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.


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Image via Ingrid Prats / Shutterstock.

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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