Five warning signs of neuromarketing snake oil

How can you tell good neuromarketing from bad?

Neuroscience offers a unique opportunity to look beyond the convoluted stories that consumers tell themselves and avoid unconscious bias. By peering directly into the brain, we gain privileged access to Truth and can make informed decisions on how to best market a product.

It’s a familiar refrain, but it is true? As a neuroscientist, I have my doubts. Neuroscience makes daily progress in understanding behaviour with exciting discoveries about how our brains work and even how complex behaviours like how brand preferences play out in the brain.

The advent of consumer neuroscience as an academic discipline coupled with exciting new findings demonstrates the potential of the field but these are balanced by high profile failures. Recently, the US Federal Trade Commission ruled that the brain training game Lumosity did not have sufficient scientific evidence to back up the benefits of their game, costing Lumos Labs £1.4m to settle false marketing claims.

So how does one tell good from bad neuromarketing? Here I outline five warning signs to help distinguish good neuromarketing from snake oil.

Beware claims of mind-reading

Anyone offering to measure emotion, attention, or memory directly from the brain is on dubious ground. There have been some noteworthy success stories in the neuroscience of “mind reading” but all of them have very strong limitations.

Researchers at University of California, for instance, were able to measure brain activity and translate it directly in words. To do this required implanting electrode arrays directly into a patient’s brain (in preparation for neurosurgery) and even then it only sufficed to reconstruct a handful of words for that individual – it did not generalize to other people.

Don’t get me wrong; it’s an amazing accomplishment but it is miles away from the mind-reading claims routinely offered by neuromarketing companies. Even sophisticated brain scanners such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) or electroencephalograms (EEG) do not provide reliable and valid indices of a consumer’s underlying emotional or cognitive state.

Beware proprietary data analysis techniques

There are a handful of non-invasive tools available, with EEG and fMRI the two most common. In both cases, there are well established analysis methods that are accepted as both valid and reliable by the scientific community. As a result, it is surprising (and a bit worrying) when a company offers their own proprietary analysis method. Often described as a unique selling point, in reality it is a warning sign. What evidence is there that the method is sensitive, repeatable, reliable and valid? In-house validation is an important step, but it is notoriously prone to confirmation bias. Only independent replications, normally conducted by more than one lab, suffice to establish validity.

Beware a one-size-fits-all solution

Scientists routinely use a variety of tools because no single method is sufficient to answer every question. In neuroscience, fMRI excels at answering spatial questions like “where in the brain is there increased activity?” EEG, in contrast, provides exquisite timing information, tracking brain responses as they happen. Other tools such as transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) can alter brain activity and change behavior. Good neuroscience involves developing customized experiments designed to answer the specific question using the best tools for the job.

Many neuromarketing companies, however, offer only a single approach to every client, independent of their research question. Often this combines multiple techniques – for instance, they offer a solution that uses EEG, eye tracking and facial coding – but the approach is exactly the same for everyone.

How good is my 30 second TV ad? EEG + eye tracking + facial coding.
How do I optimize my store layout? EEG + eye tracking + facial coding.
How do I sell my new range of high end flats?

...you get the picture. Offering bespoke solutions is admittedly difficult and expensive but when a single approach is offered as a one-stop-solution to all marketing queries, buyer beware.

Beware neuro-sophisms and neuro-myths

Simply including neuroscience in marketing material offers potential benefits; customers find these advertisements more engaging, credible or memorable. In fact, this is often referred to as the seductive allure of neuroscience. The issue is whether the majority of marketing references to the brain are meaningful– in other words, are they “neurosophisms”? Consider this sentence:

Men’s brains are preconditioned to think concretely, to focus on goal-oriented tasks, to find logical solutions, and are naturally competitive or defensive.

If you remove the word brain does it change the meaning? Not in the slightest:

Men are preconditioned to think concretely, to focus on goal-oriented tasks, to find logical solutions, and are naturally competitive or defensive.

Throwing in the word “brain” doesn’t make this any less of a stereotype and it certainly doesn’t provide scientific support for it!

Similarly, brain myths litter advertising. Products offering to help you to use more than 10% of your brain compete with those that enhance “left-brain logical processing,” but both claims lack any validity at all. Neurosophisms and neuromyths are the purest form of snake oil; they simply peddle false cures to the masses.

Beware quack neuroscientists

If you’re thinking of using a neuromarketing firm, have you checked their neuroscience credentials? You wouldn’t hire a solicitor who hadn’t gone to law school or doctor without a medical degree, right? It’s no different with neuromarketing. If you want quality neuroscience, then it’s worth spending a little effort to investigate their neuroscience experience.

Almost all neuromarketing companies have someone with an impressive title like “Chief Neuroscience Officer” but if that person doesn’t have a genuine background in neuroscience, so what?

Admittedly, this can be difficult to assess, but here is a quick guide: What is their educational background? Do they have a degree in a related field like neuroscience, psychology, or behavioural economics? Medicine, by the way, is clearly scientific but rarely involves much neuroscience. Even better: have they published research articles in neuroscience journals? A few minutes with Google Scholar is normally is sufficient to answer these questions. In my experience, this is one of the most revealing checks. Companies that offer valid consumer neuroscience hire people with sufficient background to understand the strengths and pitfalls of the methods they use.

The way forward

Don’t lose hope! There are plenty of examples of excellent consumer neuroscience that illustrate its potential.

One of my favorites was a large-scale collaboration between academia and industry in the US. Vinod Venkatraman and his colleagues at Temple University partnered with the Advertising Research Foundation to study how well different techniques predicted advertising success.

A set of volunteers saw real 30 second television advertisements while their responses were recorded with implicit behavioural measures, eye tracking, biometrics, electroencephalography (EEG) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) as well as with traditional focus groups. They found that focus groups actually did the best job predicting real-world return-on-investment, but of the other measures, only fMRI added value to the focus groups.

This was a well designed study that tested state-of-the-art applications of psychology and neuroscience to a real-world marketing problem using actual market performance as their measure of advertising success. In other words, it was an excellent piece of research with obvious practical implications.

Moreover, their approach highlights the clear benefits of academic collaboration with industry. Outstanding consumer neuroscience relies on true expertise in both marketing and neuroscience – neither side can succeed without the other. Venkatraman and colleagues demonstrate this beautifully and provide a road-map for future collaborations.

Personally, I believe that neuromarketing offers genuine potential for understanding consumer behavior, although we are still in the early days. The challenge we face is recognizing and avoiding the snake oil while promoting excellent consumer neuroscience.

About the Author

Prof. Joseph Devlin

Chief Scientific Officer, Co-Founder

Joe's PhD is in Artificial Intelligence but he found himself much more interested in natural intelligence -- how the human mind works. After training in neuroimaging at Cambridge and Oxford, he established a reputation as a leading researcher in how the human brain processes language. He is a former Head of Experimental Psychology at UCL as well as the current Vice Dean for Innovation and Enterprise. He has collaborated on various projects with a variety of media partners, including the BBC, the Times, Guardian and Daily Telegraph.

Joe has published more than 60 scientific articles in international journals.

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