neuroscience and advertising

As well as semiotics and cognitive psychology there is another tool for understanding advertising – neuroscience! Enter neuromarketing [1]. Neuromarketing promises to tell you how your brain responds to branding, or which adverts during the superbowl are most effective (Vaughan did a great job on this one, here, and here), or how alert people are during normal television adverts (“there may well need to be more ads created.” concludes the executive who commissioned the study!)

Neuromarketing leaves people saying things like

But the brain doesn’t lie, and the ad industry is just waking up to the potential of neuroscience. The brain’s seven defined regions – each affecting a different aspect of brain function – literally light up the screen if stimulated. Each one contributes to different cognitive activities; reasoning, analysis, long or short-term memory, high or low involvement processing, emotion, meaning etc.
(Tess Alps, in the Guardian)

The appeal of neuromarketing is the illusion of being able to access some more fundamental explanatory basis for our actions. People may lie to market researchers, or may even deceive themselves, but – we hope – ‘the brain doesn’t lie’. As psychologist and marketing guru Gerald Zaltman said existing methods don’t go nearly far enough in helping [advertisers] move to a closer understanding of their customers [2]

Sadly for marketing science, a straight description of what the brain is doing is of limited use – the marketing implications crucially depend on how you interpret that activity. And the interpretation depends on your theories and assumptions about the mind. If your assumptions are dubious (see the superbowl study) or just wrong (see the Tess Alps quote above) then you’re not going to get anything more than a pseudo-scientific smokescreen.

Perhaps the real appeal of neuromarketing to advertisers is betrayed by this quote from 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 [2]


[1] Enjoy the marketing of neuromarketing first hand at

[2] Inside the Consumer Mind : What neuroscience can tell us about marketing, Wendy Melillo, Adweek; Jan 16, 2006; 47, 3

[Cross-posted at]

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