Like a kid in a brain candy store

Photo by Flickr user Max. Click for source.Slate has got a great article that takes on the newly fashionable field of ‘neuromarketing’ and calls it out as an empty promise.

The piece is written by neuroscientist Matt Wall who notes the upsurge in consumer EEG ‘brain wave’ technology has fuelled a boom in neuromarketing companies who claim that measuring the brain is the shining path to selling your product.

Because neuromarketing companies don’t provide the key details of the analysis techniques they use, it’s hard to evaluate them objectively. However, they seem to take a highly automated approach, essentially plugging the raw data into a black box of algorithms that spits out a neatly processed answer at the other end. Such an approach must involve making a large number of assumptions and some fancy-analysis footwork to make something coherent out of the poor-quality data.

In general the same applies to getting information out of a data set as to getting information out of a human: If you torture it long enough, it’ll tell you everything you want to know, but information extracted under torture is highly unreliable.

In addition, marketing-related studies are not well-suited to the kind of repetition that’s required to boost the useful signal and reduce noise; the same product or TV commercial can be presented only a few times before the participant becomes very bored indeed and therefore ceases to have any kind of meaningful reaction.

The article discusses why the current fad of EEG-based neuromarketing is scientifically unsound but despite the technical difficulties and theoretical incoherence of the field, it would all become irrelevant with one simple demonstration: a measure of the brain that could predict buyer preference better than behavioural or psychological measures.

Until now, no-one has shown this. In other words, no-one, nowhere, has shown that a ‘neuromarketing’ approach adds anything to what can be done by a standard marketing approach.

I’m all for neuromarketing research but until you can come up with the goods as a commercial product, you’re selling hot air.

There is one area that neuromarketing companies excel at though – marketing themselves. Considering a complete lack of data for their benefits, they pull in millions of dollars a year from advertising contracts.

Now that is effective marketing.

Link to Slate article ‘What Are Neuromarketers Really Selling?’

4 thoughts on “Like a kid in a brain candy store”

  1. loved this quote:

    “The same applies to getting information out of a data set as to getting information out of a human: If you torture it long enough, it’ll tell you everything you want to know, but information extracted under torture is highly unreliable.”

    I’ve heard of data massaging, data-mining, data-snooping, but never data-torture. awesome

  2. This reminds me of an episode of Frontline I saw a few years ago. They were talking about how companies were springing up all over the States, in an effort to market things like EEGs, MRIs, etc as some sort of cure-all for what ails you. They spoke at length to a woman who operated a location in a strip mall. I paid very close attention to the alphabet soup listed after her name. She was not an MD, she was a social worker. I’m sorry, if she’s the one supposedly in charge of a storefront clinic that does brainscans, how can I trust her word for what the scans mean when she’s never been to medical school? And yet Frontline treated her as if her word was the be-all and end-all, and storefront EEG clinics were a good thing.

    *Shakes head*

    1. I should add that while I have no objection to things like storefront radiology clinics as an entity, I would at least like to know that a trained radiologist is reading the scans. Frontline made it clear in the case I mentioned that the social worker not only ran the clinic, but she was apparently “reading” the brainscans herself, without asking for input from radiologists, neurologists, neurosurgeons, etc.

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