The Brain’s Buying Power

Some television commercials and advertising campaigns just seem to stick in your head. (Many people can still sing jingles that appeared in ads decades ago.) Marketing gurus might have considered these powerful, long-lasting ads pure luck, stumbled upon after months of ineffective campaigns. But, now, marketing professionals are using science to shape advertising. The application of neuroscience technology to the field of marketing has garnered considerable controversy, but also considerable traction, and the use of so-called “neuromarketing” will likely increase in the coming years, according to industry experts.

Neuromarketing is loosely described as the use of neuroscience methodologies to understand human behavior related to markets and market exchanges. Really, it’s just a new way to sell more stuff. As a marketing method, neuromarketing is a relatively secretive practice. It is unclear how many industry members actually solicit and use neuromarketing data and to what extent. However, the practice of using electroencephalogram (EEG), magnetoencephalogram (MEG), and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) techniques began more than a decade ago with partnerships between academic researchers and the marketing industry.

Psychiatry and related medical fields have long used EEG, MEG, fMRI, and related technologies to better understand the human brain and the underpinnings of emotion and social interaction. Neuromarketing, however, has brought these technologies into our daily lives to search for brain-based explanations to routine activities and exchanges. To some critics, the “real-world” applications of neuroscience are beginning to alter the perception of personal identity, responsibility, causation, intellectual discourse, and decision-making skills.

Neuromarketing has been used to evaluate which television commercials will be remembered, which soft drink purchasers prefer, which politician has the most enduring message, and which movies consumers will see. With limited neuromarketing data available publicly, it is unclear if these research techniques provide better or more cost-effective data than traditional marketing research methods, but it does provide a whole new spin on traditional focus groups.

While proponents of the methodology view neuromarketing as an extension of pure research science that quantifies and clarifies consumer preferences, opponents worry that neuromarketing carries important consequences related to the public’s trust of medicine and the ethics of academic-industrial partnerships. Still, even supporters of neuromarketing admit that the technology is not advanced enough yet to define a “buy button” in the brain, which is good news for consumers. But, what about simply promoting socially harmful or unhealthy behaviors?

Is neuromarketing the best use of science in the public interest? Is the marketing industry better able to give consumers what they want or are they manipulating human behavior? With many unanswered questions surrounding neuromarketing, the best advice is the tried-and-true: “Let the buyer beware.” Especially when it comes to your brain.


Ariely D, & Berns GS (2010). Neuromarketing: the hope and hype of neuroimaging in business. Nature reviews. Neuroscience, 11 (4), 284-92 PMID: 20197790

Astolfi L, De Vico Fallani F, Cincotti F, Mattia D, Bianchi L, Marciani MG, Salinari S, Colosimo A, Tocci A, Soranzo R, & Babiloni F (2008). Neural basis for brain responses to TV commercials: a high-resolution EEG study. IEEE transactions on neural systems and rehabilitation engineering : a publication of the IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society, 16 (6), 522-31 PMID: 19144584

Fisher CE, Chin L, & Klitzman R (2010). Defining neuromarketing: practices and professional challenges. Harvard review of psychiatry, 18 (4), 230-7 PMID: 20597593

Vecchiato G, Astolfi L, De Vico Fallani F, Toppi J, Aloise F, Bez F, Wei D, Kong W, Dai J, Cincotti F, Mattia D, & Babiloni F (2011). On the use of EEG or MEG brain imaging tools in neuromarketing research. Computational intelligence and neuroscience, 2011 PMID: 21960996

Image via Ingrid Prats / Shutterstock.

  • We are marketers and continue to study brain science and it’s applications.

    In fact, the realistic application of brain science is likely at lest decades away, maybe longer. It is very complicated. We don’t really know why rats and social insects do things.

    However, unscrupulous and false claims are made all the time and being bought. In fairness, there is a demand for the fantasy beliefs.

    It’s all hype and likely to be so for a looong time.

    We actually have a nonsense free neuromarketing group on Linked In and a blog

    If you are in Chicago we have a neuroscience meet up group that covers marketing.

  • Richard Kensinger, MSW

    Marketing & advertising goods & services is a method to raise awareness of potential consumers & customers. Neuromarketing is meant to do this in a more sophisticated & potent manner.

    M & A for years uses techniques of creating illusions in a subliminal form. These illusions are a form of imagineering. They are designed to target The limbic area of our brains; & are meant to brand us from birth to death. I refer to the limbic region as the “reacting brain”; for it is the seat of all of our emotions, motivations, learning & memory, & our attraction & bonding to others.

    From eonomic literature that I’ve perused, it works about 10% of the time. Clearly, this is significant. Certainly, the technology is designed to enhance these results considerably.

    The 2nd most corporate recognized symbol in the world is Ronald McDonald! Santa is # 1.


  • phil

    I think bringing in neuroscience to help with Marketing is a brilliant move. With fMRI machines monitoring how our brains respond to products and advertisements, we will be able to learn more about ourselves and how the human culture is evolving with constant bombardment of advertisements. This is exactly what we want to use science for. The advertisements will continue to be made and continue to surround us in our daily lives, at least we can utilize the situation to understand our minds.

    Technology always moves forward and those who don’t adapt quickly will get left behind (Anyone still have a Nokia phone?). There is nothing to fear about understanding ourselves better.

  • There is no evidence any of this works, much that it doesn’t.

    We don’t know if recognition drives or triggers buying nor if emotions do. Correlation does not equal causality.

    Frankly most of accepted wisdom in marketing hasn’t been experimentally validated. The neuomarketing tools are all “faith-based”.

    The economic literature is very weak and largely ideological, for example, behavioral econ.

  • Neuroscience in its infancy and there is much to be learned. It seems like the marketing industry is jumping the gun using techniques of neuroscience to market their products. There is definitely a place for learning about the biological basis of consumer behavior, but the marketing industry should not be driving this research. The marketing industry is interested in making money not the public good.

  • Elmer Rich

    How does anyone ever know what is in the “public good?” How would that be measured and by whom using what criteria?

    Marketing is no more evil than anything else.

  • Krystyna Fragoso

    Reason and judgment are the qualities of an leader.
    It’s known as a pen. It’s just like a printer, hooked straight away to my brain.

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  • Charry

    Advertising manipulates our mind. They will show you the best, the most, and the number 1, but in the end, it’s just advertising. Advertising entices you to buy even if you do not need their products or services. Yes, it may work but not all the time now that the people are more aware of the media. The best thing to do is prove what they are saying and show it to the people.
    So buyers, you should be more careful.

  • Pingback: Neuroscience in Marketing – Delving Into the Consumer’s Brain | Brain Blogger()

Jennifer Gibson, PharmD

Jennifer Gibson, PharmD, is a practicing clinical pharmacist and medical writer/editor with experience in researching and preparing scientific publications, developing public relations materials, creating educational resources and presentations, and editing technical manuscripts. She is the owner of Excalibur Scientific, LLC.

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