Neuromarketing has been touted by some as the next big thing when it comes to understanding consumers. Broadly, the term refers to the measurement of physiological and neural signals to gain insight into customers’ motivations, preferences, and decisions. But when you look closely, there are still questions about whether or not it can give us the answers we want.

Whereas traditional marketing techniques such as self-reports or interviews can only measure conscious reactions to advertisements and brands, neuromarketing uses the tools of neuroscience to try and gauge people’s responses to stimuli. But while these tools can measure physiological responses to music, videos, brand logos, or websites, it’s a far cry from mind reading. In fact, physiological measurements are designed to measure the biological responses that aren’t under our voluntary control. And that means they’re hard to influence.

So it’s worth wondering if neuroscience will have any more to offer us than the self-reports and behavioral measurements we’ve been using for over a century.

Marketing to the Masses

Marketers have always had the same goals – to draw attention to their offerings and get people to develop an affinity for them. Neuromarketing is no different, it just uses more technology.

World War I signaled the beginning of modern marketing campaigns. Not only for selling products, but to promote patriotism as well (think of the famous Uncle Sam “I Want You” poster, for example.) It was clear that looking at certain proclivities and reaction pattern would help give marketing campaigns maximum reach.

In 1917, the Committee on Public Information (CPI) was created to “revolutionize” advertising in the US and create the first mass marketing campaigns. Researchers explored what kind of visual or graphic imagery (and later auditory cues) were required to produce positive emotions or carry the kind of authority that would encourage people to trust one brand over another. There were even early “influencers” like Thomas Edison, who was pleased to have his name and signature on many a poster.

By the 1920s, marketers began to embrace science more and more, particularly the psychological sciences. Even so, the “science of sales” didn’t necessarily set out to be manipulative or deceptive. Marketing drew in academics like John B. Watson, who implemented to concepts of behaviorism and conditioning to appeal to the emotions of consumers, whether it be love, hate, or fear.

In an attempt to become even more “scientific” and prove to people that companies were giving people precisely what they wanted, advertisers in the 1930s turned to statistics gleaned from public opinion polls and market research. Scientizing advertising did two things – it helped companies make marketing plans based on research and it made the entire industry look like it was based on solid, objective science.

Of course, advertising changed a lot after the 1950s as newspapers, magazines, and posters were replaced by television and radio. We know how toxic this became as advertisers would do anything to sell a product – just look at how long cigarette companies denied the harms of tobacco even as they were aware of the research of its effects on human health.

The Attention Economy

There has always been competition for people’s attention, but when the Internet opened up a new space for ads in the 1990s, marketing was operating on the next frontier. Soon, entire corporations operated solely on advertising revenue, making the battle for our attention even more crucial to their survival. Whereas 80 years ago they might have had a minimum of 10 seconds as a street car full of signage went by, digital ads have about two seconds to capture consumers’ attention.

That two-second hook data comes from a large research study funded by Mars and Real Eyes that used webcams and facial recognition AI to perform sentiment analysis on subjects. The goal was to see just how much attention people really paid to what was in front of them on their smartphone or laptop screens since attention is closely correlated with business outcomes.

The findings made it clear that we are oversaturated with ads, but that they don’t do much good if people don’t pay attention to them. And perhaps most importantly, ads tend not to catch people’s eye unless they elicit some sort of emotion. That’s a lot to ask for in 2 seconds.

And that brings us to neuromarketing. Advertisers have 2 seconds to tell a story and, according to Nielsen research, our brains forget most of what we’ve seen within 24 hours. That adds another layer of complexity for marketers – advertising efforts have to be riveting AND more memorable in order to influence our brand choices. But how can we measure these things?

You’ve probably guessed by now that many people think the answer lies in neuroscience and the advanced equipment available to measure our neurological responses. But the approach also has its detractors, with many people claiming that neuromarketing is nothing but pseudoscience.

Tools of the Trade

Psychoanalysis has not been replaced by the technology of neuroscience, but one thing it’s important to remember is that nothing can read our minds. Devices can measure signals from our brains but interpreting them is another matter. Nonetheless, with the rise of online video ads, neuromarketers now avail themselves of facial analysis technology, and AI too. And neuromarketing is already transforming data collection by changing the meaning of what it means to be in a “focus group.”

Neuromarketing firms, like EmSenseSands ResearchMindLab International and NeuroSense, specialize in these techniques as well as advancing this research into new areas, including into the realm of predictive analytics. After all, what good is this data if you can’t use it to build your ad campaign?

An impressive array of tools are currently used to measure voluntary and involuntary reflexes when it comes to visual and auditory stimuli. One category is standard physiological tools that don’t measure direct brain activity, such as those that monitor heartbeat (ECG), respiration rates, and blood pressure. But it’s rare to be so engaged in a 10-second ad that your heart rate or blood pressure rises. That’s why tools which measure electrodermal activity as well as emotional activity are becoming more common. Facial electromyography (fEMG) measures muscle activity by detecting electrical impulses generated by muscle fibers. Meanwhile, eye-trackers (ET) measure reflexes like gaze fixation and pupil dilation. Voice pitch analysis (VOPAN) is pretty self-explanatory. But even with all this technology, there are limits to how much we can learn.

Neurophysiological tools are designed to measure and record brain activity in the hopes that something does go on deep inside of us when we see an ad. Advertisers would like to use these signals to get an idea of what sparks consumer behavior so they can replicate success. The technology sounds intense, but it’s all non-invasive. Electroencephalography (EEG), positron emission tomography (PET), magnetoencephalogaphy (MEG), functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), and transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) are the main tools that have given us a new data set to work from.

Now we just have to figure out what it all means.

How do know we’re on the right track if all we can do is correlate brain signals to behavioral patterns. After all, correlation is not causation. So neuromarketing can’t provide much insight into how to use this data to explain consumer behavior. At best, it can tell us if the brain has roughly negative, neutral, or positive reactions to ads, brands, online experiences, pricing, and products.

Neuroscience or Neuroscientism?

So is it pseudoscience? Are marketers simply using the tools of science to make their craft sound more “science-y”? There’s an argument that even traditional focus groups were a pseudoscientific method.

Taking these kinds of measurements is not only making the assumption that our body betrays signs of our purchasing intentions, but predicated on the idea that people make purchasing decisions subconsciously or emotionally rather than rationally. In some cases that’s certainly the case, but it’s far from a universal truth. There’s also the problem that not all data can be extrapolated to the masses. We have a long history of using relatively homogenous groups (often white males) as a source of data, assuming that their responses will be just like someone of another ethnicity or gender. And, of course, that’s wrong. But at the moment, it’s unclear how diverse the subjects are in neuromarketing research.

The biggest problem for marketers is that people usually don’t know or can’t explain why they chose one brand over another. Or if they think they can, they’re often wrong, even when it comes to genuine preference. So neuromarketing tries to elicit the things we can’t explain.

Take the “Pepsi Challenge” of the 70s and 80s, for example. In blind taste tests, it was far more common for subjects to choose Pepsi as the better beverage. But that left Pepsi confused – why, then, was Coke so much more popular if people didn’t prefer the taste?

That’s not even the strangest part.

The Cola Wars continue, and in 2003, a neuroscientist named Read Montague decided to recreate the Pepsi Challenge in his lab while monitoring the subjects’ physiological responses with an MRI. And they still chose Coke, even though Pepsi produced a stronger response in the brain’s reward center. In fact, when Montague performed a second experiment telling subjects in advance which sample was Coke and which was Pepsi, they almost all chose Coke. And their MRI’s changed. Now they showed a response in a part of the brain associated with high cognitive functioning. It’s as if the subjects were ruminating on something more intangible than taste while drinking Coke.

This raises the question of whether brands can truly shape perception – and if that perception can create a life-long affinity for a product that overrides other elements of decision-making. If you look at the online lives of the two brands, you’ll see that Pepsi wins in terms of the number of global brand mentions and in sentiment.

Of course, it also raises a big issue for neuromarketers – does their data really mean anything if brain signals don’t match up with real-world decision making? Even sophisticated ECG and AED analyses have shown an incompatibility between market research findings and actual consumer behavior.

In the end, no matter how scientific the data looks, it seems pretty clear that these tools can really only measure our bodily reactions and not our behavior. The question is still open as to whether brain activity is a reliable indicator of anything that would be useful for marketers.

It raises another question: is neuromarketing just a gimmicky and imprecise 21st-century version of the focus group, now with more machines? We have yet to find any brain signature that can reliably predict people’s decisions out in the real world. So what are we measuring, anyway? Is this just pseudoscientific “neuroscientism” fad that companies partake in out of a desperate wish to find some novel technique that gets them that crucial 2 seconds of our attention?


Critics have labeled neuromarketing a “brandwashing” technique, implying that these scientific efforts are just another level of manipulation in their long-game pursuit of our money and loyalty. It’s true that brands want those things, but brandwashing implies that they’re conspiring to manipulate us.

When it comes to neuromarketing, it seems pretty clear that’s not the case since there’s not even enough evidence that it works. There’s certainly no evidence that any of these tools can be used to change someone’s mind about a product. And all of the subjects in neuromarketing studies are informed subjects. If a company were to use neuromarketing to manipulate an unaware buyer, as Facebook did in its quest to alter people’s emotions on their platform, then there’s an ethical discussion to be had.

Of course, marketers are in a tricky position. It’s unethical to bypass someone’s rational defenses without their knowledge (that’s why advertisements are so often labeled as advertisements on social media or in magazine advertorials, for example. But marketing does work on a subconscious level. It plays off people’s confidence (or lack thereof) and it often encourages consumption regardless of finances. In that sense, there’s some manipulation involved. But it’s certainly not the same as trying to pre-program someone’s thoughts.

Still, the Neuromarketing Science & Business Association has established general principles and ethical guidelines surrounding best practices for researchers, however, to keep anything too creepy from happening. But for now, neuromarketing is merely a high-tech focus group, not a method for reading minds.

Everything Old is New Again

At this point, neuromarketing probably isn’t sophisticated enough to realize its critics’ worst fears. It’s also not the ultra-high-tech recipe for the perfect brand campaign. But it’s not all bad either. It can help us understand what people respond to on some level, giving us some indication as to whether they desire item A or item B, or whether a campaign is engaging or boring.

Tailoring advertisements and other brand activities to people’s desires and preferences is no evil deed. In fact, it can help get the right information in front of the right eyes.

Most importantly, it could give brands better ways of telling stories that people will remember.

Featured Image: Alina Grubnyak on Unsplash