Neuromarketing does great job of selling itself

A couple of high profile newspaper articles have recently sung the praises of ‘neuromarketing’, both naively and wrongly hailing it as a more accurate way of measuring the effectiveness of advertising.

Despite what these articles in the Guardian and New York Times say, neuroscience has yet to show that directly measuring brain function predicts sales or advertising success better than existing methods.

One interesting study is cited though. So far, it is the only study I know of that has compared how well brain activation and self-report matched up in a purchasing task.

Crucially, it didn’t find that brain scans predicted actual purchasing better than what the participants consciously said they’d purchase.

Only that brain activity when viewing the product and deciding whether to buy it was more closely matched to the instant decision than a post-experiment evaluation of how much they liked the product or thought it was value-for-money.

It’s an interesting study, but it doesn’t really help marketers. Not least because it’s a lab task, and no money was involved, but also because the benchmark to which brain activity was compared was what people said they’d buy.

In other words, the ‘gold standard’ to which the other evidence was compared in this study, was simply asking people what they’d buy – no different to what traditional market research already does.

It’s an interesting study on decision-making, but if you read the newspaper articles, it’s shocking to compare their grandiose claims with this study which is currently the best ‘neuromarketing’ evidence.

Most of the other studies (trash like election and Super Bowl brain scans aside) don’t even compare what people say they’d buy with brain activity, so they’re not comparisons which can even possibly say whether measuring the brain is a more effective technique for measuring marketing success.

They almost entirely rely on vague inferences that because a certain brain area is active, the person must be thinking in some specific way.

As individual brain areas are involved in numerous functions (even just including the ones we know about), you can use this technique to suggest almost anything.

The bottom line is this: for products, sales dictate whether marketing succeeds or fails. Trying to measure anything else is what is known as relying on a surrogate marker, something known to be dodgy.

The first study that shows that brain activation predicts actual purchases better than what people say they would buy will be the true birth of neuromarketing.

So far, it hasn’t happened, and the best marketing that’s happening is ‘neuromarketing’ companies marketing themselves.

That’s not to sat that the neuropsychology of financial decision-making isn’t interesting (far from it), but, so far, none of these techniques will help you decide whether your ad will be a success better than simply asking people.

Link to naive NYT article on neuromarketing.
Link to credulous Guardian article on neuromarketing.
Link to full text of ‘Neural predictors of purchases’ study.

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