Is Neuromarketing a Fantasy or the Future?

It Could Give Marketers an Edge, but Questions Remain About Effectiveness and Ethics

By Published on .

Brian Easter
Brian Easter
Emily McClendon
Emily McClendon
Some would argue that marketing is manipulation. People often think marketing is a game of cat and mouse, evolution and co-evolution, attack and defense, between consumer and advertiser. Both sides are aware of the tête-à-tête they are engaged in, but for the most part, people believe they choose their paths and maintain their free will. Although the primary goal of marketing, to convince consumers to purchase clients' products, is obviously not altruistic; not all marketing is a manipulation of consumers. Good marketing brings information to life, bad marketing is style over substance and ultimately fails, but nonetheless contributes to the perception that marketing only exists to "trick" people into purchasing needless products.

Neuromarketing, and the research that supports it, potentially circumvents the battle between good marketing and bad marketing. In a maniacal advertiser's dream, instead of trying to outthink and cajole potential customers into buying a product, the possibility of neuromarketing offers a deeper, more visceral compulsion that can be used to compel consumers to buy, buy, buy. However, despite the manipulation neuromarketing seems to imply, marketing is directed to buying impulses driven by consumers' needs, not whims or fleeting desires. Using information from the most unprotected and intuitive organ of all, our brain, neuromarketing, in theory, seeks to explore this uncharted terrain by sidestepping our more deliberate frontal lobes and going straight to the full charge ahead, unrestrained emotional brain.

Overview of NeuroMarketing Research
The technology of neuromarketing is described with more acronyms than a SaaS B2B technology sales summit (the irony is intentional). Some techniques are already familiar, thanks to Google's publication of its much-vaunted eye-tracking study that provided support for the placement of Google Ads, while others are more closely associated with expensive medical procedures. Among the latter category are fMRI (Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging), SST (Steady State Topography), EEG (Electroencephalography), and Galvanic Skin Response (which missed the memo on the acronym trend). Each technique has a specific application dependent upon the data required, but the most common is fMRI, which measures the change in oxygenated blood flow to different parts of the brain in relation to neural activities. In marketing analysis, the fMRI is used to monitor subjects' responses to a variety of stimuli and provide direct, uncontrolled data about their thought process

Just the term "neuromarketing" can summon visions of 1984-esque thought control. However, neuroresearch is focused not on the control of reactions but interpretation of them. Researchers have been able to pinpoint responses that indicate the subject's true feelings about the product they are being shown. Studying various regions of the brain allows researchers to see them "light up" (no, that is not the technical term), suggesting positive or negative reactions.

Of particular interest to marketers are two regions, the insula and the nucleus accumbens, which loosely correspond to predicting fear and pleasant outcomes. Additionally, the medial prefrontal cortex, located in the section of the brain associated with higher thinking, can indicate a consumer's decision to buy or not to buy. It is argued that by examining the timing and order of activity in these areas consumers are exposing a more accurate representation of what they are truly looking for in a product.

Why the Neuromarketing Dream Might be a Reality
Traditional research relies largely on market-side generated questionnaires that paid volunteers fill in to the best of their ability. Even using the most rigorous of statistical analyses, sampling error is large and results are unreliable. Marketers have long known that consumers seldom make the rational decision they anticipate when confronted with a real-life buying opportunity; the problem is no one told that to the volunteers that are filling out the surveys. Skewed data is an inseparable component of data collection via word of mouth or satisfaction surveys.

Neuromarketing offers a chance to get accurate, factual data about the buying habits of target markets. To replicate real-life conditions as accurately as possible, subjects are often walked through the buying process with their reactions monitored at all time. In some instances, the volunteers are given money while a series of images representing different products is shown as consumers are asked which option they would choose at different price points. To quote the estimable Dr. House, "people lie." But machines can't, even when they're attached to your head.

The classic study, which is often pointed to as evidence that neuroresearch is worthwhile, is Coke v. Pepsi, round nine million. Results for the self-conducted Pepsi Challenge suggested that consumers in fact preferred the taste of Pepsi over Coke, yet Coke sales did, and continue to, outpace those of Pepsi. Further research was obviously required, but the Pepsi Challenge demonstrated something that marketers had known for years -- brand matters much more than subtle product differences.

Neuroresearch determined that consumers who were aware of the brand they were drinking, when faced with the imminent taste of the Coke brand product responded with a "light up" in their pleasure anticipation region. More simply, they associated the Coke brand with a good user experience due to branding, packaging and familiarity whereas Pepsi did not elicit the same reaction. As residents of Atlanta, where Coke is virtually the only way of life, we can verify that neuroresearch was probably spot on in this particular case.

Potential Problems
Considering the supposed veracity of data obtained from neuroresearch, one would think the practice would quickly be utilized by every client. However, a variety of factors make neuromarketing less appealing than one would suppose. To begin with, it's expensive. It's also new, and relatively unproven. Despite the possibility of creating wildly successful marketing campaigns, neuromarketing does not have a documented, rich history of success stories, and marketers love perceived certainty.

Businesses without an established presence or a large portion of the market share tend to find neuromarketing too expensive to justify, and too new to trust. Bigger brands, such as Microsoft, Google, Daimler, and Campbell's Soup have already invested in neuromarketing research and have integrated their results into changes such as packaging, labeling and brand updates.

Personal feelings aside, ethics is most likely going to be a prominent topic in the debate about neuromarketing application. Neuromarketing bypasses the perceived defenses consumers have developed to reduce the impact of marketing campaigns. Although consumers are obviously not immune to advertising, the co-development of the modern consumer and the modern campaign has provided a modicum of protection from being completely coerced into buying different products.

Some would argue that neuromarketing is designed to appeal to the base level of human consciousness, and exploits instinctual responses to convince consumers to wield their purchasing power. The very characteristic that will realize advertisers the most profit is the same aspect that provides the ethical question, "Is neuromarketing too manipulative of free will?" Organizations including the Federal Trade Commission and Commercial Alert are already pursuing litigation against companies using neuromarketing, and as it becomes more commonplace the uproar is likely to continue.

At the end of the day, neuromarketing is still in its infancy. A technology that is unproven outside of laboratory conditions, prohibitively expensive, and potentially a legal minefield is a technology that requires a lot of capital and a solid brand to experiment with. Of course, the same problems have been characteristic of nearly every successful gamble in the marketing world. It can't be said with certainty if neuromarketing will be successful, but it can be said that the potential is certainly there.

Brian Easter is one of NeboWeb's founders and is driven by two things: a love of interactive marketing and a duty to bring home the bacon-flavored tofu (AKA dog food) for his two dogs. While he does enjoy the simple pleasures in life, such as driving his car as fast as possible on the interstate while his passengers cower in the backseat, his true passion is helping clients make the most of the web.
Emily McClendon is a marketing specialist at NeboWeb. She has a B.S. in Applied Biology from Georgia Institute of Technology and is currently pursuing her M.C.R.P., also at Georgia Institute of Technology. In between plotting to revamp the entire transportation system of the US to include energy efficient flying cars, she researches and explains the new frontiers of marketing.

Contributing: Chris Allison, SEM and social-media marketing specialist at NeboWeb, and Kimm Lincoln, director-search engine marketing at NeboWeb.
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