Neuromarketing then and now

In 2004, the New York Times published If Your Brain Has A Buy Button, What Pushes It?, on neuromarketing. In it they mention an interesting fMRI study about Coke and Pepsi - when subjects didn't know which was which, preference was expressed equally between the drinks and an area in the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex responded. When told they were drinking "the real thing," a Coke slogan, regions in the hippocampus and another part of the prefrontal cortex lit up as well, and three out of four subjects chose Coke, suggesting ad memories processed in the additional regions influenced their choice. A dramatic idea, and people were abuzz.

In 2006, many more studies have been conducted but what we've really learned is that the data may be overhyped. Martin Skov is skeptical:

Our knowledge of how the brain's preference system works is simply too rudimentary...Even if some ad actually elicits a high response in the reward system this activity may not, simply, correlate with a clear-cut preference for the ad. The reason is that the reward system is composed of several different structures which may interact and compete for the final verdict.

As well, the activation of mirror neurons may be a misleading path to follow since a connection between empathy and preference has not been established.

Nor are there behavioural links to the "Halle Berry neuron" and recognition patterns for familiar faces. In a lab you can correlate a single simple image viewed with no distraction to specific brain activity, but in real world settings it may have no bearing. If we watch a soft drink TV ad with pop star endorsement, is the activity in our brains due to memories of the image, the audio track, or related gossip from a tabloid? Or maybe it's due not to the celebrity but the drink's packaging, its flavour, a display ad in the supermarket? Or an association with a friend who offered us one the day before? Which of these factors - and many more - would influence us to buy? There are too many cognitive variables to draw a direct conclusion, as the recent debunking of the Superbowl ad study demonstrates.

Not yet, anyway. Then comes the question of how to apply that knowledge. But two years ago in the NYT article, one researcher proposed an ironic idea:

Dr. Sam McClure, a postdoctoral researcher at Princeton and a co-author of the soft drink study, suggested that neuromarketing might someday even be used to protect vulnerable brains.

The prefrontal cortex, which helps mediate consumer choice, develops late in children and is impaired in older people, groups that are highly susceptible to advertising, he said. Young children are often sucked in by advertisements for sugary foods, while the elderly can fall victim to buying fake insurance policies.

"If brain imaging studies clearly showed those vulnerabilities, laws could be passed to protect people from advertising," Dr. McClure said.


Blogger Daria said...

Neuromarketing is fascinating and I can see lots of opportunities for advertising and marketing industry. However Martin Skov is right. The truth is that brain is very complex tool and jumping to any conclusions at that stage can be misleading. We don't have enough data and we don't understand why processes happen and how do they relate to our behaviour. In order to make neuromarketing usable tool in marketing, we need the holistic picture and this is achievable through compiling all avilable research methods.

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16/2/06 09:33  

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