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What Can’t Speak, Can’t Lie: An Exploration of Neuromarketing

neuromarketing brain scan

1 year ago

By Hansa Rajaraman

It is somewhat ironic that the first mention of the human brain in history was about its removal. Ancient Egyptian scrolls on the organ asserted that mummification wasn’t complete until the brain was pulled out with a hook through the nostril and preserved in canopic jars. Over the Middle Ages, through the Renaissance and right until today, we’ve been curious about the brain and its functions. In fact, you could say we’ve been hooked.

Fortunately, studying the brain today means we can answer questions like ‘why do we do what we do?’ while having our brains still comfortably placed in our skulls and of no disturbance to anyone’s nostrils. Neuroscience has piqued our interests where even non-neural cognitive psychology could not – although both are concerned with the same questions.

Today, neuroscience has seeped into our lives in larger ways than we can imagine through the developing discipline of neuromarketing.

Whether it’s your favorite music or the type of coffee you drink, these products reached your ears and mouth after intense research. Many products you possess were specifically meant for you, because they were designed for someone like you – with your tastes, spending patterns and habits. Marketing has stepped in with neuroscience to open your head, figure out what catches your attention and what doesn’t, and build a marketing strategy revolving around you.

And marketers don’t even need you in a lab to do it.

What Is Neuromarketing?

The term neuromarketing was created in the late 1990s to propose a union between marketing and brain-imaging technology. Over the last decade, it’s evolved into a broader definition -the application of neuroscientific methods to analyze and understand human behavior in relation to markets and marketing exchanges.

The purpose is simple- how do people make decisions, and what can marketers do to influence those decisions? Neuromarketing is the scientific explanation to consumer choices.

How does it work? Brain-imaging technologies such as the fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging), QEEG (quantitative electroencephalography) and MEG (magnetoencephalography) are at the core of this science. The fMRI is most commonly used in neuromarketing and measures your brain’s mental activity.

When the human brain is being used its different regions require more oxygen, which is trackable through blood oxygen level-dependent (BOLD) signals that the fMRI can detect. These are displayed as areas of high mental activity. In neuromarketing, the fMRI is used to observe how your brain responds to consumer stimuli-brands, preferences and tastes by studying the BOLD activation in your brain.

Neuromarketing with Starbucks

Pepsi vs. Coca-Cola

Let’s take a look at the infamous Neuromarketing experiment “Pepsi vs. Coca-Cola.” There were two taste tests, one blind and the other labeled. During the blind taste test, the subjects didn’t know what they were drinking. When the test subjects drank Pepsi, the fMRI showed activation in the region of the brain which functioned as a “reward center,” indicating people liked the taste of Pepsi. During the labeled test when customers knew what they were drinking, the centers of the brain responsible for memory and emotion were activated when they drank Coke.

The results indicated that people believed they prefer Coke based on emotions and nostalgia, when their body actually preferred Pepsi. Thus the brand image had a greater influence on their behavior than the brand itself, which raised a significant neuroethical question: what if marketing can control the mind?

It was unnerving that the brain could contradict what the rest of the body felt without being aware it was doing so. People became anxious about the subliminal priming of their free will and how their thoughts can be influenced.

“Subliminal priming” refers to the activation of goals in your mind, outside of your awareness. While you can’t create goals (like the movie Inception) you can activate the existing ones. For instance, ads about cosmetics can activate a “look good” goal, and a grocery store can activate “eating healthy” goals. The activation of these goals can be monitored with tools like eye-tracking and heat-mapping.

Research has shown that while you may not consciously recognize these goals are being activated, you may be aware that your behavior has shifted towards achieving them. Neuromarketing proves our biology has an impact on decision-making and action, but how strong of an impact is difficult to qualify as studying the brain deals with paradoxes and contradictions that aren’t easy to wrap one’s head around.

Overall, it’s a science that remains exciting to marketers for two prime reasons; First, humans are social creatures and we do not always fully articulate what we prefer or what we don’t. Marketing expert Martin Lindstrom views neuromarketing simply as “an instrument used to help us decode what we as consumers are already thinking about when we’re confronted with a product or a brand”. Using neuroimaging, marketers can fully grasp what a consumer likes and design a marketing strategy to influence his buying behavior.

The second reason is a natural extrapolation of the first:

Once the marketer knows the consumer’s preferences, they can create a marketing strategy that exists even before the product does, because they can predict which products will be a success before they hit the market.

As you may guess, the brilliance of neuromarketing has opened doors to other fields as well. Designing food products, analyzing hit rates of movies, and determining the success of political candidates are just a few other examples where neuromarketing is applied today.

Neuroscientific information explains a certain behavior is often regarded as valid when backed with research, even in cases when neuroscience is irrelevant to the logic of the explanation. After all, people may lie but the brain is honest – and we’re quick to believe it.

This blog was based on:

  • Thomas Zoëga Ramsøy’s Selected Readings of Consumer Neuroscience and Neuromarketing- 2nd Edition
  • Martin Lindstrom’s Buy-ology: The Truth and Lies on Why We Buy
  • Bercea Olteanu, M.D. Neuroethics (2015) 8: 191. Neuroethics and Responsibility in Conducting Neuromarketing Research
  • Brenninkmeijer, JonnaSchneider, Tanja & Woolgar, Steve: Witness and silence in neuromarketing: managing the gap between science and its application. 2018. – Unspoken, Unseen, Unheard of. Unexplored Realities in Qualitative Research, a conference of Research Network “Qualitative Methods” of the European Sociological Association. 

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