Monday, December 21, 2009

Neuromarketing nonsense

A blog reader pointed out to me this nice popular press debunking, by Sally Satel (interestingly, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute), of the headset marketed by EmSense to gauge consumer reactions to advertising and products. The company website is notably lacking in documentation of any studies supporting their claims.  Here are clips from Satel's piece:

Neuromarketers are becoming the next generation of Mad Men. They are working for companies like Google, Frito-Lay and Disney. But instead of directly asking consumers whether they like a product, neuromarketers are asking their brains....Using electroencephalography (EEG)--a technology typically used by neurologists to diagnose seizures--marketers measure brain wave activity in response to advertisements and products. Electrodes placed on the subject's scalp collect the data. The consumer herself doesn't say a thing.

And that's the point. In the new world of neuromarketing, it is the more immediate, unedited emotional brain-level reaction to a product or ad that presumably indicates what the consumer really wants, even if she doesn't really know it. The rational and deliberate responses elicited in focus groups are considered unreliable....No wonder EmSense, a San Francisco-based market research company, succeeded in raising $9 million in capital last month....EmSense tests products with a band-like EEG device called the Emband that goes across the consumer's forehead. As she shops, the four sensors contained in the Emband collect data that, according to the company Web site, "open a window into the mind of the consumer."

Brain activation detected through the band's sensors is believed to signal the consumer's emotional engagement with a product. Engagement, in turn, is essential to sustaining interest and in enhancing memorability, important for developing brand loyalty. Yet the practical dimensions of neuromarketing are far from well-established.

First, how well does EEG detect emotion? It can gauge alertness, yes, but the more subtle kinds of mental states that relate to purchasing decisions--such as attraction, disgust, nostalgia or aspirational fantasy--are not accessible via brain wave analysis....Second, the notion of a discrete "buy button in the brain," as marketers call the holy grail of marketing, is deeply naive. Response to the shape, smell and color of a product is the culmination of complex processes that engage many areas of the brain...there is nothing close to a direct path between brain activation and actual consumer behavior.

Third, and most important, we still don't know whether any measure of neural activity predicts actual market performance or sales better than existing methods. Right now the data that are trumpeted by neuromarketers as revelatory have not been published in peer-reviewed journals. Nor has testing occurred under real-world circumstances in which consumers juggle their pocketbooks, the foreseeable reaction from spouse (you bought what?!?), other purchases they have recently made and even their mood at the time they go shopping.

Companies don't sell to brains; they sell to people. And human actions are determined by an array of motives and impulses that come into play once the subject removes the EEG apparatus from her head....Until the EEG marketing paradigm can prove itself to independent scientists, consumer actions will always speak louder than brain activation. Nonetheless, the allure of neuromarketing is obvious: Traditional focus groups seem too fuzzy and subjective; brain technology is objective, measurable and scientific...Having raised an impressive $9 million, the least one can safely say about EmSense is that it surely knows how to market itself. But whether EmSense, or other neuromarketers for that matter, can deliver on their high-tech promises remains to be seen.

1 comment:

Ron Wright said...

Deric -
Please note that there are some serious cognitive neuroscientists looking at the impact of advertising and the brain's reaction. Emsense with a single electrode placed on the forehead is most likely recording eye blinks (EMG) and not EEG. They are mostly recording biometric signals (heart rate, skin response, etc.) which has been around since the '70s. So using Emsense as an example is a non-starter.

Three companies including ours (Sands Research - www.sandsresearch.com) in neuromarketing are recording whole head EEG, i.e. from 32 to 64 electrode sites which is standard for every cognitive neuroscientist. The other two are Nielsen backed NeuroFocus and LAB out of Europe. The technology has advanced dramtically in the last twenty years and is now making it out of the lab setting to real world applications. Computing technology (hardware and software) plus advancements in amplifier technology has made it easier to cleanly collect those small EEG signals coming from the cortex and defining (using source analysis software) where the signals are generated. Same principles as used in seismology. Time locking those signals with stimulus presentation (i.e. television commercials) can determine the brain's reaction to the material.

Lots of advancement in this area but still a lot of challenges also. It is not a marketer's holy grail but it is another piece of information added to a mix of other pieces of information gathered via market research.

Thanks for your interest.
Ron Wright
CEO / Sands Research Inc.

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