Can Neuromarketers Really Peer Into Your Subconscious? They Say They Can.

The state of the universe.
July 16 2013 7:30 AM

What Are Neuromarketers Really Selling?

The poor data and shoddy logic behind a hyped business boom.

Geodesic sensor net used by scientists during an experiment at the EEG lab at Auckland University, where New Zealand's first computer images of thought process were obtained, December 17, 1998.
Geodesic sensor net used by scientists during an experiment at the EEG lab at Auckland University, where New Zealand's first computer images of thought process were obtained, December 17, 1998.

Photo by Reuters

The prefix “neuro” is attached to an increasing number of other terms these days. There are people conducting research in neuroeconomics, neuroethics, and of course neuroscience, the broad research field that covers everything from the study of chemical receptors on individual nerve cells to the workings of the entire human brain en masse. The neuro-neologism that has perhaps made the biggest impact outside of the academic world, though, is neuromarketing.

Marketers and advertising agencies have always conducted research, and they have adopted methodology and concepts from academic psychology for decades. Traditional marketing research typically involves questionnaires, focus groups, or in-depth interviews, and it is usually aimed at answering questions related to product development, advertising, or evaluating potential new markets. This seems eminently reasonable; if you have a new product that you want to launch in a specific market, why not ask the people in that market what they think of it?

But in the 1990s, some people on the fringes of the marketing world got very excited about new technology. Functional magnetic resonance imaging and other tools suddenly made it possible to visualise the workings of the human brain in unprecedented detail and precision. With an objective window into the working of the brain (in theory, anyway), marketers could neatly bypass many of the problems associated with asking subjects overt questions. A number of fMRI studies were conducted that explicitly investigated particular products and advertising, with often quite interesting and informative results. Unfortunately, fMRI scanners are bulky, very expensive, and not remotely portable. In addition, the participant has to lie supine in a narrow tube, watching images on a screen while trying to ignore the God-awful banging and clanking noise the scanner makes. To really commercialize neuromarketing, something much more portable, user-friendly, and above all cheaper was needed. It was recently found in a much older brain-recording technology: electroencephalography, or EEG.

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It’s been known since the late 19th century that the brain’s activity gives off electrical signals, and the first recording of that activity in humans was in 1924. EEG works by attaching recording electrodes to the scalp. It is used in clinical settings to diagnose epilepsy and monitor coma patients, and until recently (when better technologies like MRI came along) it was also used for diagnosing tumors and strokes. EEG is also a popular neuroscience research method and can provide very detailed information about the brain’s activity while the participant performs some kind of laboratory task. EEG is only good for sensing the activity of the surface of the brain; activity lower down is just too far away from the electrodes on the scalp to get reliable data. Recording neural activity through the skull is like listening to an argument in the apartment below yours by pressing your ear against the floor; you might be able to hear some muffled voices, and maybe even some of the louder details, but you’ve no hope at all of hearing what’s happening in an apartment five floors below.

Despite the long history of EEG, the marketing world was slow to embrace it as a research method. This is because for most of its history it suffered from the same problems as fMRI: reliance on expensive, bulky equipment that was difficult and time-consuming to set up and run properly. Modern research-grade EEG systems can use up to 256 separate electrodes, and fixing them to a subject’s head using conductive gel (in order to get the best possible connection) is a messy business that can take several hours. However, technical advances in the past 10 years have changed the game; in 2007 a company called NeuroSky released the first consumer EEG device that used dry-sensor technology, removing the need to smear conductive gel in your participant’s hair. Cheap and easy wireless technology, the high power densities of lithium-ion batteries, and advances in computer technology have driven the cost ever downward and the user-friendliness upward. There are now more than 10 cheap (around $100 to $200) consumer-grade EEG headsets available. Some of them use just a single sensor, while the more sophisticated ones use up to 14 and also incorporate gyroscopic head-motion detectors and additional sensors that record the muscle movements of the face. Finally, here was the brain-imaging technology marketers had been waiting for: cheap, easy to use, and so portable that it could even be used in environments like shopping malls.

The marketing world rapidly embraced this new technology. There are now around 100 companies worldwide that offer some form of neuromarketing services, many of them using these EEG devices, and their clients are some of the largest consumer businesses in the world. Perhaps the best-known neuromarketing company is NeuroFocus, founded in 2005 by A.K. Pradeep and now a subsidiary of the Neilsen Co., a behemoth in the market-research world. Pradeep has a background in engineering and business consulting and has recently released a book titled The Buying Brain: Secrets for Selling to the Subconscious Mind. Other current big hitters in the field are NeuroSpire (recently founded by 22-year-old self-proclaimed wunderkind Jake Stauch) and Emotiv (developer of the EPOC EEG hardware and software suites that claim to monitor emotional and cognitive states in real time). These companies all use off-the-shelf hardware; their intellectual capital is largely based on their (proprietary and closely guarded) analysis techniques that claim to derive useful measures from the collected EEG data: measures related to attention, engagement, frustration, and supposedly even buying potential.

The EEG neuromarketers make big claims based on their research techniques. NeuroFocus says it measures the “neurological iconic signature” and “deep subconscious response” related to a tested product. NeuroSpire asserts that its technology allows you to “peer into the subconscious mind of the consumer.” Can they deliver on these promises?

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