Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Neuromarketing - how advertisers could use our brains against us

This is a chunk of an essay I wrote for my MSc. in the module I think has been most interesting so far: External Communications. I previously posted some nuggets from research papers about TV adverts. This is a bit more in-depth. I hope you find it as interesting as I did.

A neuroscientist, plotting
In addition to the insights gleaned from cognitive and social psychology, many marketing experts are monitoring the emerging field of neuroscience, the study of physical changes in the brain that underlie thought processes, such as problem-solving, decision-making and recalling memories. Neuroscience proposes “these mechanisms must be rooted in brain function” (Standage and Trappenberg, 2012, p.235). Although electroencephalography has been used to study the effect of marketing materials on the brain since the 1970s, it is the growth in functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) procedures that has enabled neuroscience, ‘neuroeconomics’ and ‘neuromarketing’ to develop in the 21st Century (Kenning, Hubert and Linzmajer, 2012, pp.419-426).

Plassmann et al (2015) claim a number of large polling and market research companies with “neuromarketing” departments, used by companies as diverse as the food company, Campbell’s, and the broadcaster, Fox News. While it complements traditional consumer research, Standage and Trappenberg (2012) warn neuroscience is not ready to replace it entirely. There are critics of the neuromarketing approach, such as Addie (2011) who cites the “number of inadequacies” of using fMRI to examine brain functions, and is highly sceptical that neuroscience can actually deliver what it’s proponents claim.

Adopting a cautious approach, Plassmann et al (2015) outline five ways neuroscience could inform advertising strategy: identifying mechanisms, for example what causes consumers to lose control over their buying impulses; measuring implicit processes to explore situations where consumers cannot explain their buying actions; dissociating processes to see which decisions are intuitive reflexes and which are the product of conscious, rational thought; understanding the differences between individuals, which could help advertisers target individuals who are more likely to be susceptible to their messages; and, finally, improve predictions of how consumers are likely to behave. There are also challenges to using neuroscience in this way, including determining whether changes in the physiology of the brain definitely leads to behaviour change.

There have been some applied uses of neuroscience of interest to advertisers. Research reviewed by Kenning, Hubert and Linzmajer (2012) includes that adverts that consumers consider attractive led to brain activity in areas associated with integrating emotions into decision-making and rewards. Adverts rated as highly attractive and highly unattractive were more likely to be remembered. Brain areas associated with ‘rewards’ are also activated when products regarded as status symbols are viewed, with claims that neurological responses to products can then be used to predict purchasing behaviour.

Price has also been shown to have an effect – excessively high prices activate parts of the brain that anticipate losses, reducing the likelihood of a consumer to pick them. Kenning et al propose this could help businesses establish an acceptable ‘price threshold’. Finally, reinforcing the theory outlined by Harris & Sanborn (2014) about sex in advertising, Kenning et al (2012) comment that neuroimaging shows male consumers have the reward centres of their brains triggered by an attractive female face in an advert. This may have implications when businesses are choosing the ‘face’ of a particular advertising campaign.


Addie, I.  (2011) Is neuroscience facilitating a new era of the hidden persuader? International Journal of Market Research 53(3), 303-305

Harris, R. & Sanborn, F. (2014) A Cognitive Psychology of Mass Communication. Abingdon: Routledge

Kenning, P., Hubert, M. & Linzmajer (2012) “Consumer neuroscience” in Wells, V. & Foxall, G. (eds) Handbook of Developments in Consumer Behaviour. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar

Plassmann, H., Venkatraman, V., Huettel, S. & Yoon, C. (2015) Consumer Neuroscience: Applications, Challenges, and Possible Solutions. Journal of Marketing Research 52(4), 427-435

Standage, D. & Trappenberg, T. (2012) “Cognitive neuroscience” in Frankish, K. & Ramsey, W. (eds) The Cambridge Handbook of Cognitive Science. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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