Ad Experts Not So Quick to Buy Into 'Buyology'

Downplay New Book's Examination of 'Neuromarketing' in Predicting Consumer Behavior

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NEW YORK ( -- Martin Lindstrom's latest tome, "Buyology: Truth and Lies About What We Buy," may well become a best-seller, but marketing experts say the jury is still out on the validity of the neuroscience on which the book depends.

Published by Doubleday last week, "Buyology" contains a number of potentially controversial findings from a three-year, $7 million neuromarketing study led by Mr. Lindstrom, who is chairman-CEO of Lindstrom Co. Using brain-scan technology to test how marketing stimuli affect the subconscious, Mr. Lindstrom and his team called into question many common beliefs about marketing. Among the conclusions: Warning labels on tobacco actually encourage smokers to smoke; Ford isn't getting much value from its "American Idol" sponsorship; and subliminal advertising does exist.
Mr. Lindstrom said he wrote 'Buyology' with hopes that he would start an ethical debate.
Mr. Lindstrom said he wrote 'Buyology' with hopes that he would start an ethical debate.

All make for great headlines -- and book sales -- but how solid is the science? Don't ask the Advertising Research Foundation, which said it does not review "pop" books. "It's another in a series of interesting Martin Lindstrom books," said ARF President-CEO Bob Barocci. "It falls under the category of pop books that purport to be serious books but they're not."

He said the ARF had not looked at the research in the book and so could not make anything of Mr. Lindstrom's conclusions. But he noted that that the two brain-scanning technologies Mr. Lindstrom used in the study -- functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and an advanced form of electroencephalography (EEG) -- measure two different things, and that Mr. Lindstrom is a "little behind" in terms of neuromarketing measurement technology.

Mr. Barocci cited Jerry Zaltman's "Marketing Metaphoria" as an important reference for those interested in the field of neuromarketing. "If I wrote a serious, heavy book, no consumers would read it," responded Mr. Lindstrom, noting that while the writing may have been light, the research was thorough.

Point-of-purchase thinking
But there's an even bigger question about neuroscience than which machines are used, and that is whether it's actually a useful predictor of behavior. Someone might see an ad and have a certain measurable subconscious reaction to it, but the things going on in their conscious and subconscious when confronted with a later purchasing decision might be entirely different.

Michael Norton, assistant professor in the marketing unit at Harvard Business School, had not yet read "Buyology" but said in general, it's too early in the field of neuromarketing to draw conclusions about behavior using brain-imaging data -- a caveat which he said applies equally to his own work in this area. "If different regions of the brain are active looking at Obama over Hillary Clinton, this doesn't mean that we can predict that person's eventual vote," he said, adding that more research is required to link such data to future behavior -- and that right now, the data show correlation, not causation.

According to Mr. Lindstrom, one of the study's most surprising findings involved smokers' reactions to warning labels placed on cigarette packs. When project researchers asked test subjects -- all smokers -- if the warning labels worked, most said "yes." But when researchers asked the same question and flashed images of the warning labels while smokers underwent an fMRI, the images activated "craving spots" in the smokers' brains, indicating that the warnings made smokers want to smoke more, not less. In a different study, researchers found that anti-smoking ads had the same counterintuitive effect.

Matt Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, calls these findings misleading. "Martin Lindstrom's research is interesting, but he dramatically overstates the conclusions you can draw," Mr. Myers said. He noted that the "Buyology" study looked at only 32 smokers from the U.K., in a laboratory setting, and after depriving the smokers of cigarettes for four hours. "There is solid research in multiple settings in multiple countries that validates the powerful impact of well-done antismoking ads."

Mr. Barocci also countered Mr. Lindstrom's claims about the efficacy of antismoking campaigns, arguing that they do work and that fewer people smoke today than 25 years ago.

Starting a debate
Mr. Lindstrom stands by his research and said the sample in the smoking study was "very strong." Still, he would like to do follow-up studies that build on these initial findings.

He also said he anticipated that his book would be greeted with mixed reviews, particularly around the ethics of neuromarketing. In fact, Mr. Lindstrom said he wrote "Buyology" with hopes that he would start an ethical debate.

But Robert Weissman, managing director of Commercial Alert, a Washington-based nonprofit and commercial watchdog, doesn't see how neuromarketing possibly could be used in an ethical way.

"The premise of neuromarketing is a deep, intense manipulation of consumers that goes beyond the tricks of the trade," Mr. Weissman said. "It's one thing to play to emotions, to puff up the benefits of the product. It's a qualitatively different thing to try and circumvent rational thinking and conscious thinking altogether in the way that neuromarketing promises."

Then there are those who just aren't sure. ARS Group President Ashley Grace, who has not yet read "Buyology," is skeptical about marketing that relies on brain scans and the unconscious. "It's more sexy, it's technologically innovative, but is it innovative research? Or is it technology? I'm not disparaging, because we're interested in it as well," he said, "but how does it work?"
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