In the ten-plus years I’ve been writing about neuromarketing, I’ve bemoaned the lack of serious academic research into the various neuroscience-based techniques used to evaluate ads, products, brand attitudes, and so on. While neuromarketing service providers forged ahead selling their wares, they primarily offered isolated case studies, if anything, as proof of effectiveness.
While fMRI, EEG, implicit association testing, and other techniques used by neuromarketers have been shown to be useful in academic research, none of that research took a rigorous look at their ability to predict consumer behavior after, say, viewing a television commercial.
The divide between academic neuroscientists and neuromarketers hit a low point in 2011. Best-selling author and branding expert Martin Lindstrom published an editorial in the New York Times that suggested, based on fMRI data, that the way iPhone owners felt about their phones was akin to romantic love.
More than a few neuroscientists disagreed with Lindstrom’s interpretation, and the University of Texas’s Russell Poldrack led a group of 44 other academics who co-signed a pointed critique in a letter to the Times.
At that point, it seemed, academia was about as likely to seriously study neuromarketing as, say, parapsychology or alien artifacts.
But, that was then.
Neuromarketing has been rebranded with more scientific names, like “consumer neuroscience” and the more general “decision science.”
Most recently, an exciting new study from Temple University researchers took direct aim at the most popular neuromarketing technologies in an attempt to validate their effectiveness. The work was done at Temple University’s Center for Neural Decision Making at the Fox School of Business. A separate team at New York University analyzed the collected data and compared it to actual advertising results. The project was funded by the Advertising Research Foundation, which has been engaged in a multi-year effort to develop standards for neuromarketing.
I spoke with Temple researchers Angelika Dimoka, Paul Pavlou, and Vinod Venkatraman about their research. (See Scientists Get Closer to The “Buy Button” to listen to the entire conversation or read a transcript.)
They explained that while the previous ARF study had each company provide test results for their own methodology, this study was designed to be impartial and reproducible.
According to Venkatraman, “The key here was to do a more carefully controlled study where all the methods are being treated equally in terms of the protocol. For every method, the protocol is exactly the same… Then, we collected real-world performance data based on what happened to the product that was featured in the ad.”
All of the data was shipped off to a separate team at NYU, who conducted a rigorous analysis to evaluate the correlation between neuroscience data and ad performance.
Good News and Bad News for Neuromarketers
While academic validation of neuromarketing is an important and necessary step for the nascent industry, the findings may prove unsettling to some vendors.
The scientists tested eight different methods: traditional surveys; implicit measures; eye tracking; heart rate; skin conductance; breathing; brain activity, using fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging); and brain waves, using EEG (electroencephalography).
Their experiments and subsequent data analysis showed that only fMRI provided a significant improvement in predictive power over traditional surveys.
On the plus side, one big conclusion is that consumer neuroscience actually works. That is, at least one technique of tapping into people’s brains predicted their behavior better than simply asking them.
The bad news for neuromarketers is that the study seems to cast doubt on the usefulness of most of the methods. Before we dismiss those service providers and their claims out of hand, I’ll throw out a few cautions:
- These experiments tested each technology, but the methods may not have matched those of all practitioners.
- Some neuromarketing firms use multiple technologies in their work, an approach which may increase accuracy.
- Specific technologies may have niches where they perform best, e.g., measuring which emotions consumers associate with a brand.
Perhaps I’m a neuro-optimist, but I think this research is great news for the field of neuromarketing. Not only is there at least one positive result, this study will undoubtedly spark more work in the field as others try to replicate or extend the work. And, I think, it will spur companies in the consumer neuroscience space to be more forthcoming with their data.
Most importantly, the gap between neuromarketing claims and academic validation is beginning to close.
Roger Dooley is the author of Brainfluence: 100 Ways to Persuade and Convince Consumers with Neuromarketing (Wiley, 2011). Find Roger on Twitter as @rogerdooley and at his website, Neuromarketing.