Monday, May 05, 2008

I feel it in my gut, but you're zapping it in my brain

The Lovesong of Neuroscience and Marketing

Imagine being able to measure the brain’s response to a cereal commercial, a vacation ad, or an in-your-face sports drink promotion. Neuroscientific research claims to have a handle on not only what people’s brains are doing during these ads, but what each little twitch of the face and tingle of the brain tells us about whether we prefer Coke or Pepsi or whether we’re just drinking that Sprite because the ad made our frontal cortex happy. There's even been some recent election year controversy over neuroscientific analysis of political preferences.

Market research companies like NeuroFocus, Neurosense, and SalesBrain purport to be able to map the human mind, its reactions, and fine tune ad campaigns to deep reactions. Mind Hack author and blogger Tom Stafford quotes Jonathan Harries, the creative director at advertising agency FCB:
It is very hard for our clients to buy gut feel because every time they approach [a campaign], their jobs are on the line. Neuroscience promises to measure the gut feel, and that is exciting for us. It makes it easier for us to sell what we believe is right.
Some of the techniques include brain imaging, eye tracking, and electrograms to test reactions to different versions of the same product, and have been used by shopper marketing programs for years now. Eye tracking allows researchers to note the particular features that capture attention. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (FMRI) maps changes in the blood flow to the brain, pinpointing the areas that are activated. Quantified electroencephalography (QEEG) measures tiny electrical impulses in the brain via sensors set placed directly on the scalp. Other techniques quantify facial expressions and aural responses.

Neurofocus, a research company overpopulated with PhDs and MDs that claims to be the next wave in neuromarketing, sums it up well:
The findings are clear and indisputable, because they are based upon measuring consumers' actual brainwave responses and eye motion during testing."The human brain is the most amazing processor of information that exists, and the most challenging to understand in terms of how it treats information streaming into the visual cortex," said Dr. A. K. Pradeep, NeuroFocus's founder and chief executive officer. "But now, thanks to the advances that have been made in neuroscience, we have gained new insights into how people perceive and process images. That new knowledge enables us to spell out, in detail, exactly what are the most efficient and effective ways to communicate on a screen. Conversely, now we also know specifically what doesn't work well, or is even counterproductive.
Now, I’m no neuroscientist, but any scientific method that claims to have indisputable findings should probably be submitting for the Nobel Prize. Even physics and genetics require some interpretation of results. Consider what Jonah Lehrer, author of Proust was a Neuroscientist, says about fMRIs:
I'm always struck by how even neuroscientists who work with fMRI everyday, and are acutely aware of the limitations of the technology (the 3-5 second time lag, the messy data, the difficulty of imaging certain areas, the fidgety subjects, etc.) still use the same metaphor of transparency. They talk about "looking at the inside of the brain," or how the brain scanner is like a "window," or how they can "see what's happening in real time". Of course, fMRI is an incredibly powerful and potent tool which allows us an unprecedented understanding of the mind at work, but I get a little tired of all these visual analogies. Before we can "see" anything with fMRI, someone has to perform a tremendous amount of statistical analysis.
Now, statistical analysis is something I actually understand – or at least, it can be transparent. But statistics require interpretation, which means they're not necessarily irrefutable or clear. One of the first things you learn about research when you’re a social scientist is that everything depends upon interpretation. And if everything depends upon interpretation, then the scientific part of what we do is only in the application of a method. Once you’ve got your data, what you do with it is as much art as science. Still, market research has always had a love affair with “real” science – mostly in the form of psychology, so they tend to play up that angle.

When we look more closely at what neuroscientific market research is doing, there’s a bit of the good, the bad, and the ugly at play. Let’s start with the ugly, which I’ve already laid out for you – it’s not pretty when people must use research science as means of justifying what they do.

The bad is (potentially) how the ethical implications of advanced neuromarketing will be handled. What if, for example, a marketer finds signs of mental or physical illness, indications of criminal intent (shades of Minority Report), or downright maliciousness? What are their responsibilities for reporting it to the research subject? To legal authorities? And is giving a marketer access to your deep-seated emotions tantamount to giving them permission to market to you subconsciously?

The good is that these methods, each in an interesting way, can tell us things about human reactions. Put together, studies of brains and bodily reactions are useful. The most interesting work coming out of neuroscience today is related to repairing memory loss, fixing degeneration from age and correcting genetic abnormalities. Used carefully, neuroscientific research might also tell us what kinds of environments and products are best for people with cognitive disorders, chronic illnesses, or other impairments that make everyday life difficult.

But there's still a wide gap between neuroscience for science's sake and neuroscience for marketing's, and when it comes to the latter there are serious issues that will have to be addressed if it's ever to take off on a very large scale.

So far, I think I’d rather not share that feeling in my gut.


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1 comment:

James Warren said...

I actually find it amusing that you write that physics is open to interpretation. Well, actually not. When Newton equated force to mass times acceleration, it did not require "interpretation". While I remain cautious about promises on the street, I think neuroscience is opening up newer avenues of "determinism" in an otherwise stochastic world.

I have been fascinated by statisticians who shun anything deterministic, and are fully and completely wrapped in things that require "interpretation". My flirting with statistical methods led me to believe that with the appropriate "weighting" and "fudge factors", one could produce any result one desired !! So it is more like an art history class rather than anything else.

Picking stocks used to be a black art until mathematics arrived. Market research used to be a black art, and I am excited that science and math have arrived.

Who knows where this can lead us to - products that actually work... web interfaces that are meant for humans... ads that actually appeal... TV shows that are not meaningless rubbish but remotely interesting... and how about a TV remote that a sane person can use...

So I for one will cheer science, especially neuroscience and engineering as they help marketers get the message loud and clear... we the customers have had enough... put your surveys down, send your statisticians home... stop interpreting what I say, and for once feel my needs and pain.

Yay !!