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Neuromarketing not ready for the mainstream?

28th Mar 2011
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What do researchers actually see when they look at and inside our skulls to parse the minute electrical signals that course through our neural network and does the bright play of coloured neurons really reflect the 'buying brain'? Dan Hill explains why he takes issue with today’s neurometric tools.

“A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes.”  Mark Twain
Confusion reigns supreme. In the years since Malcolm Gladwell’s international bestseller, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without thinking awakened marketers to the importance of tapping into the intuitive, emotional responses of consumers to enjoy more effective marketing campaigns, a wild west of scientific research techniques have emerged. Claims and counter claims are enough to make one’s head spin, especially marketers, who have better things to do than trying to sort out which research tools to rely on. 
As someone who began to study emotional responses for clients a half decade before most of these neurometric firms were born, please allow me to provide some unvarnished perspective.
The first key is that there are two essential dimensions: engagement and arousal (whether emotional responses occur, when, and the intensity of those responses), and valence (the degree to which positive or negative emotions occur). Yes, engagement and arousal help to tell you if your marketing message is breaking through the clutter, driving attention and creating opportunities for recall. Tools that measure engagement and arousal and, in fact, specialise in it, include heart rate, sweat gland activity and respiration.
Ultimately, however, engagement and arousal are in and of themselves insufficient. Mention Adolf Hitler to me and I’ll have an intense reaction, but I wouldn’t actually want to buy anything from the guy. And thus the dimension of emotional response that feeds the bottom line is valence because you have to build preference and loyalty. 
In tackling valence, there are only four techniques: EMG (bio feedback), EEG (electrical activity on or just below the scalp), fMRI (brain scans), and facial coding. EMG provides an incomplete reading of brand building preference because it reads only two facial muscles and requires sensors. In contrast, facial coding involves reading all 43 facial muscles, and doesn’t require sensors. Moreover, facial coding is universal (even a person born blind emotes just like you and I) and provides real-time data because the face is the only body part where the muscles attach directly to the skin. 
Two additional advantages of facial coding ­– it can be used during exposure and in Q&A follow-up, It can read all seven specific emotions, which is valuable because each emotion has its own meaning that allows a marketer to create campaigns that are on-message and on-emotion.
As for the two remaining tools that are in use to measure valence, the reality is that these techniques promise more than they can really deliver. EMG is merely a complex arousal measurement tool that can’t access the deeper parts of the brain where emotional reactions are centered. Second, in trying to read valence based on a left brain/right brain split assumes a fundamentally flawed approach/withdrawal model. That's because anger, which is an approach but a negatively valenced emotion, cannot be identified using EEG or separated from happiness responses. Thus no accurate positive/negative reading can be taken. 
Finally as to fMRI, not only is it expensive, and requires a fairly claustrophobic testing experience, it’s still undergoing development. Therefore, fMRI is for at present more like a moon walk than a walk in the park. The human brain is our personal 3.5-pound universe, and anybody who tells you that they know precisely what each part of the brain signals when it lights up through reading blood oxygen levels is either a liar or a fool. 
I chose to specialise in facial coding because it isn’t a 'black box'. Everyone is a lifelong facial coder, reading others’ expressions to know whether they’re with or against us. That’s the essence of being a good marketer: not just turning people on, but winning them over. And that’s how great brands get built.
Dan Hill is president of Sensory Logic, Inc., and the author of Emotionomics, chosen by Ad Age as one of the top 10 must-reads of 2009. His latest book is About Face: The Secrets of Emotionally Effective Advertising. The Advertising Research Foundation is launching a benchmark NeuroStandards Collaboration, which included seven respected firms, including Sensory Logic.

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