Neuroscience marketing: This is your brain on advertising

Neuroscience marketing: This is your brain on advertising

Roger Dooley, a neuromarketing evangelist, has uncovered some science behind what many marketers knew all along. Buying begins in the brain, and thanks to emerging technologies in the field of brain scanning, some businesses are turning straight to the source to see how their marketing is received by the intended audience.

I had a chance to talk to Roger, who was happy to shed some light on what neuroscience marketing can and can’t do and how its principles can be applied.

FMRI scan

An FMRI scan can show which areas of a person’s brain are activated when, for example, they’re watching a commercial, says neurosciene marketing evangelist Roger Dooley. (Image courtesy of Ruhr University Bochum)

Psychology has been part of advertising for a long time. I guess neurology would be more of an emerging media tool. What’s the difference?

You’re absolutely right. I’ve been personally interested in advertising psychology since my college days, which were quite a long time ago. At that point, the brain was more or less a black box. Psychologists knew how people behaved in certain situations. If you gave people a certain stimulus you might get a certain kind of response. They could observe behavior but they didn’t really know what was going on.

And really I think a variety of neuroscientific understandings are helping us look inside that black box. We’ve got tools like FMRI and EEG, and in particular FMRI can show which areas of a person’s brain are being activated when, for instance, they’re watching a commercial. There are some companies that are trying to commercialize using various types of brain scan technology for that purpose.

But to me it’s really a whole continuum. There’s really not many companies that can afford to do expensive brain scanning studies. But on the other hand, the fact that we’re getting these greater levels of understanding of what goes on in people’s heads really can help us create better products and better ads.

One of the things about emerging media is it can be hard to get that initial understanding. How is it with neuromarketing? Are people eager to see how that can work for them because it is so science based?

I think it depends. I think that everybody is interested in some of the things I write about on my blog because they can be applied very simply. For instance, the effect of the way you order products on an e-commerce page. These are very simple things that may come from our understanding of human behavior but they don’t cost tens of thousands of dollars to test. They’re something that you can implement immediately on the website. Other stuff may be more appropriate for content writing or print, and it’s really applicable to even small businesses.

I think there’s certainly some interest in the brain scan-based neuromarketing among larger firms that can afford it. I think there’s a little reluctance on the part of some, lest their customers be creeped out by the fact that they’re trying to get inside their brains. But, really, these fears and concerns (although every now and then someone writes an inflammatory article about the dangers of neuromarketing), they’re greatly overblown. Advertising firms have been creating great ads for decades, and if it was possible to create an ad that just turned its viewers into a buying drone, someone would have stumbled across that with or without brain scans already. It simply doesn’t work.

Buy ButtonThere is no “buy button” in the brain. A decision to purchase a product is very complex. To make it sound so simplistic that you can somehow easily manipulate people into purchasing a product, that simply doesn’t happen. People are too complicated for that to work. Always you want to keep track of where the technology is going and be sure that some way of abusing it doesn’t crop up, but at the moment I don’t see any way of using it that the consumer should fear.

There’s no actual mind reading going on, at least not yet. There’s some interesting work going on at Carnegie Melon that is actually enabling the researchers to determine what kind of picture a person is looking at purely from a brain scan. In other words, they can say, this person is looking at a picture of a house when the researchers can’t see the photo, all they can see is what’s going on in the person’s brain, but that really doesn’t have any marketing implications right now.

How do you feel about the argument that looking solely at data may limit your creativity and keep businesses from looking toward creative alternative solutions?

People have applied the brainscan testing to filmmaking, for instance, to determine when people are engaged, excited, scared in the case of a horror film. Their was a big thing then of, “Can neuromarketing replace creativity?” Of course the answer is no, it’s merely a tool.

I’d think of it more in terms of a focus group or survey, except hopefully it’s more accurate and honest. Surveys are notoriously difficult to relate to a truly accurate picture because people often don’t always answer the question honestly. They may not be able to answer the question honestly even if they wanted to. They may not know their motivation, or they may not know what they’re going to do in the future.

Focus groups have some of the same problems. People may not say in a group what they’re really thinking. The group might be dominated or swayed by one vociferous member. There are lots of things that can happen there that give you incorrect results. Brain scans are different. You can’t necessarily quiz the person on what the brain’s doing, but at the same time they’re a totally honest picture of what’s going on.

I think the combination of neuromarketing and other techniques, they’re a very good feedback tool. They aren’t a tool to create, they aren’t going to develop their new product for you. But what they will tell you is that people relate to your product in a very positive way or not positive or whether there is some feature that seems to perplex them. And that’s important feedback because you can also try to get that by asking people what they thought by usability testing and so on, but neuromarketing can give you a better perspective.

Be sure to check out Roger Dooley on Twitter and follow his blog about brain-based marketing techniques for more sweet science.

  • steve plunkett

    another good resource for neuromarketing is Jung’s theory of Colors..

  • Virginia

    Right on. Thanks, Steve :)