The world of marketing and advertising is full of competing theories about how consumers make decisions, process information and so on. Neuroscience has challenged head-on much of the conventional wisdom about how advertising works, yet the debate continues… and continues. So why can't neuroscience (and neuromarketing) help us settle once and for all some of these thorny issues?

A few years back, I became concerned about the usefulness of many of the recall – based metrics commonly used in advertising evaluation. I wrote a series of articles in which I argued (from a neuroscientific basis) that advertising which relies mainly on emotional content should be capable of creating brand engagement without people necessarily being able to recall the ad itself. My conclusions were inspired by some aspects of Robert Heath’s theory of Low Attention Processing, (which argued that emotive advertising can be processed independently of (visual) attention). The counterblast to this view came (perhaps predictably) from Millward Brown’s Erik Du Plessis, who in his 2005 book, The Advertised Mind, argued that we naturally seek out the positive – the pleasurable – rather than things which make us anxious or unhappy. Hence we pay attention to ads we like, and what we pay attention to we remember. He sees no reason why emotive advertising should be processed at a low level of attention (which is more or less a restatement of the view that prevailed prior to the so-called neuroscientific revolution). So who is right?

Now surely this is just the sort of debate that should be settled definitively by modern neuromarketing techniques. Shouldn't we be able to settle an argument like this with the help of fMRI, EEG or perhaps biometrics?

I recently spoke at an advertising research conference in the UK, where Dave Brennan from Thinkbox presented a fascinating neuromarketing-based study of TV advertising. This study provides strong support for the neuroscientific view that engagement and attention can work independently of each other. – based on evidence from both fMRI and EEG, it concludes that retention of TV advertising in long term memory depends mainly on engagement and emotional content, not on the visual attention which the ad receives.

Yet, this model is not widely accepted by neuromarketing practitioners – if AK Pradeep’s recent book, The Buying Brain, is anything to go by. Pradeep takes almost the opposite view from Heath and Brennan about how marketing communication works. Based mainly on evidence from EEG studies, he asserts that “attention is the starting point of all marketing” because, without attention, nothing much else (including emotional engagement) is possible. In other words, he strongly suggests that advertising cannot achieve emotional engagement without first securing visual attention.

Well, what all this does tell us (if nothing else) is that neuroscientists themselves do not always agree on the meaning and significance of what they see happening in the brain, and that the output from all the main neuromarketing techniques (fMRI, EEG, biometrics) can be interpreted in many different ways.

Thus Pradeep makes the surprising admission that his company, Neurofocus, discards much of the EEG data it collects. Which prompts one to ask: on what basis do they decide that a brain reading is unusable, and who makes that decision? Clearly neuromarketing still requires a human brain – yes, one which expertly sifts, weighs and interprets the evidence, certainly – but one which does what all human brains do: makes subjective judgements.

So neuromarketing does not necessarily provide an objective substitute for conventional research – simply because the outputs from scanners and EEG monitors do not, of themselves, give us a single objective answer. What they provide is a set of neural correlates – with behaviour or attitudes – which can be interpreted according to the views, beliefs (and prejudices) of the neuromarketer who reads them. And what does that remind you of? Why, the good old fashioned research (quant and qual) which neuromarketing was supposed to replace! Which is why neuromarketing remains, in 2011, a complement to – rather than a substitute for – conventional methods, and why clients approach it with interest, but also a lot of caution.