The camera pans across a dimly lit swamp. It picks up a bullfrog letting out a deep, loud “BUD”. Another frog joins in with a shrill “Weisssss”; their friend finishes off with a baritone “Er”. At first they call out haphazardly before synchronously calling to each other, “Bud” – “Weis” – “Er”. The camera zooms out, revealing a neon sign with the insignia, Budweiser.
This was a famous TV commercial from the beer manufacturer Budweiser that debuted during the Super Bowl in 1995. The memory of this advert remains with me today, and always puts a smile on my face, I’m not sure why, I’m not sure whether it necessarily makes me more likely to buy a Bud either, but it does stay with me.
Marketing has traditionally been thought of as an art. A creative business fronted by creative types who work hard to develop amusing, emotional and memorable campaigns which convince us we want/need to buy their product. Any metrics assigned to this process have classically been via standard market researcher questionnaires.
The problem with this, so the argument goes, is that people lie. They either tell you what they think you want to hear, genuinely can’t remember or just cannot imagine themselves in a real-life scenario which would allow them to give an accurate answer.
Becoming more and more prominent in this industry is a segment of advertising that claims to eliminate these problems by basing the research on science. Welcome to the increasingly lucrative world of neuromarketing.
Neuromarketing uses neuroscience techniques to try to understand why we buy what we buy, what is that certain je ne sais quoi that turns a product into a must-have?
One of the basic techniques is the use of eye-tracking software. Sensors on the edges of your eyes can track where you are looking at any time. Portable versions have been developed that allow companies to track your eyes as you look around a supermarket or watch a commercial. Companies can tell from this whether you’re looking at what they want you to look at.
In the video below you can see a 2011 advert from the car manufacturer Volkswagen where a child is dressed as Darth Vader and tries to use ‘the force’ to move things around the house. This is overlaid with research carried out at Sands Research Inc. in Texas, United States. In the top left of the video you can see the results of eye-tracking showing what subjects are likely to be looking at any one time.
From this we can see that viewers were looking at faces more than anything else. Also present in this analysis are brain recordings using electroencephalography (EEG). EEG electrodes can be placed all over the scalp and used to record electrical activity from various brain regions. Sands Research’s analysis ranked this advert from Volkswagen as the most engaging in their analysis of all adverts from the 2011 Super Bowl.
Dr. Sands, Chairman and Chief Scientific Officer of Sands Research, said, “As you will see in the Volkswagen ad, the positive and negative emotional response flows with the commercial and ends on an extremely positive point. By creating an engaging and emotional storyline with strong positive response, viewers were extensively engaged and strongly recalled the spot and more importantly, specifically recalled the brand associated with the commercial.”
This is where the field of neuromarketing gets hazier. Very few people would dispute the relevance of eye-tracking to make sure that viewers are focusing on what they should be focusing on. If the scene is too busy and there are too many distractions then the message will be lost. But, there is much scepticism around the idea that EEG recordings can tell us when people are more engaged.
For one thing, EEG recordings have poor spatial resolution. EEG electrodes are attached to the scalp, this means that electrical changes deep within the brain struggle to reach these electrodes and the signals that do reach them smear out to the point where you can’t really isolate the exact origin of this activity. Secondly, there is significant debate in the neuroscience community about what ‘activity’ in a certain region even means… For examples, see here, here and here – a more scientific explanation of some of the issues behind imaging experiments can be found here.
The main reason why scientists are sceptical of this type of analysis is that a number of the methods have not been published in peer-reviewed journals. There is some interesting published work (here for example) and some companies do publish some details of their methods, but scepticism is always necessary, even for published works.
Those in the scientific community who discuss these issues daily disagree about the best ways to analyse this type of data and what interpretations can be made. The idea that regions perform specific jobs and that measuring these areas can give us a score of complex human behaviour, such as how engaged or emotional we are, is therefore debatable.
Even so, the corporate world seems to be lapping these techniques up. Many campaigns are built on these data. Volvo had a large campaign at the end of 2013 claiming that their “car design [was] proven to be on a par with the most basic of human emotions”. Brain imaging is being used to understand what makes us enjoy a blockbuster film. It has also been used to see what effect celebrities have in a marketing campaign’s success.
It is hard to know how reliable this research really is as some of it has not been scientifically reported or scrutinised. There is a heavy amount of bias attached to these claims and if not properly reported, ‘neuromania’ can ensue. For now, be sceptical about what claims companies make about what your brain is telling you that you want. Even if a ‘neuromarketed’ magazine cover can increase sales.
Post by: Olly Freeman @ojfreeman
- This post was altered on 30 March 2014. The original implied that all of this work was “based on methods which have not been published in peer-reviewed literature”. This is incorrect and reference has now been made to some peer-reviewed literature.