Wednesday, March 09, 2005

What's the Deal with Neuromarketing?

Neuromarketing, a marketing research technique that uses brain imaging to assess marketing messages was born at Harvard in the late 1990's when Gerry Zaltman (a marketing professor) began scanning people's brains for corporations. From the corporation's standpoint, neuromarketing allows for more concrete data to be collected that is free from problems that plague other types of marketing research, such as self-reporting biases.

As neuromarketing has grown in popularity (and publicity), certain corporations have become decidedly more secretive about their use of the technique. Some institutions who have participated in neuromarketing research have removed any mention of those studies from their websites. There are definitely several ethical issues involved, as well as methodological issues (which I'm sure will decrease if the technique is more widely used.)

First, is it even ethical? While fMRI research is generally considered to be very safe, there are definitely more potential risks than, say, participating in a traditional focus group. Does the end-product of neuromarketing research contribute enough to society to balance out the risks? Is using a medical technology appropriate for something that could lead to increased air pollution after we all buy SUV's? And, in the case of neuromarketing research being done at academic institutions, is it ethical to use research funds and resources to pay for this type of research instead doing a study on schizophrenia?

Commericial Alert is concerned, that if neuromarketing actually works, it will lead to an "increased incidence of marketing-related diseases" such as diabetes and obesity. While you could have the same concern with traditional marketing research, some consider an effective neuromarketing approach to be akin to brainwashing.

One major problem in the field right now is that the early work is being done by people who are not experienced in both marketing and neuroscience. A neuroscientist may not be able to select the best subject pool for collecting marketing data. Also, a neuroscientist will be more likely to design an experiment that minimizes known confounds in fMRI research, but may not minimize marketing confounds appropriately. Similarly, a marketing person may not design the experiment such that any good conclusions can be made from the neuroimaging data.

When reviewing the studies that have been published in scientific journals and mentioned in the news media, I was struck by how the results seemed to be presented in a trivialized manner. For example, in There's a Sucker Born in Every Medial Prefrontal Cortex, Clint Kilts (the director of the BrightHouse Institute) explained "the magic spot -- the medial prefrontal cortex. If that area is firing, a consumer isn't deliberating, he said: he's itching to buy. 'At that point, it's intuitive. You say: 'I'm going to do it. I want it.' " Now, the medial prefrontal cortex is associated with reward processing, goal based behavior, certain types of memory, and sometimes, the sense of "self." I haven't seen anything in the literature that suggests that activation in the medial prefrontal cortex means that someone is going to buy a product, or even that they want to buy it. You could argue that, because the medial prefrontal cortex is a "goal area" that the subject has made the "goal" of buying the product he is responding to. But in traditional reward processing and goal-oriented research, there is a built-in expectation of getting a reward or achieving a goal. In neuromarketing, there is no such built-in expectation. Are the researchers going to give everyone a Porsche because their brain lit up in a certain area when they saw a picture of one?

And in this note, will neuromarketing ever turn out to be a viable marketing tool?

Other questions on the efficacy of neuromarketing abound; this news article also questions whether neuromarketing will even work. An article in The Lancet Neurology highlights privacy concerns inherent in neuromarketing research.

Obviously, there are more issues than presented here. I highly suggest that you check out the articles on the Commercial Alert site, which, though definitely biased against neuromarketing and lacking in scientific analysis, provides some great food for thought.