neuroscience and advertising

As well as semiotics and cognitive psychology there is another tool for understanding advertising – neuroscience! Enter neuromarketing [1]. Neuromarketing promises to tell you how your brain responds to branding, or which adverts during the superbowl are most effective (Vaughan did a great job on this one, here, and here), or how alert people are during normal television adverts (“there may well need to be more ads created.” concludes the executive who commissioned the study!)

Neuromarketing leaves people saying things like

But the brain doesn’t lie, and the ad industry is just waking up to the potential of neuroscience. The brain’s seven defined regions – each affecting a different aspect of brain function – literally light up the screen if stimulated. Each one contributes to different cognitive activities; reasoning, analysis, long or short-term memory, high or low involvement processing, emotion, meaning etc.
(Tess Alps, in the Guardian)

The appeal of neuromarketing is the illusion of being able to access some more fundamental explanatory basis for our actions. People may lie to market researchers, or may even deceive themselves, but – we hope – ‘the brain doesn’t lie’. As psychologist and marketing guru Gerald Zaltman said existing methods don’t go nearly far enough in helping [advertisers] move to a closer understanding of their customers [2]

Sadly for marketing science, a straight description of what the brain is doing is of limited use – the marketing implications crucially depend on how you interpret that activity. And the interpretation depends on your theories and assumptions about the mind. If your assumptions are dubious (see the superbowl study) or just wrong (see the Tess Alps quote above) then you’re not going to get anything more than a pseudo-scientific smokescreen.

Perhaps the real appeal of neuromarketing to advertisers is betrayed by this quote from Jonathan Harries, the creative director at advertising agency FCB:

It is very hard for our clients to buy gut feel because every time they approach [a campaign], their jobs are on the line. Neuroscience promises to measure the gut feel, and that is exciting for us. It makes it easier for us to sell what we believe is right [2]


[1] Enjoy the marketing of neuromarketing first hand at

[2] Inside the Consumer Mind : What neuroscience can tell us about marketing, Wendy Melillo, Adweek; Jan 16, 2006; 47, 3

3 thoughts on “neuroscience and advertising”

  1. I think it is great that neuroscience is being hired to find out how the human brain works. Of course, neuroscience is very young science and is working in the area where we have more questions then answers at the moment. But we must start somewhere. All neuromarketing attemps can give us valuable knowledge about human’s brain and its reactions to advertising, however I do believe there is need to compile fMRI data with other traditional quantified data, we need more integrated multi-source data before we draw any conclucions or make any interpretations. Havig such integrated approach, we could definitely learn much more about consumers.

  2. Excellent comments and observations. I couldn’t agree more. And, the neuroscience flaw (presuming to know what a red blob on a diagram means) is a typical observational research problem.

    In the 1960’s, superb paleontologists read the known fossil record and created grand theories about dinosaurs. (Lizards all, loners, reptilian, etc…).

    Except, new fossils were found. And now these superb paleontologists give us entirely different theories (some bird ancestors, some feathered, some raised families, …).

    We must develop more caution about these observational techniques.

  3. Wonderful unwitting honesty from the man at FCB.

    This is just to help you sell the stuff you like to the client – who knows nothing in most cases and sits in meetings theorising instead of being a customer.

    The real gem is from “psychologist and marketing guru” Gerald Zaltman.

    All this quasi-academic guru hogwash gets away from the only thing that matters. Did they buy? Just measure it.

    But how many ad agencies are interested in that?

    All this stuff takes you further away from doing that in the simplest way possible.

    “The only purpose of advertising is to sell. It has no other function worth mentioning.” Raymond Rubicam.

    It would be hard to find any group of people less like their customers than ad-luvvies.

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