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ARF Panel Finds Promise for Neuromarketing, but Also Plenty of Problems

Inconsistency Emerges in Test Results, and Some Top Players Won't Participate

By Published on . 8

Your eyes dart. Your pupils dilate. You sweat ever so slightly as your heart beats faster and you squirm in your seat. You are under the influence ... of advertising.

These are actual physical responses from subjects in research Innerscope has conducted for Yahoo, CNN and others of late. They vary by ad and by person, and they aren't easy to notice without special equipment. That's the whole point for Innerscope and for rival firms that track brain activity using electroencephalograms (EEGs) or functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to the similar end of gleaning how people really feel about ads but can't accurately express in words.

While "neuromarketing" approaches have attracted growing interest and money, they also have critics who see them as junk science and suspect market research. To help sort things out, a review team assembled by the Advertising Research Foundation reported Tuesday that neuromarketing shows promise, while advising it still only be used as a supplement, not replacement, to other research. And in one trial, different firms delivered very different conclusions about Colgate toothpaste ads.

The ARF also announced it will launch an unprecedented effort to evaluate individual neuromarketing research proposals and finished reports from vendors on behalf of clients for a yet-to-be-determined fee that compensates academic reviewers for their time.

But two of the biggest players in the field -- Nielsen-backed NeuroFocus and EmSense -- aren't participating in the effort, helping spawn some new controversy around the emerging field.

Regardless, neuromarketing appeared to be perhaps the biggest new frontier of research at the ARF's Re:think 2011 conference in New York this week, where its practitioners had a chunk of the exhibit floor, similar in size and prominence to the industry's other big growth sector -- social-media measurement and listening.

People demonstrating the new Mynd wireless Bluetooth EEG headset, which outputs brain-wave readings to iPads, wandered the exhibit floor. And from the show's exhibit floor, the man behind Mynd, Neurofocus' voluble founder A.K. Pradeep, delivered a spirited pitch for his new headset, which he said goes on dry without sticky conductive gel and represents a major advance on cumbersome old models, with their numerous wire attachments. Mynd, he said, can transmit images of its wearers' brain activity be they at a store shelf or in their breakfast nooks reading cereal boxes.

What he didn't do was participate in the ARF review process. One reason was that it was set up as a "shootout," Mr. Pradeep said, adding that standards should be a result of collaboration among leading industry players.

Mr. Pradeep also objected to the ARF project being led by Duane Varan, chief research officer of Disney Media & Advertising Lab, which he said is a competitor. "They've actually tried to take clients from us in the past," he said.

Mr. Varan denied that Disney has tried to take clients from Neurofocus. "The amount of research we have to do within Disney is massive," Mr. Varan said. "It's not like I have a lot of spare capacity to go out there and do any other projects."

Sometimes, he said, Disney does do media deals that include giving clients access to the lab as "a sweetener," he said. But that's the extent of the outside work.

Mr. Varan added that the ARF went out of its way to not make the effort a shootout by not calling out individual vendors by name in its report.

ARF CEO Bob Barocci said in an email that he wanted NeuroFocus to participate, worked hard to get them to and would like Mr. Pradeep involved in continuing work on phase two of ARF's Neurostandards (NeuroFocus has launched a separate effort of its own, also titled "Neurostandards").

"There is no truth to Duane being a 'competitor,'" Mr. Barocci said.

Dissatisfaction with mainstream research
The ARF created its Neurostandards Collaboration Project last year, backed by eight neuroscience practitioners -- media and agency holding companies and such marketers as Colgate-Palmolive Co., Campbell's Soup Co., American Express and General Motors.

The interest comes because of dissatisfaction with survey and focus-group research and the inability of any kind of verbal discussion to fully get at what people are thinking and feeling about ads or products, Mr. Varan said.

"Emotion is difficult to verbalize," he said. "It's not that people are trying to deceive you. It's that they have a difficult time articulating it."

On the other hand, using EEGs, fMRI, eye tracking, skin conductivity, facial coding and other biometric measures to glean how people really feel about marketing is both expensive and relatively untested, he said.

"A lot of the deals being done [in neuromarketing] are really big," Mr. Varan said in an interview. "If you don't have the expertise, what's the due-diligence process you're going through? If all you're doing is relying on the claims a vendor is making, that's a pretty scary prospect for shareholders, I think."

Each of the eight participating neuromarketing firms evaluated a campaign for Colgate Total, said Richard Thorogood, director of strategic insights and analytics for Colgate, at a Tuesday ARF session.

Most of the vendors thought the ad was good, but often for different reasons, he said. In one case, different firms interpreted the same response as good or bad. Some vendors said characters in the ads were "inviting," Mr. Thorogood said, while others thought they wouldn't resonate with the target audience.

"Across eight vendors," he said, "there was not a whole lot of consistency."

Some recommended the ads would work better with music, which he said "had nothing to do with the research results."

It was often difficult to tell, he said, "where the science ends and where does the hypothesis begin."

But he said neuromarketing tools can be complementary to more established methods and that practitioners need to have partnerships with traditional research companies.

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