The tone-deaf Kendall Jenner Pepsi commercial, the irreverent Groupon super bowl ad of 2011 and Dove’s awkward new packaging: all three of these disasters act as a reminder that marketing research doesn’t always get it right …


How can we understand what consumers truly want, and gauge their real reactions unhindered by social convention? Surveys and focus groups can only be so useful. Enter Neuromarketing, a concept that is gaining popularity partially due to the rising availability of neuroscientific technology. However, the concept is still met with hesitancy both from marketers and Neuroscientists.

What is Neuromarketing and why is it used?

Neuromarketing is the application of neuroscientific techniques to study marketing.  Much marketing research experiences shortcomings during data collection, which normally consists of focus groups and surveys. Consumers may either overestimate or underestimate how they feel, or pick up on subconscious cues from the researchers which prompt them to respond in specific ways. Neuroscientific techniques allow marketers to view the consumer’s true reaction to a stimulus.

Ethical Concerns

There has been significant push-back on the concept of neuromarketing, with some concerned that the search for the brain’s ‘buy button’ may result in advertising that people are unable to resist. Slightly more realistic concerns include the targeting of vulnerable populations.

The concept of creating advertising that consumers are unable to resist shows a slight misunderstanding of what marketing encompasses. Marketing is about recognising and meeting the needs and wants of a consumer. The research that goes into marketing has always overlapped, at least slightly, with science. Marketers are required to have an understanding of psychology, sociology, business and economics as well as the technical aspects of whichever product they are required to market.

The study of consumer behaviour is of specific interest to marketers, and this overlaps significantly with psychology, physiology and neuroscience. Neuromarketing research therefore is not necessarily as basic as ‘How can we get more consumers to purchase product A?’. It can be as extensive as looking into the negotiation mechanisms in a consumer’s mind as they choose between items.

Furthermore, imaging technology and the overall understanding of the brain is certainly nowhere near a point where one can access a specific area that would induce buying behaviour in a customer. Even with more sophisticated brain imaging equipment such as that made by MCI Neuroscience and various other companies, one would have trouble identifying the exact region responsible for buying behaviour.

Murphy et al (2008) do an excellent job of summing up any potential risks more realistically. A code of ethics must be adopted in which informed consent and a right to anonymity is given to participants. Another potential issue which would be solved with added legislation and a code of ethics is the use of neuromarketing in exploiting groups which are more vulnerable to marketing.

Practical Applications and types of Neuromarketing Techniques:


fMRI is the most useful technique in determining brain activity in response to specific stimuli. However, for marketing purposes, this is incredibly expensive and often not as helpful as some would think. For example, if we are monitoring a person’s brain activity in response to an advertisement, we have no way of knowing which specific stimulus they are reacting to. Of course, the solution is to pair this test with a questionnaire afterwards to understand reactions better. This only introduces the standard issues that questionnaires bring up: inaccurate answers from test subjects.

The next, less expensive option is EEG. Previously, EEGs were a complicated matrix of electrodes connected to the skull via a sticky gel, attached on the other end to a bulky read out machine. Fortunately, EEG has recently become significantly more streamlined, with consumer-friendly versions of EEG headsets available for as little as $100. More top-end models also track facial muscle movement, so that expressions can be correlated to signals. This technique solves many of the problems associated with fMRI: It is easy to transport and far less inconvenient for participants.


EEG certainly has its shortcomings, though. To begin with, we know that EEG readings can only penetrate as far as the outer cortex. This gives us less insight into the consumer’s brain activity already, without even considering that consumer EEGs can have as few as one electrode; a standard, scientific-grade EEG has over a hundred electrodes. So, whatever consumer EEG headsets gain in ease of use they lose in clarity of signal. The amount of noise present in the readings from these headsets is much higher than that of a full scientific EEG set-up. This means that the data generated must be handled and processed very carefully, with appropriate controls. Failing that, a large sample size is required to ensure that the data obtained is significant.


Another common technique, sometimes used in conjunction with EEG, is the measurement of Galvanic Skin Response (GSR). GSR is a measure in the change of conductivity of the skin due to slight sweat gland activity. Essentially, it can act as an indication of the arousal or suppression of the sympathetic nervous system. The more conductivity there is across the skin, the more aroused the individual is. Done in isolation, however, the information gained from GSR is not particularly useful as it’s hard to tell what the subject is feeling.


Eye-tracking is also worth mentioning, as it is advertised by several neuromarketing agencies and used to great effect. Eye-tracking consists of a headset with two cameras. One points away from the participant and shows their point of view. The second faces the participant’s eyes, tracking their movement. The signals are fed through an algorithm that allows the researcher to determine exactly what the participant is looking at when, and how long. This technique is useful in designing web pages or shop layouts

Is Neuromarketing for You?

Neuromarketing is useful for anyone looking to gain unique insights in to the impressions that their brand makes on consumers. Moreover, as brands seek to create a more genuine connection with consumers, additional insights are becoming increasingly important.

While it is always tempting as a business to jump on the latest technology, it is important to truly consider the information that you would like to gather. It is also important to remember that, while the technology is certainly impressive, the information it yields may not always be valuable to your needs.

Expense is also something to bear in mind. Although growing in popularity, neuromarketing is still a relatively niche form of research and the technology is not cheap to use. One must ensure that any investment in neuromarketing is returned in terms of the information gained from it.

Over all, neuromarketing is an exciting tool that businesses can add to their arsenal. However, the field has a long way to go in terms of delivering accurate, specific information. Given the rapid expansion of developments in neuroscience, however, neuromarketing development may not be far behind. This technology is absolutely something that businesses should keep an eye on and consider using when they require feedback beyond what classic market research can provide.


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