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The world today is far more technologically and scientifically advanced than at any time in the past. Therefore, it shouldn’t be surprising that marketing techniques are also becoming more and more advanced.

Neuro marketing is probably the most cutting-edge and scientifically rigorous method of marketing that exists today. Erica Dube describes the method as follows,

“Utilizing fMRI [functional magnetic resonance imaging] involves using a powerful magnet to track the brain’s blood flow as subjects respond to audio and visual cues. This allows examiners to access a deep part of the brain known as the ‘pleasure center’ and lets marketers know how people are really responding to their work.” (1)

Researchers can also use electroencephalography (better known as an EEG), which is a much cheaper alternative. The fMRI usually costs $1000 per machine hour. However, the EEG has some drawbacks, most notably, it “does not grant access to deep parts of the brain where the ‘pleasure center’ is located.”

Regardless of the specific technique though, neuro marketing research has some major advantages over the more traditional methods of evaluating how customers perceive a product. Indeed, it has some common traits with the decision-making methodology Empathic Design. Dorothy Leonard and Jeffrey Rayport, who came up with Empathic Design, note the many failings of the more traditional focus groups and survey methods companies had used to figure out what it was that customers actually wanted,

​“It is extremely difficult to design an instrument for market research that is amenable to quantitative analysis and also open-ended enough to capture a customer’s environment completely. Market researchers have to contend with respondents’ tendency to try to please the inquirer by providing expected answers, as well as their inclination to avoid embarrassment by not revealing practices they suspect might be deemed inappropriate. The people who design surveys, run focus groups, and interview customers further cloud the results by inadvertently—and inevitably—introducing their own biases into the questioning.” (2)

On the other hand, empathic design stresses that researchers should observe customers in their “natural environment” to actually find out what they want, why they want it and what makes them tick in general.
Neuro marketing could be seen as the next evolution of that process. But instead of simply observing a customer, researchers are now observing what’s going on inside their customers brain.And as an example of how customers often report something false (even though they think it’s true), a recent post by Neuro Science Magazine found that while customers reported that video gave them a higher emotional response, the biometric data actually found that audio did. (3)Some of the uses for neuro marketing are very straightforward. For example, Impact notes that “Brands such as Campbell’s Soup, Gerber, and Frito-Lay have used neuromarketing to restyle their packaging designs.” (4) Customers were asked to look at the product’s packaging one piece at a time and record their feelings toward it. This was viewed in conjunction with in-depth interviews and the fMRI scans.

Each part of the product’s packaging, from its color, text size, imagery, texture, etc. were evaluated. For example, Frito-Lay found that shiny bags with pictures of chips on them were viewed negatively, so they redesigned their packaging.

If there’s one thing you quickly learn in business school, it’s that when it comes to business, nothing is done by accident.

Some of the other broad results that neuro marketing has discovered is that simple fonts and simple messages will encourage action. As Roger Dooley, the author of Brainfluence, points out, “If you need to convince a customer, client, or donor to perform some kind of task, you should describe that task in a simple, easy to read font.” In addition, it has been determined that people will look at what a person in an advertisement is gazing at. This can be an effective way to direct people’s eyes toward a call to action.

Free trials and special offers have furthermore been shown to build trust with customers or potential customers. And, as should be expected, smiling goes a long way to improve a brand’s perception and build trust with customers. People in advertisements should always (or at least, almost always) be smiling.

These findings can also give a list of “thou shall nots” to advertisers. For example, a study by Columbia University showed that if a consumer has too many choices, that may actually deter customers. This would be another variant of the “keep it simple” mantra neuro marketing has shown to be so important. (6)

Indeed, the list of broad findings has been quite wide. Other findings include that people have a much greater aversion to loss than want of gain. So, for example, most people would rather bet $50 than $500 even if the payout was also $50 and $500 respectively. Or just simple findings like the fact that customers like products that are fast and efficient. (7)

As one should expect though, there are also serious ethical concerns about neuro marketing. Marketing in general has often been criticized as being designed to manipulate rather than inform the population. One need look no further than political advertising for proof of this. No matter where you stand politically, it’s easy to see that catch phrases such as “Make America Great Again” or “Hope and Change” don’t objectively mean much of anything. But they have obviously had a major emotional resonance with voters.
Famous researchers have noted that the human mind doesn’t operate as a computer. It’s not even particularly rational. For example, Barry Adams sums up the views of the esteemed psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who “…uses the elephant and rider metaphor, where the elephant embodies our subconscious mind and the rider, our conscious mind, is only able to influence the elephant’s general direction in small ways.” (8)

Nobel Prize winning economists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky use a similar analogy with Type 1 Thinking (automatic and instinctual) and Type 2 Thinking (thorough and rational). People rely on Type 1 Thinking far more often than Type 2. (9)

Barry Adams sums up just how easily this knowledge could be used maliciously,

​“As neuroscience progresses its discovery of exactly how the human brain works – and, especially, how the subconscious parts of our mind can be influenced, manipulated, and coerced in ways our conscious mind is unaware of – increasingly we see the marketing industry embrace this research and utilise it towards more effective marketing and advertising.

“Take for example the concept of ‘priming‘ – influencing your customers’ behaviour by exposing them to specific triggers designed to encourage a desirable course of action. One example is how many fast food restaurants are designed to have uncomfortable seats, bright lighting and abundant noise, so that fast food customers are encouraged to consume their meals quickly and vacate their seats for the next customers.” (10)

And that is the tip of the iceberg for how neuro marketing could be used to manipulate consumers.

It is good that the awareness of neuro marketing is growing, and people are starting to realize their own biases and try to counteract them. This can alleviate some of the more troubling effects. But even when people know something rationally, that doesn’t mean they will act rationally. Everyone knows that smoking is bad for you, but yet people continue to smoke. And even with things that aren’t physically addictive, such as gambling, there are still many who will act against their best interests. Neuro marketing could (and does) incentivize people to continue to act in these destructive ways.

That being said, neuro marketing is by no means simply bad. The science has helped marketers better reach their customers and producers better design their products to appeal to what customers actually want. Dorothy Leonard and Jeffrey Rayport mentioned one example after another of how companies had improved their products and thereby improved their customers’ experience with Empathic Design. The breakthroughs of neuro marketing should do the same.

But that doesn’t mean that some of the more serious problems neuro marketing presents should simply be brushed under the rug. Unfortunately, there’s no obvious solution regarding regulation. How do you regulate particular styles of marketing? Or should regulation simply target particular products (as was done when regulators banned cigarette companies from advertising on television)? There will probably need to be some rules of this nature. That being said, the government may not be the best institution to regulate neuro marketing because, as noted above, politicians on both sides of the aisle have become very effective at using it.


  1. Erica Dube, “Neuromarketing 101: What is Neuromarketing and How are Companies Using It?” Impact,  September 7, 2017, https://www.impactbnd.com/blog/neuromarketing
  2. Dorothy Leonard and Jeffrey F. Rayport, “Spark Innovation Through Empathic Design,” The Harvard Business Review, November-December 1997 Issue, https://hbr.org/1997/11/spark-innovation-through-empathic-design
  3. Roger Dooley, “Study: Winner Declared in Audio vs. Video for Emotion,” Neuro Science Magazine, Accessed October 9, 2018 https://www.neurosciencemarketing.com/blog/articles/audio-vs-video.htm
  4. Erica Dube, “Neuromarketing 101: What is Neuromarketing and How are Companies Using It?” Impact,  September 7, 2017, https://www.impactbnd.com/blog/neuromarketing
  5. Roger Dooley, Brainfluence, Chapter 26, Wiley, November, 2011, https://www.amazon.com/Brainfluence-Persuade-Convince-Consumers-Neuromarketing/dp/1118113365/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1539118758&sr=8-1&keywords=brainfluence
  6. Philip Mahler, “15 Powerful Examples of Neuromarketing in Action,” IMotions, March 7, 2017, https://imotions.com/blog/neuromarketing-examples/
  7. https://imotions.com/blog/neuromarketing-examples/
  8. Barry Adams, “Friday Commentary: A Crossroads for Marketing – The Ethics of Neuromarketing,” State of Digital, February 21, 2014, https://www.stateofdigital.com/crossroads-ethics-of-neuromarketing/
  9. See Daniel Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, April, 2013, https://www.amazon.com/Thinking-Fast-Slow-Daniel-Kahneman/dp/0374533555

Originally published at www.andrewsyrios.com.

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