recall – based metrics commonly used in an advertising evaluation. I wrote a series of articles in which I argued (from neuroscientific principles) that advertising which relies mainly on emotional content should be capable of creating brand engagement without people necessarily having conscious recall of the advert itself. These conclusions (based on an extensive analysis of ads tracked and tested by my agency, Conquest) were inspired by some aspects of Robert Heath’s theory of Low Attention Processing (LAP), which argued that emotive advertising can be processed independently of (visual) attention.

The counterblast to this view came (perhaps predictably) from Millward Brown’s Erik Du Plessis, who in his 2005 book, The Advertised Mind, argued that we naturally seek out the positive – the pleasurable – rather than things which make us anxious or unhappy. Hence we pay attention to ads we like, and what we pay attention to we remember. So, why, he asks, should emotive advertising be processed at a low level of attention?

Now, surely this is just the sort of debate that should be settled definitively by neuromarketing. After all, Du Plessis’ view is similar to the controversial ‘appraisal’ theory of emotion (widely accepted prior to the neuroscientific revolution), which asserted that attention comes before emotional response – not than the reverse, as neuroscientists like Le Doux and Damasio have suggested. Shouldn’t we be able to settle an argument like this with the help of fMRI, EEG or perhaps biometrics?

The eye of the beholder?
A recent neuromarketing study by Thinkbox in the UK provides strong support for the neuroscientific view that engagement and attention can work independently of each other. Based on evidence from both fMRI and EEG, it concludes that retention of TV advertising in long term memory depends mainly on engagement and emotional content, not on the visual attention which the ad receives.

Yet the model of marketing communication proposed in Pradeep’s recent book takes almost the opposite view. Based mainly on evidence from EEG studies, he asserts that “attention is the starting point of all marketing” because, without attention, nothing much else (including emotional engagement) is possible. In other words, he strongly suggests that advertising cannot achieve emotional engagement without first securing visual attention.

What all this tells us, if nothing else, is that neuroscientists themselves do not always agree on the meaning and significance of what they see happening in the brain, and that the output from all the main neuromarketing techniques (fMRI, EEG, biometrics) can be interpreted in many different ways.

Pradeep makes the surprising admission that Neurofocus, discards much of the EEG data it collects. Which prompts one to ask: on what basis do they decide that a brain reading is unusable, and who makes that decision? Clearly neuromarketing still requires a human brain – one which expertly sifts, weighs and interprets the evidence, certainly – but one which does what all human brains do: makes subjective judgements.

So neuromarketing does not necessarily provide an objective substitute for conventional research – simply because the outputs from scanners and EEG monitors do not, of themselves, give us a single objective answer. What they provide is a set of neural correlates – with behaviour or attitudes – which can be interpreted according to the views, beliefs (and prejudices) of the neuromarketer who reads them. And what does that remind you of? Why, the good old fashioned research (quant and qual) which neuromarketing was supposed to replace! Which is why neuromarketing remains, in 2011, a complement to – rather than a substitute for – conventional methods, and why clients approach it with interest, but also a lot of caution.

David Penn is managing director at Conquest in the UK. David is also part of the team hosting the seminar on Neuroscience for the ESOMAR Summer Academy here in Amsterdam. If you wish to attend more information can be found on the ESOMAR event pages.