Is Neuromarketing Dead?

Instead of relying on questionnaires and focus groups, isn’t it more reliable to use cold, hard data? And what better data than actual thought patterns of consumers?

The hype around neuromarketing has died down somewhat from its inception in the early 1990s, but neuromarketing itself still very much a part of the modern marketer’s toolkit. Brain scans, facial coding, and biometrics offer insights on consumers that are not available from other data sources. Fortune 500 companies (such as Forbes and Nielsen) have acquired neuromarketing firms for in-house neuromarketing divisions; there are a plethora of independent consulting firms offering the latest technologies available to marketers on a consulting basis. They promise to deliver unravel the consumer mind using biometric technologies backed by brilliant scientists.

The attraction of neuromarketing lies in its physical basis. Data gathered by carefully calibrated scientific instruments doesn’t lie. No longer do marketers have to rely on self-reported preferences and experiences of consumers and focus groups—hard data gathered on brain activity isn’t subject to uncertainty or dishonesty. It has a similar appeal to ‘big data’ as a source of insight into consumer behavior. Even honest consumers can’t always explain themselves.

This view of customers fundamentally changes the way we frame advertising in general and marketing techniques in particular. Viewing the ‘consumer’ as a biological entity with preferences influenced by emotions allows for unique insights. Marketers who can precisely define the goals of an ad campaign can use neuromarketing tools to uncover how consumers react to products. A prominent snack-food company based a packaging-switch around neuromarketing data after finding feelings of guilt and regret evoked by their shiny yellow bags.

None of this would be possible without recent developments in biometric technology. Neuromarketing techniques can be separated into two broad categories, neural imaging and physiological measurement. Imaging technologies such as fMRI, EEG, and SST measure brain activity with varying sensitivity; heart rate, facial expressions and eye-tracking can all be monitored using an array of sensors.

Currently, neuromarketing studies are limited to measuring consumer response to advertising or products. Because of the brain’s trillion-connection neural network, it is difficult to establish broad conclusions about behavior and preferences.

Neuromarketing projects face the twin problems of external validity and reverse inference. In a laboratory setting, the brain of subjects might “light up” when they are shown smiling faces or hear music, but it is hard to prove that the reverse—happy people and music make ads more engaging—is not due to experimental conditions or confounding factors. Fortunately, advertisers are often not interested in making long-term conclusions about human nature but instead want to test a specific product before it is launched. Neuromarketing provides the tools for them to do just that.

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