Neuromarketers Are Studying Brain Scans to Influence Our Product Choices

A doctor looking at MRI scan results.

(© zinkevych/Fotolia)


When was the last time you made a pro-con list? Carefully considered all factors and weighed them against each other before you made a choice?

Chances are that most of your decisions do not follow this rigorous process. They are made quickly, subconsciously, and often do not adhere to any strict logic. Rather, your decisions are influenced by your mood, your relatives and friends, and a range of other factors that scientists are still unraveling.

When the shoppers were asked why they chose that bottle of wine, almost none of them noticed the music or believed it influenced their decision.

Influencing your choices is also the holy grail of marketing. Companies spend vast amounts of time and money creating product designs and ads. These ads are often tested in focus groups or individual interviews to ensure that they will do well in the market.

Traditional methods of market research rely on self-reports. The participants are asked which ad they find more appealing and why. But there are a few problems with this approach.

For one, the participants might not fully understand their true preferences. They might think that the green design looks more appealing when they compare choices, but then pick up the orange one when they mindlessly wander through the supermarket. It's well known that we humans often do not act rationally, so why would we accurately predict our own behavior?

Another issue is that we like to think of ourselves as logical. Even though our choices are at least partially made subconsciously, we have a tendency to rationalize them after the fact. For example, when supermarkets play French music, the shoppers are 3-4 times more likely to buy French wine. Play German music and German wine sales go up. But when the shoppers are asked why they chose that bottle of wine, almost none of them notice the music or believe it influenced their decision. Instead, they say that they preferred the label or price.

Finally, participants might truly know their preference but choose not to disclose it. Imagine sitting in a focus group watching a TV spot that makes fun of somebody's misfortune. You might be too embarrassed to admit that this is the funnier and more appealing spot, because you're afraid of being judged.

Results from traditional market research are therefore unavoidably subjective and biased.

In the hope of overcoming these limitations, newer ways of market research have been developed, among them neuromarketing, which applies neuroscience to marketing.

Today, neuromarketers focus their efforts on three main stages: to aid product ideation, evaluate the finished product or prototypes, and develop the best marketing strategy. In all cases, they want to find the option with the most "favorable" brain response – but exactly how this brain response is defined varies vastly between studies.

Perhaps the most promising of all non-traditional techniques is functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). This neuroimaging technique measures brain activity indirectly by tracking changes in blood flow. In short, active brain areas receive more oxygen-rich blood. The fMRI scanner picks up the difference between oxygen-rich and oxygen-poor blood and can therefore measure which brain areas are more active than others. But is there truly an untapped potential in the human brain that can be unlocked using neuroimaging?

A number of studies claim that functional neuroimaging has been successfully applied to marketing scenarios. For example, when researchers tried to predict the success of 6 different ads for chocolate bars, the brain response of 18 women was reportedly more predictive than their self-reported preference. The ad that was rated best in interviews was actually the least successful in a real supermarket. In contrast, the neuroimaging algorithm correctly predicted the top two selling ads.

One of the biggest fears is that the potential insights from neuromarketing studies could be used in new, disturbing ways for consumer manipulation.

This study has a number of limitations, which are representative of the majority of neuromarketing research. The field is full of experiments that are conducted with small samples or using suboptimal protocols, with a lack of appropriate control conditions. While a small number of academic researchers are using rigorous protocols, most studies are conducted by neuromarketing companies or funded by the corporations whose products were tested. Such set-ups raise the risk of biased reporting, calling into question the reliability of the findings. Publication bias – the tendency to publish only positive results which leads to a skewing of reported results in the literature – is especially common for industry-funded studies.

One of the biggest fears is that the potential insights from neuromarketing studies could be used in new, disturbing ways for consumer manipulation. If a new product or ad campaign is designed to target our subconscious decision-making better than ever before, are we less able to resist the purchase? We might believe that we all have a healthy amount of self-control, but when we're in the supermarket after a stressful day or we're struggling to manage the self-control of someone else, like a small child, is it ethical for corporations to tap our unconscious decision-making?

As with any technology, the deciding factor is how it will be used. While there are many dangerous applications that might make unhealthy products one day impossible to resist, there are also some more optimistic scenarios. For example, brain scans have been used to predict the success of an antismoking campaign. If such public health interventions that are notoriously ineffective could encourage more people to make healthier lifestyle choices, don't we all benefit? Or is this still a step too far toward manipulation and propaganda?

The conduct of the studies themselves is another problematic area. Academic researchers must go through a rigorous process before they can start a study, which involves review by an ethics board. In contrast, there are barely any regulations for corporate studies. This is not only relevant for the experience of the participants, but also for how the data are being used. Take an extreme case – the brain scan reveals that the participant has a tumor. Universities have protocols in place for how to deal with these situations – often, the scans would be reviewed by a neuro-radiologist and the participant would be informed. Commercial organizations are under no such obligation.

Neuromarketing carries great potential to nudge positive behavioral change, though it also carries the risk of abuse.

Neuromarketing is now a highly competitive field with many different vendors. The Advertising Research Foundation compared 8 vendors that used neuroscientific methods or biometrics for the research of ad campaigns and found that there were differences in methodology and approach; most were proprietary and vendors were not willing to disclose what they measured and how. This lack of transparency is slowing down progress, as researchers cannot contrast and compare different approaches to optimize them.

Despite these methodological challenges, neuromarketing carries great potential to nudge positive behavioral change, though it also carries the risk of abuse. Where one ends and the other starts will need to be clearly defined. It's time to start a public debate now to inform future laws and regulations for the neuromarketing industry, as these technologies will eventually affect us all.

Julia Gottwald
Julia Gottwald is the co-author of “Sex, Lies, and Brain Scans”, which won the BPS Popular Science Book Award 2017. She completed her PhD in Psychiatry at the University of Cambridge and also holds degrees in Neuroscience from the University of Oxford and Biochemistry from Free University (Germany). In 2016, she won the BAP Public Communication Prize. In 2017, she was awarded the Association of British Science Writers Best Student Journalist Award. She now works for the healthcare communications agency Havas Lynx in Manchester, UK.
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