Brain scans and buyer beware

Jonah Lehrer reviews new popular neuromarketing book Buy-ology in the Washington Post and notes that the book itself is a shining example of marketing but without a good grasp of what the neuroscience studies actually show.

If one of the greatest ironies of public relations is that it has an image problem, one of the greatest achievements of neuromarketing has been the self-promotion without having demonstrating any material benefit to the approach.

That’s not to say there’s some respectable science being undertaken to understand the neural basis of commercial reasoning and buyer decision-making, but so far, no-one has demonstrated that any of these approaches actually provide a more effective way of marketing.

In other words, we’re still waiting for a single study that shows that any measure of neural activity predicts actual purchases or sales better than existing methods.

It’s quite amazing to think that there are now numerous multi-million dollar ‘neuromarketing’ companies that are providing services without having any evidence for their effectiveness.

Their success is likely because, as we know from recent studies, attaching bogus references to the brain or irrelevant images of brain scans, make explanation of behaviour seem more credible to non-neuroscientists.

One irony is that commercial neuromarketing has been a marketing success story, but not on the basis of the neuroscience which is largely just used as another form of traditional branding.

In fact, it’s just a form of marketing first developed by Edward Bernays, the nephew of Freud, back in the 1920s. The secret, Bernays said, was not to appeal to what people need, but to what they desire – in this case, to seem cutting edge.

UPDATE: I really recommend reading the two comments below in full, but this snippet from Neuroskeptic is a particular gem:

“One irony is that commercial neuromarketing has been a marketing success story, but not on the basis of the neuroscience which is largely just used as another form of traditional branding.”

It’s not just ironic, it’s fascinating. It shows that marketing people – who you might expect to be “immune to their poison” – are vulnerable to marketing gimmicks too.

Link to WashPost review of ‘Buy-ology’.

2 Comments

  1. Jonathan
    Posted November 2, 2008 at 3:30 am | Permalink

    I agree with your analysis. Most of the ‘science’ behind neuromarketing isn’t terribly new or conclusive: human beings remember some things better or more clearly than others, and meaning is a construct of context and personal experience. I’m not sure this is a revelation at all, actually: the Greeks wrote plays about it thousands of years ago.
    Brand experts are madly searching for ways to defend their preconceived notions of marketing as a mind-control (or influencing) endeavor. Facing difficult economic times and constant challenges from employers and clients to make brand and marketing expenditures more relevant to sales, marketers need to step up and deliver.
    So I find it fascinating that anybody would choose to dive deeper into the vagaries of mind or brain science, rather than ‘work the other way’ and experiment with defining brand more externally…in terms of the behaviors by companies and their consumers that constitute the complex dance of inquiry, transaction, and service.
    You don’t need sensitive sensing devices or religious faith to see and map the chronologies and dependencies of commercial relationships, so why not build models of brand that don’t influence those actions but rather emerge FROM them? Brand as behavior, not thought or intent.
    Anyway, I write a lot about the potential implications in my book, Branding Only Works on Cattle, and my chapter on the challenges of brand measurement is available for download for a short time on my site: http://tinyurl.com/5ne379

  2. Neuroskeptic
    Posted November 2, 2008 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

    “One irony is that commercial neuromarketing has been a marketing success story, but not on the basis of the neuroscience which is largely just used as another form of traditional branding.”
    It’s not just ironic, it’s fascinating. It shows that marketing people – who you might expect to be “immune to their poison” – are vulnerable to marketing gimmicks too.
    Maybe someone needs to do a study on “The Neural Correlates of Neuromarketing in Marketeers” to explain why


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