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A lot has been written about neuromarketing in the last decade. Is it a discipline that can truly expose the underlying motivations behind consumer decision making? In the following we’ll explore what neuromarketing entails and the opportunities and limitations of the current techniques.

First of all, let’s debunk the jargon. Neuromarketing focuses on the study of various marketing techniques and attempts to integrate neuroscience knowledge to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of said marketing strategies. It studies how individual brains respond to advertising stimuli through three core techniques:

  1. Neurometrics: this is the brain stuff, a measurement of an individual’s underlying brain activity. The most common techniques are functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) and electroencephalography (EEG) measures (see picture below).
  2. Biometrics: the measurement of an individual’s biological characteristics that give us an insight into individual’s emotional arousal. Commonly used techniques include heart-rate monitoring and eye-tracking.
  3. Psychometrics: measurement of an individual’s differences in ability, attitudes, behaviour, intelligence, and other attributes, via psychological testing.


How have these techniques been used so far? Show me the case studies I hear you cry…

Well, at present that’s one of the weaknesses of neuromarketing, there’s not many studies openly available but we’ll get onto that later. Let’s first take a dive into a couple of findings from specialist neuromarketing companies and media owners.

1. Neuro-Insight & subtlety

One for creative agencies but interesting for all involved in the marketing industry. Neuromarketing agency, Neuro-Insight, demonstrated how ads that ‘shout too loudly’ are worst for encoding in long-term memory. Long-term memory encoding (LTME), is really the holy grail for advertisers, once a message is processed by our long-term memory, it can last a lifetime and is correlated with both decision-making and behaviour change. Ads emphasising the hard facts and scientific information were on average the worst performing for LTME, whilst ads featuring live filming of real people, emotion and humour performed much better.

Read more here.

2. Dopamine and the science of social media sharing

The secret of the success of social media is the chemical dopamine. Social sharing activates the rewards system of the brain, providing the same dopamine release that we receive from pleasure seeking activities such as sex, food and exercise. It’s the ‘feel good’ transmitter that causes us to share content and why we come back for more. A key time for marketers to target consumers with relevant messages is therefore just after they’ve shared on social media – consumers will be in a positive mood but experiencing decreasing levels of dopamine. Exciting advances in programmatic advertising technology are able to harness consumer emotion in real-time, allowing brands the opportunity to target their audience in the ‘sweet spot’ of engagement.

Read more here.

Unfortunately, an issue with both of these studies is that they are one-offs, with the data safe-guarded by the organisations responsible. As a result, rigorous examination and peer-review of the techniques used, as would be done on the academic side of neuroscience, is not possible. The technology itself is also not fool proof; for example, intense reactions to aversion and attraction can look identical to an EEG or FMRI scanner, not ideal when you’re testing a new creative concept.

In addition, these type of studies typically use fewer participants to establish a valid standard of error, meaning sample sizes are much smaller than conventional questionnaire based surveys. Research from Temple University in the US found that of eight different methods tested, only fMRI provided a significant improvement in predictive power over traditional surveys. Taking the glass half full view though, it does mean that they found at least one technique that predicted behaviour better than simply asking people. To complement this research and combat the doubters, we need brands to share more findings from commissioned studies, even if this means releasing a couple of years after original use for those brands afraid of giving away competitive advantage.

From increased sharing will come an honest and open review of the literature, so we can begin making reliable and accurate deductions that are beneficial to brands and agencies. Having studied a modest amount of neuroscience at University (at least two chapters of the textbook), nothing I have come across so far has convinced me that neuromarketing findings are currently both reliable and more useful than the traditional survey. I am however, looking forward to being convinced in the not too distant future…