Neuroscience is undoubtedly the hottest topic in advertising research at the moment. It generates high hopes for understanding consumer behaviour from a completely new perspective. From reading the brain’s activity, can you find out what really drives choices and consumer preferences beyond what people are able and willing to tell you on a questionnaire and in focus groups? Can brain imaging even reveal hidden desires and covert mechanisms that consumer themselves are not aware of? In sum, can neuroscience give us access to what people really think and feel?

As I said, the hopes for neuromarketing are high and thus no wonder recent years have seen a huge boom not only in academic studies but also in commercial companies popping up all around the world offering neuro-studies to the advertising and marketing world. To get a better understanding of this rapidly evolving area DDB UK hosted last week the first of its Brainsurgery workshops for clients and staff titled “Neuromarketing – Neuroscience or Neurononsense?” Two renowned neuroscientists from Goldsmiths, University of London, DDB’s academic partner, attacked this question from two complementary perspectives.

Dr Lauren Stewart kicked off the evening with a ‘bluffer’s guide to neuroscience’, briefly explaining the general principles by which the brain works, i.e. how information is transmitted and processed in the brain and what the relevant brain structures are that you often find in colourful images on the science pages of the popular press. Dr Stewart’s own expertise is in structural (MRI) and functional brain imaging (fMRI) and she gave a brief but nevertheless very thorough account of how these state-of-the-art neuro-imaging techniques work and what they can tell us about consumers’ minds. This distinction between brain and mind was quite an interesting point she made which subsequently triggered a few questions from the audience. “The mind is what the brain does”, is the quote that I wrote down by which she was hinting at the fact that, yes, with modern neuroscience we can observe biological activity but we still need to know what this activity means in psychological terms. A red blob on an fMRI image in a particular brain area can indicate that the pleasure centre of the brain is active while seeing a TV ad. But it is no less plausible that the emotional reaction related to this red blob is actually disgust. The crucial point is that there is no 1:1 mapping between brain structure and function and it can be very dangerous to try to understand the psychological components of a task by relying on brain activation alone. This is precisely why academic neuroscientists are always very careful to complement their neuoroimaging findings with behavioural data, rigorous statistical analyses, and appropriate experimental control conditions – scientific practice that commercial studies need to adopt as well if they want to be credible.

The second talk of the evening by Prof Joydeep Bhattacharya, head of the EEG lab at Goldsmiths, then went straight into the current battlefield of neuromarketing. Prof Bhattacharya used the metaphor of ‘forced marriage’ to investigate how well modern neuroscience and marketing go together in reality. Both disciplines are interested in understanding and explaining human behaviour and both are very keen to learn about its implicit and underlying mechanisms. Quite a few recent academic studies have aimed at ‘mind reading’, that is analysing brain signals with advanced statistical and machine learning techniques to predict the future behaviour of a consumer. Admittedly, most of these studies were lab studies in a controlled environment but their results are nonetheless impressive; well, you can judge for yourself:

a)      From an EEG signal it is possible to predict which of two very similar human faces a participant would like better; and this is before the participant actually makes the explicit decision. (Lindsen et al., 2010, NeuroImage)

b)      Testing Coca-Cola vs. a no-name cola brand, the fMRI signal of participants in a brain scanner tells us that the brain’s reward system is involved when products are judged by their attractive packaging and that packaging seems to be more important than price and familiarity with the brand (Reiman et al., 2010, Journal of Consumer Psychology)

c)      The medial orbitofrontal cortex is a structure that is associated with the willingness to pay (is it the brain’s mythical buy button that marketers are so desperate to find?). It is the same structure that is active when we experience social reward, when we are looking at beautiful faces or when we anticipate a pleasant taste (Plassmann et al., 2007, Journal of Neuroscience).

No doubt, this all seems to be very relevant to marketing and advertising but Prof Bhattacharya also pointed to a few issues that made him speak of a forced marriage between neuroscience and marketing. The problems seem to start when neuroscientific results - that usually take a long time and require a lot of money - need to be produced under the financial and time pressures of the commercial world. Typically, there is very little time to test sufficient numbers of people and perform the rigorous statistical analyses that are a firm requirement for publishing in top academic journals. And then studies run in the commercial realm are hardly ever published (which, from an academic perspective, is at complete odds with the huge claims that some neuro-companies make). That means no-one can replicate those results, no peer-community can help to detect ambiguities and flaws in the experimental design or analysis, and worst of all, no-one can learn from the many commercial neuromarketing studies that are run around the globe. The danger of this practice is that neuromarketing as a discipline, unlike biomedical applications of neuroimaging techniques, doesn’t advance as much as it could, despite the huge interest and the huge sums of money that are currently invested in it. Of course, you can understand why big brands don’t want to give away the results of expensive neuromarketing studies that are intended to provide them with a market advantage over their competitors. But unless the bulk of commercial neuromarketing studies are published and made fully transparent, at least at some point in time, it is difficult to say what the potential of neuromarketing as a discipline really is; and that is not only an unfortunate situation from an academic perspective but it directly relates to how much you can trust the results of the next neuromarketing study that your own company is about to pay for.