Between the hype, practical applications and ethical questions.

There is no doubt Neuromarketing is one of the most controversial topics in the field of marketing. And like any new field of research, its emergence into both academic and business circles has raised a number of ethical questions and concerns, some of which are legitimate and should be taken into account, while others appear to be exaggerated and unfounded, and these should also be discussed.

The term (NEURO MARKETING) offers an inherent definition; naturally, it alludes to the integration of two hitherto distinct fields of research: neuroscience and marketing. According to some authors and scholars, It can be defined as the use of neuroscientific technologies in the context of marketing studies. In a broad sense, it is the study of customers’ brain activity and other physiological indicators to learn more about their tastes, habits, and decision-making processes; this knowledge can then be used to advise marketers to refine aspects of their marketing strategies (advertising, product design, pricing, packaging…).

According to a review of the relevant literature, Harvard’s Gerry Zaltman can be considered “the founder” of neuromarketing. In the late 1990s, Zaltman used PET (Positron Emission Tomography) to assess the effects of various marketing stimuli related to car dealerships, with the goal of measuring anxiety, trust, and comfort conveyed by those stimuli. His idea was to apply neuroscience techniques to marketing research, which is essential for every business that hopes to thrive in today’s fierce market. Zaltman was able to pinpoint certain neural signatures that were associated with valence and emotional responses to imagined non-traditional car dealership shopping settings.

Neuromarketing technologies

This continuously developing field uses two types of measures: brain-imaging technologies and biometrics and other physiological measures.

The most common and used brain-imaging technologies in Neuromarketing studies are certainly EEG and fMRI. Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) utilizes an MRI scanner to quantitatively analyze and map brain activity by gauging variations in blood flow. It is a technique that describes how the brain operates and it has been employed to assess the preferences of individuals on a wide range of applications. Real-time signal changes can be observed on a computer monitor attached to the MRI scanner, with colorful zones displayed on a grayscale image of the brain, highlighting then the activated areas of the brain during the exposure to stimuli.

Despite fMRI’s widespread use in high-quality academic research, its adoption in the business world is less likely due to its practical constraints, as we will discuss further.

In contrast, the EEG is the most common technology utilized in the marketing industry to assess brain activity due to its relative advantages for marketers. It is a technique used to capture brain electrical activity by attaching multiple electrodes to specific points on the scalp. There are two main categories that can be used to classify EEG analysis methods.

The first is the event-related potential, or ERP, which is the voltage time-series that was recorded in response to an external stimulus or action. Multiple cortical reactions to a single event are aggregated to create a cleaner voltage time-series that could include elements related to a study issue, such as positive or negative peaks in the time-series, making this type of analysis common in psychological and cognitive tests. Analysis method number two is called spectral analysis, and it examines the electrical signal’s frequency spectrum. Each frequency component in a time series signal is represented by a “power spectrum,” which shows how dominant it is. A common way for research to present its results is by describing shifts in the relative strengths of individual frequencies or ranges of frequencies (a range of frequencies). It seems that EEG showed an important potential in marketing predictions, maybe on of the first successful examples is the experiment conducted by Vecchiato and his team in 2011, when they evaluated the cortical activity of respondents as they viewed 18 commercials. They concluded that there was a high correlation between the perceived pleasantness of the respondents and their alpha and theta bands.

Other imaging techniques are worth mentioning despite their infrequent application in the context of Neuromarketing due to availability constraints or other particular disadvantages.: PET (positron emission tomography), MEG (magnetoencephalography), TMS (transcranial magnetic simulation), and SST (steady-state topography).

The second type of technology used in Neuromarketing provides biometrics and measurements of instant physiological responses to stimuli. The most common and widely used one is undoubtedly eye-tracking. Eye tracking (ET) is a technique that uses eye trackers to keep track of a person’s eye movements and locations. The infrared light that elicits corneal reflection is used by an ideal camera, which may be contact lens-based, electro-oculogram-based, or video-based, to determine the exact location of the cornea and pupil. Information of importance to marketers from this method includes subjects’ duration of fixation, pupils’ diameters, observed regions, and viewing frequencies of presented stimuli. It can also form a sort of heat map thanks to a linked computer interface.

Another technique is also increasingly used by neuromarketers to measure electro-dermal activity (EDA), which may alternatively be referred to as a subject’s “galvanic skin reaction” or “skin conductance response”, it is a method for measuring the objective stimulation induced by an emotionally significant stimulus and it is able to determine the neural responses that precede particular emotions (happiness, sadness, fear, anger, disgust) because the central nervous system is directly connected to the reactions recorded on individuals’ hands.

Today, it is also possible to detect and classify emotions based on facial expression decoding, which may be done automatically utilizing computer-based software and interfaces or using electromyography, a technique that is uncommon in neuromarketing and consists of measuring subtle facial muscle movements with electrodes attached to the muscles of the mouth, occipitofrontal, and orbicularis.

The following table is a summary of all of the aforementioned techniques that have advantages and drawbacks in terms of practicality, cost, and the data measured:

 fMRIEEGEye-trackingEDAFacial Coding
What it measuresIt measures brain blood flow associated with elevated neural activity.It records electrical signals from the scalp using multiple electrodes.It identifies the precise location of individuals’ gazeIt measures skin conductanceDetects and classify facial expressions
Insights producedSpecific emotional reactions. engagement level, and memory recall.Engagement level and memory recall.What captures a person’s attention and how quickly she recognizes itEngagement levelTypes of emotions
Advantages/drawbacksVery expensive and very uncomfortable for participants. Must be performed in lab. Convenient for the measurement of specific emotions  Less expensive than fMRI, lab sittings are not mandatory (new EEG devices are mobile), high temporal resolution but less precise than fMRI.Inexpensive and easy to set-up. It doesn’t measure emotionsInexpensive and easy to set-up. Recommended to use in combination with eye-tracking and other biometrics.Inexpensive and can be used in combination with other biometrics

Neuromarketing applications

The advertising message, the packaging, the merchandising, the color combination, and the copy for a website are all examples of useful applications for neuromarketing. For example, a functional MRI study on people who viewed a scene from the western The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly found that the brain activity elicited by the sequence was identical across all subjects. This study provided valuable experience in quantifying audience response to various film sequences and using that data to decide which scenes should make it into the final version, a practice widely used in developing video ads. Neuromarketing can also be used to enhance branding or brand positioning tactics by analyzing the neural mechanisms involved in brand information processing.

Another study showed how useful the neuromarketing method can be for assessing how well an ad works. The study showed that the presence of celebrities or people who are thought to be physically attractive in ads activates a part of the brain that is involved in the process of recognition and building trust. A commonly documented use of neuromarketing is the creation of consumer-driven products and services.

Several scholars have cited the experiment conducted by the Daimler-Chrysler firm to test automobile model choices as one of the most notable cases in the literature. In this study, fMRI revealed that objects that have been regarded as symbols of status, wealth, and social dominance stimulated brain regions associated with the reward system and well-being. This study demonstrates that neuromarketing can be extremely useful, not just for businesses and marketing experts, but also for consumers, who could be provided with a far more tailored selection of products and services. According to research, neuromarketing techniques are also quite effective for pricing decisions. For instance, a similar price level can be perceived in two different ways by the consumer, and a high price for a given product category, for instance, can be perceived as a sense of loss and, as a result, discourage consumers from purchasing the product. Alternately, a high price for a specific product might be interpreted as an indicator of quality, thus enhancing the product’s worth and increasing the likelihood that it will be purchased. Undoubtedly, the most cited study in this regard is the one about the assessment of the quality of wine based on the pricing shown. In this study, participants were asked to rate their preferences after tasting the wine twice—with and without the price displayed. Brain activity was measured using fMRI, which revealed that regions of the brain linked to the reward system were significantly more active when individuals believed they were drinking the costliest wines. These brain regions associated with the reward system have also been found to be more stimulated by brands that elicit self-identification in consumers.

The definition of brand names and logo elements is another facet of branding to which neuromarketing can provide help, and there are several techniques, including fMRI, EEG, and Eye-Tracking, can be employed to comprehend the unconscious response to brand exposure. In addition, implicit testing, such as implicit association tests, can give a deeper understanding of what is specifically linked with the brand. Finally, achieving the long-promised dual objectives of determining whether an advertisement is a successful one with a high return on investment (ROI) and improving the advertisement is now possible thanks to the application of neuroscience approaches in ad pretests. Accordingly, neuroscience-based technologies would make it possible to track in real time the level of engagement of the consumer exposed to advertising, to even identify which sequence of the advertising he is most or least engaged to, and to know the type of emotions that it elicited in him, such insights are difficult to obtain by conventional methods.

Ethical questions of Neuromarketing

In the general press, Neuromarketing is widely associated with the concept of the buy-button and the potential ability to allow marketers, by means of neurological techniques, to reveal magical spots inside the consumer’s brain and dictate and manipulate his/her buying behavior. This concept is pure sci-fi assumption as long as there is no scientific evidence to support it. Finding the buy-button is a misleading promise promoted by some authors and agencies, and has nothing to do with the real purpose of neuromarketing, which is, for the moment, enhancing the precision of marketing insights. According to NMBSA’s code of ethics (The Neuromarketing Science and Business Association), collecting people’s private data should be limited to serving a specific purpose and should not be used for any other purpose. If the study results include personally identifiable information, it is likewise immoral to make them public or sell them to other parties under the guise of doing business. In our view, professionals and academicians should communicate more about the use of neuroscience in marketing efforts, especially to the general press and lay people, explain the established protocols and discuss the obtained results, and how the consumer’s free will and privacy are 100% respected and protected. Doing so will suppress gradually the skepticism built around the field of neuromarketing and encourage other parties to embrace it.

In terms of application and potential, it is obvious that neuroscience has much to offer marketing and marketing research. Several neuromarketing approaches and methodologies can be used concurrently and in conjunction with other technologies to enhance the prediction of consumer data. One of the most exciting characteristics of neuromarketing is that it permits a more accurate evaluation of a consumer’s emotional and unconscious reactions as well as his conscious experiences and recalls. Each technology has advantages and disadvantages based on the type of information we wish to acquire. Many business schools in the United States, Latin America, and Europe are now offering specialized courses and degrees in neuromarketing, and large corporations such as IPSOS, Nielsen, and Kantar are creating specialized departments and recruiting neuroscientists to conduct neuromarketing studies despite the ethical dilemmas. The potential is real and exciting, and we will witness a reshaping of marketing science. Nevertheless, this does not imply that neuromarketing will replace conventional methods; both can coexist to improve marketing outcomes.

For further reading:

Lee, Nick, Laura Chamberlain, and Leif Brandes. “Welcome to the jungle! The neuromarketing literature through the eyes of a newcomer.” European journal of marketing (2018).

Gakhal, Baldeesh, and Carl Senior. “Examining the influence of fame in the presence of beauty: An electrodermal ‘neuromarketing’study.” Journal of Consumer Behaviour: An International Research Review 7.4‐5 (2008): 331-341.

Lee, Nick, Amanda J. Broderick, and Laura Chamberlain. “What is ‘neuromarketing’? A discussion and agenda for future research.” International journal of psychophysiology 63.2 (2007): 199-204.

Fugate, Douglas L. “Neuromarketing: a layman’s look at neuroscience and its potential application to marketing practice.” Journal of consumer marketing (2007).

Mouammine, Yahia, and Hassan Azdimousa. “A REVIEW OF NEUROMARKETING ORIGINS AS A NEW MARKETING RESEARCH METHOD.” Marketing Science & Inspirations 16.4 (2021).