Neuromarketing: brain scam or valuable tool?

Marketers are turning to neuroscience to better understand consumers’ reactions to brands and advertising, but how much can such techniques really tell us? Amanda Wilkinson reports

If only marketers could realise their dream of being able to trigger a “buy button” in consumers’ brains. Although this is the stuff of fantasy, marketers and agencies are turning to neuroscience in a bid to better understand consumer reactions to brands, products and marketing messages.

One particular facet, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) – or brain scanning – offers a way of mapping the degree to which certain areas of the brain are activated when exposed to different stimuli.

Large packaged goods companies have used fMRI to assess the merits of new product development and packaging design. In the car industry, DaimlerChrysler has funded various “neuromarketing” studies, including brain scanning, to discover how consumers evaluate car exteriors. Two years ago Ford also backed a number of neuromarketing experiments, including monitoring people’s brain activity when they watched programmes interspersed with ads.

The fMRI technique has even been applied to a version of the “Pepsi Challenge” by Read Montague, a neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas. When drunk, both colas were shown to significantly activate parts of the brain linked to pleasure. Montague concluded that as most subjects said they preferred Coke, factors other than taste had influenced their choice, such as associations with a fun lifestyle developed through years of advertising.

Focus groups or questionnaire-based quantitative studies have been criticised for putting consumers in situations where they don’t always say what they mean or mean what they say. Advocates of fMRI say that unlike these more traditional research techniques, fMRI monitors what people are really thinking.

Attracted by the apparent level of objectivity, PHD Media used fMRI at the end of last year to measure how effective different media are in delivering various types of communication models. Although the media world has more than its fair share of facts and figures such as coverage, target audience propensities, and cost-per-thousand (CPM) impacts, PHD Media executive planning director Mark Holden says these are insufficient because they can only tell you how to reach consumers and not how to influence them: “There is a gap between the charts and what is relevant.”

PHD has been working with Neurosense, an Oxford-based consultancy which specialises in the use of cognitive neuroscience to gain insights into human behaviour. Neurosense scanned the brains of 20 people and monitored their reactions to 67 ads using a variety of media.

The reactions of five areas of the brain were recorded, including the amygdala, which indicates emotion and is deemed important for encouraging an audience to appraise or reappraise how they feel about a brand, product or service; and the ventrolateral frontal cortex, which indicates working memory and is useful to activate when communicating information that is of low interest.

The results, now made public for the first time, show that press and outdoor were highly effective in communicating messages to people who are already aware of the stimuli within the ad. Press also offered the benefit of being able to deliver content-rich information. Television was useful in stimulating long-term memories and emotions, which are important for establishing brands and changing perceptions. Radio performed well in making audiences process information of low interest. While these are unique strengths, each medium was also found to be able to achieve different results.

These findings have now been integrated into a planning tool, which through a series of questions devised by research and strategy consultancy Acacia Avenue, allows the agency to work out the most appropriate communication model out of a possible six, including, for instance, communicating a low-interest message. The system then establishes which regions of the brain need to be activated and the most effective media routes for the task, indexing and ranking them against one another. Audience impact data and media and production costs are then fused into the model to give an overall score for each medium.

Although the system is based on scientific research, Holden is keen to stress that it should not act as a “straitjacket”, but as guidance in deciding which form of media should be used. But some industry figures believe that fMRI-based studies are based on a false environment. Vizeum strategy director Matt Andrews says: “fMRI is conducted in an unreal laboratory situation, yet consumers are subject to all sorts of influences around them all of the time.”

But he admits the need to know more about how consumers’ minds work and claims: “Ninety per cent of what you believe is driven by your subconscious: the choices you make in life, the brands you buy and the media you consume.” Vizeum has bought consumer psychology company Consydiam, which specialises in understanding how consumers relate to brands on a subconscious level.

Ogilvy & Mather executive planning director Mark Earls is another fMRI sceptic and questions its application in assessing advertising and types of media: “If you use the neuro brain scan to see if the happy bit of the brain lights up you are missing the point. No communication works on an individual alone: the key influences are from other people.”

Bambos Neophytou, an account planner with Bartle Bogle Hegarty who has a Master’s degree in cognitive science, believes that there are so many variables in the ways that advertising is delivered and consumed that any form of effectiveness model using fMRI technology should be used with caution. He warns that clients with large budgets could latch on to the objectivity of fMRI as a “crutch” to justify decisions, which in turn could result in stifled creativity.

According to Dr Gemma Calvert of Neurosense, it is because of that objectivity that more marketing companies are turning to neuroscience to gauge consumer reaction to new products, packaging and advertising. In one instance, after conducting fMRI research, the company was able to tell a client that consumers would not take to a particular new product variant. In fact, the product had already failed in the US.

But many marketers are fearful of talking about their experiments for fear of criticism from lobby groups. In the US, not-for profit organisation Commercial Alert has campaigned against the use of neuromarketing, and fMRI in particular, claiming that neuromarketing is being used to manipulate consumers’ behaviour. In defence of fMRI, Calvert says: “The market is just trying to understand what consumers want so that it can give it to them.”

However, Calvert admits that although fMRI can be tailored to fit certain circumstances and outside influences with additional questions, it is complementary to other research methods such as focus groups. Caroline Whitehall a co-founder and strategist at Acacia Avenue agrees: “fMRI is not going to provide the answer. For instance, it can’t predict future behaviour and it can’t account for context or explain exactly why people react to advertising in the way they do, unless you do the research and then interview the test subjects.”

For the time being at least, marketing and advertising are to remain creative arts, not formulaic models.

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