Beyond neuroscience – whatever happened to neuromarketing?

David Penn

A few years ago, a new kind of market research study hit the headlines. At the Baylor Institute in Houston (1), neuroscientists used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to monitor brain response during a test of taste and brand preferences for Pepsi vs Coke. They found that in a blind product test (where preference for Pepsi vs Coke was balanced) only those parts of the brain relating to sensory judgement were active; whereas when respondents were told what they were drinking, preference switched in Coke's favour and parts of the brain (the hippocampus) associated with emotional response also became active. The authors concluded: 'Our finding suggests that the hippocampus may participate in recalling cultural information that biases preference judgements.'

The study's publication coincided with a much-increased level of interest in emotion within the marketing world; the work of neuroscientists like Damasio and Le Doux had emphasised the role of emotion as a driver (not a consequence) of decision-making, and Malcolm Glad-well's Blink had popularised the notion that intuitive, instantaneous response often produces judgements superior to thought-through ones. In fact, the Baylor study more or less invented neuromarketing (although the term was first coined in 2002) and some speculated that the study of neurological response to marketing and advertising might even come to supplant conventional research techniques.