Say hello to the Ventral Striatum, marketing’s new best friend

by: on 17 March 2015

SYZYGY Group’s psychologist Dr Paul Marsden advises caution with the latest findings from consumer neuroscience that brain scans can predict marketing success

"We can’t accurately map thoughts, emotions or dreams to brain activity (yet), and perhaps the endeavour is as futile as opening up a computer and looking for Microsoft Word."

Dr Paul Marsden, SYZYGY Group

The results of a landmark consumer neuroscience study will be published later this year showing that brain scans can indeed predict the effectiveness of marketing material. But there’s a catch, only the most expensive fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) scans were found to offer any additional value over simply asking people what they think. No significant added value was found for the far less expensive EEG brain scans, nor for other physiological response measures such as eye-tracking or biometrics.

Neuronirvana vs. neurobollocks

The independent peer-reviewed study has been funded by the Advertising Research Foundation to find out once and for all if ‘neuromarketing’ is anything more than - as one popular blog calls it - neurobollocks. Ever since a highly publicised fMRI brain scan study in 2004 was used to explain why people say they prefer the taste of Pepsi but buy Coke (brain scans imply – through questionable reverse inference - that Coke’s brand image in our brain alters our behaviour), marketers have been hyping up the potential of neuromarketing in product, packaging and advertising design.

The basic idea is that measuring brain or other physiological responses can bypass rationalising biases, misinterpretations and self-censorship that plague the validity and reliability of self-reports. Surveys may lie and you may lie, but your brain doesn’t lie. For example, eye-tracking and biometric responses (skin conductance, heart activity, breathing) are used in digital marketing as proxies for brain activity to measure attention and interest without asking the difficult to answer questions about wandering attention and interest. Measuring neural responses directly though brain scans go one step further, potentially identifying the origins of physiological, psychological and behavioural response.

The problem is that the science and evidence do not match up to the hype of neuromarketing. We can’t accurately map thoughts, emotions or dreams to brain activity (yet), and perhaps the endeavour is as futile as opening up a computer and looking for Microsoft Word. Moreover, neuromarketing has turned out to be expensive, inconvenient, unverified, largely incompatible with marketing practice, and the hype has been widely dismissed by researchers and scientists as poppycock and pseudoscience - a combination of bad thinking, bad PR stunts and bad science.

So the ARF study asked a team of independent university researchers to look at a range of responses to 37 TV ads, from explicit survey responses (likability, purchase intent, recognition, familiarity), to implicit psychological responses (Implicit Association Test), physical biometric responses (skin conductance, heart rate, heart rate acceleration), eye-tracking responses (fixations), and neural (brain) responses. For neural response, both electrical brain responses were measured (composite EEG scan), and blood flow/oxygenation responses (fMRI scan) in the right amygdala (linked to emotions), pre-frontal cortex (linked to willingness to pay) and ventral striatum (linked to future purchase).

‘Neuromarketing’ techniques

·         Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) used to infer cognitive and affective response through changes in blood oxygenation to areas of the brain

·         Electroencephalography (EEG) used to infer attention and information processing response through changes to the electrical current in the scalp

·         Galvanic skin response (GSR) used to infer arousal response through sweat induced changes to skin conductivity

·         Electrocardiogram (ECG) used to infer attention response through changes to heart rate and electrical heart activity

·         Electromyograph (EMG) used to infer emotion (affect) response through changes to electrical activity in facial muscles

·         Video-oculograph (VOG) (eye-tracker) used to infer attention response through changes to gaze and focus

·         Implicit Association Test (IAT) using to infer attitude and memory response through performance changes to a reaction test

Vive le Ventral Striatum

What the researchers found is that beyond traditional surveys, only changes in blood activity to the ventral striatum captured by expensive fMRI scans helped explain variance in sales uplifts attributed to advertising (see here for an overview of methodology). In plain English, what your blood does in your brain might help marketers predict the effectiveness of their advertising. Whether the value of measuring activity in the subcortical part of your forebrain is worth the $300,000+ cost for buying or the $1000/scan cost of renting an fMRI scanner is another matter.

So what should we make of this study?  Just more neuro-bonkers and neuro-babble of the ‘neuroscience of ISIS’ genre? Or is the ventral striatum marketing’s new hero? Neither. We should be cautious about over-interpreting these initial findings until other studies have made a robust attempt to falsify the claim that activity in the ventral striatum is a predictor of real world advertising success. Likewise, we shouldn’t rule out the possibility that cheaper EEG brain scans or other physiological response measures might one day help reveal the success-potential of marketing materials and new products. The results of this study are not conclusive, not least because they are based on an assumption rich mashup of individual level data, market level data and modelled data. Nevertheless the tentative findings do suggest that perhaps we should hesitate before throwing the consumer neuroscience baby out with the neuromarketing bathwater.

Whilst it’s difficult to take anything associated with neuromarketing any more seriously than neuro-linguistic programming, we shouldn’t dismiss the possibility that one day an economically viable and useful consumer neuroscience will emerge. It’s not just because pseudoscience-peddling charlatans hijacked the term neuromarketing that brain science will have nothing to offer marketing. Yes, the brief fad of brain-branding marketing with a ‘neuro’ prefix turned out to be a thoroughly bad idea, attracting crackpots more suited to worlds of psychics, crystals and craniometry. But measuring brain behaviour is not the same as measuring auras and chakras. In the absence of gold standard market testing, we shouldn’t preclude the idea that consumer neuroscience might enhance the predictive value of traditional methods such as focus groups, preference surveys and market simulations. 

So whilst the jury is still out on the emergent area of consumer neuroscience, let’s not dismiss it as neuromarketing 2.0 quite yet.

By Dr Paul Marsden, consumer psychologist, SYZYGY Group