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Is Neuromarketing Just Hype or Is It Legit?

Posted by Jeremy Smith on Jun 11, 2015 11:36:22 AM

Some people have a hard time accepting “neuromarketing” as a legitimate science.

I understand where the skeptics are coming from. “Neuromarketing” sounds suspiciously like “pseudoscience.” It doesn’t have a long history, nor does it have the scientific forbearers with the stature of Galileo or Isaac Newton.

Besides, a portmanteau of “neuro” and “marketing” seems forced.

I want to ask a very important question. Is neuromarketing simply a bunch of crap, or is it really legitimate? It’s an important question. Here’s why.

  • Neuroscience can help shape our strategy for conversion optimization. Should we heed it or reject it?
  • Neuroscience unlocks some fascinating insights into human behavior. Should we act on these insights or not?

neuromarketing as a legitimate science

(Image source)

  • Neuroscience promises even more potential in the future. Should we jump in now or delay?
  • Neuroscience claims to actually know how humans are affected by a particular product placement, approach, title, packaging, smell or taste. Thus, acting on a neuromarketing outcome can either bring a company success or drive it into failure. Is it safe to act on such findings?
  • Neuroscientific discoveries are being published on a regular basis. Should we believe the wondrous tales or confine them to the fairy tale category of our minds?

It’s important for digital marketers to wrap their minds around both the concept and future of neuromarketing because of its potential as a major force in both marketing and conversion optimization.

To help answer this question, I want to give you the facts. 

I make the case that neuromarketing is indeed a field of legitimate inquiry and reliable findings. Here’s where we’re going in this article:

  • What is neuromarketing?
  • Why did we come up with neuromarketing?
  • What does neuromarketing look like in the real world?

What is neuromarketing?

Neuromarketing is brain science applied to the industry of advertising and selling.

Neuroscience is the parent of neuromarketing. Neuroscience, which deals with the structure and function of the brain and nervous system, is what backs up the findings of neuromarketers. Researchers perform experiments that demonstrate how people respond to certain products, appearances, words, smells or other stimuli.

Neuromarketing scientists examine the brain’s response to various stimuli, particularly marketing stimuli. When they do so, they can understand the physiological origins of choice.

Neuromarketing researchers have a medley of tests at their disposal. Much of their testing paraphernalia and methodology comes straight from the field of medical research.

tools used by neuromarketing researchers

(Image source)

Here are a few of the tools used by neuromarketing researchers:

  • Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) — Shows which parts of the brain are active.
  • Electroencephalography (EEG) — records electrical activity and impulses of brain neurons.
  • Magnetoencephalography (MEG) — the mapping of brain activity by magnetic fields through superconducting quantum interference devices or SQUIDs. (It’s a real thing, not science fiction).
  • Steady state topography (SST) — measures the brain’s activity over certain periods of time or in response to certain stimuli.
  • Biometric analysis — measures the body’s responses including galvanic skin response, heart rate, rate of breathing, etc.
  • Event-related potential readings — waveform measurements of the brain resulting from sensory, cognitive or motor events/

Neuromarketing depends on some rather sophisticated analysis to measure a human’s response to marketing stimuli. So what does a test-tube-sniffing scientist do with all this expensive equipment?

Here’s what may go down:

First, the scientist connects the subject with a nifty hat outfitted with electrodes.

neural testing

This hat is connected to computers. Like the computers in the picture below. It’s not a Macbook Air.

testing tools used by neuromarketing researchers

(Image source)

After the test, the researcher looks at all the colorful pictures.

Neuro testing results

(Image source)

I simplify, of course, but that’s the basic idea.

Why did we come up with neuromarketing?

So, let’s ask another important question. Why neuromarketing? Is this even a necessary field? What purpose does it fulfill?

Marketing has always been a field full of great leaps forward, breakthrough discoveries and innovative methods. Marketing has its paragons like Philip Kotler, Edward Bernays, Wroe Alderson, Lester Wunderman and, of course, Don Draper.

These people have pushed the field forward, farther, and often in surprising ways.

  • With every movement forward, skeptical marketers kept asking why, how and what?
  • Why does the advertorial work?
  • Why does sex sell?
  • Why are humans motivated by lifestyle marketing?
  • When is a celebrity endorsement helpful?
  • How does a marketing tactic “go viral?”
  • How crazy is too crazy for a marketing tactic?
  • What puts humans in the right mood to buy?
  • How does smell affect purchases?
  • How do certain colors actually affect a decision to buy?

It’s not good enough simply to say something is true. It’s important to show why it’s true. Marketers need some level of proof that a technique will work. After all, marketing costs money.

Most of the time, marketers simply used the evidence of higher sales. Mary Kay Ash, for example, founded a cosmetics company, recruited an underutilized workforce, and reinvented network marketing.

network marketing.

(Image source)

The proof of network marketing’s success was in the pudding — more lipstick sales.

But what about the marketing techniques that had less of an impact on bottom line? Take André Citroën for example. Who the heck was André Citroën? He was an industrialist, inventor, businessman, vehicle namesake, gambler and mastermind marketer.

In 1925, he went for a bold marketing move — illuminating the entire Eiffel tower with the name of a car company, Citroën.

traditinal bold marketing techniques

(Image source)

The advertisement was iconic. The Guinness Book of Records identified it as the world’s biggest advertisement, Charles Lindbergh used it as a landmark for his transatlantic flight, and the electric companies were euphoric over the annual kilowatt spend it required to illuminate the 250,000 light bulbs.

But was it effective?

Marketing has always had a tough time answering that question. Whatever the technique or whoever its founder, how do you quantify ROI?

Today’s marketers want data. Nay, we need data. Why? Because business, that’s why. CEOs and shareholders don’t care about creative prowess or flashy experiments unless they have a definite impact on the bottom line.

Thus, we crave statistics. We split test incessantly. We drool over CRO case studies.

Now, let me come back from this walk around the barn and bring neuromarketing back into the mix.

Neuromarketing provides a satisfying solution to the yearnings of data-driven marketers, revenue-sniffing CEOs, science-loving analysts and skeptical proof-seekers.

Why? Because it’s founded upon science.

That’s why neuromarketing matters. It gives marketing a science-backed resource upon which to depend. If marketing is going to be successful, it should also be provable by some means.

The better we understand the true impact of marketing upon the human mind, the more successful marketing can become.

That’s why neuroscience is necessary.

But there are more reasons. Traditional marketing is fraught with misconceptions, hunches, egos and flat-out lies.

Consider, for example, the traditional common forms of market research, as published in the National Review of Neuroscience (2010):

comparison of traditional common forms of market research

These are all fine and good methods, but they have built-in risks. Who’s to say that the subjects in focus groups and survey respondents won’t act based on their cognitive biases, forget stuff, misrepresent themselves or just make mistakes?

Neuromarketing cuts through all the crap, and holds up demonstrable data to prove stuff. Judge these advantages yourself:

  • Neuromarketing doesn’t rely on the potentially flawed reports of testing subjects. It knows what’s happening in the subject’s minds because it took a freaking picture of their brain!
  • Neuromarketing avoids the problem of testing subjects who may be unable to articulate their experiences.
  • Neuromarketing sidesteps the pitfalls of emotional fluctuation that can distract or confuse marketers or subjects.
  • Neuromarketing analyzes the cognitive roots of decision making, which eliminates any and all distraction occurring at other levels of motivation and decision-making.

Hmm. Sounds good. But remember, I told you I was going to give you facts.

And is it reliable?

One of the best forms of facts are scientific studies that demonstrate the validity of neuroscience.

In 2012, a group of neuroscientists and researchers wanted to find out which was more effective — traditional marketing research or neuromarketing research.

Their test group consisted of smokers. Each of the subjects had a desire to quit smoking. The marketing material was three different TV advertisements for the National Cancer Institute’s 1-800-QUIT-NOW hotline.

tv ads
(Image source)

Subjects watched videos like this one:

Researchers hooked the subjects up to neuroimaging equipment (fMRI) to measure neural activity. They were particularly interested in analyzing the brain areas associated with behavior change.

Once they subjects had been tested by viewing the 90 seconds of ads, researchers asked them for a report. Specifically, they were interested in the subject’s intention to quit smoking, how effective they thought they would be at quitting, and how much they related to the advertisements.

Ready for the results?

neuro testng results on ads
(Image source)

Let me provide a brief explanation of the chart you’re looking at. The A, B and C refer to the three different ads. The bar graph displays how effective each ad was.

  • The first chart shows what the subjects reported to be most effective.
  • The second chart shows how the subjects’ neuroimaging predicted the success of an ad.
  • The third chart shows how effective the actual ad was when nationally broadcast, as measured by call rate to the 1-800 quit line.

Here’s another look at that graph with relevant labels:

prediction of Ad Campaign through fMRI
(Image source)

(Findings published in Psychol Sci. 2012 May 1; 23(5): 439–445; source)

In this case, neuromarketing research accurately predicted the future success of an ad campaign. By contrast, the subjects’ own reports contradicted the outcome. If the marketers had gone with the subjects’ reports, they would have broadcast the wrong ad, resulting in a potential waste of millions of dollars.

How does neuromarketing work in the real world?

A final way to prove the validity of neuromarketing is to share how it has been applied to marketing in practice.

New Scientist Magazine Cover

The British magazine, New Scientist, wanted to find out which of two cover designs would be more appealing. They used a group of test subjects who occasionally bought the magazine (19 right-handed men). Researchers attached each subject to an electroencephalograph machine (EEG). Each subject viewed three images for 36 seconds each. The three images were each a possible future magazine cover for New Scientist.

New Scientist Magazine Cover
(Image source)

Analysts then looked at the data to determine which image had the highest score for cognitive activity, emotional engagement, memory activation and other factors.

The winner?

This one.

New Scientist Magazine Cover, end of dpacetime

And what’s the point?

As Graham Lawton, deputy editor for New Scientist explained, “We went in with a feeling of skepticism. But we came out the other side thinking this really works, that it can give us insights and prevent us from making mistakes.”

Grocery Store Shoppers

Neuromarketing researchers wanted to find out what shoppers look at, how they decide what to buy, and how they make choices when they shop?

To run the study, researchers recruited volunteers who were willing to look either stupid or bionic, depending on your perspective. The volunteers wore eye-tracking glasses hooked up to a Macbook Air stowed in a backpack. Then, they roamed the grocery store, doing what they normally do.

Grocery Store Shoppers

(Image source)

The study took a year and a half to complete. Researchers were interested in finding out what shoppers looked at, how long they looked at the things, how quickly they responded with motor action to their brain’s messaging, and how they interacted with things they wanted to buy vs. things they did not intend to by.

Their findings? These are valuable for marketers, store designers and packaging professionals:

  • 76% of shoppers made their purchase decisions in the store.
  • Shoppers not paying with cash were more likely to make impulse purchases.
  • Purchase decisions are as quick as 200 milliseconds.
  • Shoppers chose to look at items that they did not intend to buy, even though they did not give into the temptation to buy them (e.g., sweets).
  • A single eye movement was sufficient to change a shopper’s behavior.
  • 20% of eye movements are directly related to purchase decisions, and the remainder of eye movements are used to look at alternatives.
  • The most effective purchase decisions were made on aisles that had the most organization.

This is the power of neuromarketing. It is predictive. It is cost-saving. It is reliable. It makes the difference.

What are some helpful neuromarketing resources?


Advanced material in medical and industry journals


If you have been skeptical of the field of neuromarketing, allow the facts to influence you. Sure, it’s possible that a few people have grown too excited about it and over-blown its potential. However, neuroscience does possess validity. It is a legitimate discipline.

It pays to stay informed and to apply what we learn to our conversion optimization and marketing efforts.

Topics: Conversion Optimization, neuromarketing, Neuromarketing, Web Psychology

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