A Primer on Neuromarketing

Neuromarketing is one of the latest paradigms making itself felt in the sphere of marketing. Its premise is simple: given the vast amount of inaccuracy in data-collecting methods (e.g. disparities between stated preference in surveys & revealed preference in purchasing), a more objective means of assessing consumer responses is to use neurotechnology to get straight to the heart of the consumer. Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) and Electroencephalography (EEG) are used while exposing consumers to products and advertisements, and their cognitive responses are recorded and interpreted. Significant progress has been made, but due to the current expense of neurotechnology (not to mention the legal issues surrounding it, as in the case of France), neuromarketing companies are relatively scarce, with 13 worldwide as of 2007. One of the more prominent companies, NeuroCo, charged $90,000 per study in 2005 (Mucha, 2005: 2-3). Nevertheless, many powerful companies have begun to enlist the service of neuromarketers, such as Hewlett-Packard, Frito-Lay, Google, Motorola, Coca-Cola, Microsoft, Nestlé, Unilever, Proctor & Gamble, L’Oréal, and Fox, for issues ranging from the optimal color of packaging to the effectiveness of movie trailers. Inevitably, the widening availability of such technologies has lead to much bombast and panic, particularly fears about locating a ‘buy button’ in the consumer’s mind, forcing them to buy things they don’t need or to eat until they’re obese. In this essay I hope to briefly explain the technology in use by neuromarketers, to address some of the fears (groundless and justified) about neuromarketing, and to highlight some cases of neuromarketing in practice.

There are five main technologies which are used by neuromarketers to perform their research. First, functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) is perhaps the most popular as well as the most promising method: it is “a completely non-invasive procedure where the volunteer is simply moved into the centre of a high-field circular magnet bore. Various experimental stimuli, such as advertisements for particular products, can then be projected into the centre of the bore, which the subject views via a small prism mirror placed just above the face.” (Butler et al., 2009: 7). In short, because deoxygenated blood is attracted to a magnetic field, and because oxygenated blood increases in brain areas which are activated by a given stimulus, magnetic field distortions are created which allow high-resolution images of the areas of the brain which are most active at a given time (ibid., 7-8). Each fMRI machine is approximately the size of an SUV, weighing 32 tonnes (Mucha, 2005: 2) and costing about US $1 million each, with an annual operating cost of $100,000-$300,000 (Ariely & Berns, 2010: 288). This high cost is the main reason for the low number of neuromarketing companies, another reason being legal difficulties in countries such as France which classify fMRI and EEG machines as medical equipment (Haq, 2007: 2). Though fMRI has excellent spatial resolution (1-10 mm [Ariely & Berns, 2010: 288]), meaning that “it can be used to detect activity in specific and, in some cases, quite small regions of the brain” (Butler et al., 2009: 8), its temporal resolution leaves much to be desired, with a delay from 1 to 10 seconds following a stimulus, and higher spatial resolution being at the cost of lower temporal resolution (Ariely & Berns, 2010: 288). Hence, another popular technology: electroencephalography.

Electroencephalography (EEG) applies a series of electrodes to the scalp in order to measure “changes in the electrical field in the brain region underneath” (Ariely & Berns, 2010: 288). More specifically, these electrodes measure the frequency of brain waves: “Delta wave (3Hz or below) may occur during the sleep, alpha wave is evoked by relaxation, and beta [is evoked] when studied persons are alert, anxious or concentrated” (Kwiatkowska, 2008: 4). It can detect cognitive reactions on the millisecond level (so it is optimal, say, for analyzing the effects of television commercials), but is poor at detecting deep brain structures, despite the fact that more electrodes allows better spatial resolution (ibid.). Better a priori theory allows neuromarketers to more accurately interpret uncertain spatial results, however. Equipment costs can be low (<$10,000), and is much more portable, with volunteers merely needing to wear a ‘swimmer’s cap’ implanted with electrodes, which can even be worn during the act of actual shopping.

Electrooculography (EOG) measures eye movements by recording the different electrical potential in each side of the eyeball and comparing the difference. Two main methods are in use. The photoelectric method measures the light reflected off of the cornea during eye movements, and is also known as the corneal light reflex test. The second method is visual activity screening, which simply records eyeball movements and later processes them digitally. Though originally, EOG devices resembled a helmet (which was quite uncomfortable for the subject, which may have led to subtle biases in data), current technology is much more convenient (Kwiatkowska, 2008: 4).

The other two methods of recording cognitive information are relatively minor. Electromyographs (EMG) measure the electric potential of facial muscles, which allows even millisecond-long facial expressions to be recorded, and from there be linked to emotions (ibid.). The final method, used by the French (in lieu of medical equipment) is the “IM Index” which “uses 200 questions to assess perception, attention, unconscious impact, and emotion. The resulting score indicates the efficacy of a given advertising message” (Haq, 2007: 2). Despite this approach being comparatively ‘low tech’, “The techniques helped Christian Dior…test everything from music and colors to ad placement and context before launching a high-stakes campaign for perfume J’Adore featuring Charlize Theron,” and though Dior has not revealed any information about their neuromarketing study, “J’Adore has been one of the most successful launches at Christian Dior in many years” (ibid.).

It is interesting that those who are concerned about neuromarketing’s ability to find a “buy button” in the brain think that human cognition is so facile and deterministic. To reply to these fears, I need merely quote from Ariely & Berns (2010):

Although some have argued for the existence of a “buy button” in the brain, current evidence suggests that the cognitive processes associated with purchase decisions are multi factorial and cannot be reduced to a single area of activation. Conversely, a given brain region may be involved in multiple cognitive processes. [C]urrent data suggest that responses to marketing efforts and consumer choices depend on an array of neurobiological processes, and that no single brain region is responsible for a consumer choice.

Such suspicions are a prime example of Lacan’s notion of the “Other of the Other.” In the traditional use of the word Other with a capital letter (beginning from Hegel, thanks in part to the tendency in the German language to capitalize their nouns), it encompasses everything that is not Self, i.e. everything which cannot be immediately controlled by the subject in question. Normally my body is part of my Self, but during sleep paralysis, for instance, it becomes Other, since I have no influence over its movements. While the Other (the Big Other, in Lacanian terminology, as opposed to objet petit a) constitutes the unity of all that which is Other, the Other of the Other is an imaginary unified force which secretly (i.e. unnoticably) controls everything which is ostensibly other. This imaginary entity is extremely common in paranoiac fantasies, to the point where, at times, if one notices its structure within a fantasy or theory, one can safely dismiss it as (in Frankfurt’s elegant terminology) bullshit.* For anyone who still entertains suspicions that neuromarketers possess incalculable power over consumers’ unconscious minds, I recommend that they visit the website of this Canadian neuromarketing company, whose atrocious copywriting will discourage even the most chronic paranoiac.

Lets examine some of the applications of neuromarketing so far. In one study in early 2005:

HP [Hewlitt-Packard] hired [NeuroCo, a neuromarketing company based in Weybridge, England] to evaluate which images would give a new digital photography campaign the greatest neurological boost. Lewis presented his subjects with two nearly identical shots of the same smiling woman. During face-to-face interviews, the subjects split their choices between the two photos. Yet EEG analysis showed a strong preference for one image, in which the woman wore a slightly warmer expression. HP marketers chose the EEG-endorsed smile for the campaign. “The Neuroco data was priceless,” says Alex Wood of Porter Novelli, the outside marketing agency that commissioned the research on HP’s behalf. “It gave us insight that goes beyond normal market research.” [Mucha, 2005: 2]

This is hardly insidious mind-control. Nevertheless, it is important: in his book The Tipping Point (2002: 74-7), Malcolm Gladwell describes the unconscious effects of an ABC news anchor (Peter Jennings) on voting preferences during the 1984 presidential campaign between Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale. Volunteers were made to watch muted videos of Jennings and “to score the emotional content of the expressions of [Jennings at ABC, Tom Brokaw at NBC, and Dan Rather at CBS] on a 21-point scale, with the lowest being ‘extremely negative’ and the highest point on the scale ‘extremely positive’.” While the other anchors showed little change in their expression (.03 at the most), Jennings displayed a 4-point difference in favor of Reagan. Sure enough, when the people performing the study called people to check the correlation between subjects’ favored news station and the candidate they voted for, “[i]n every case, those who watched ABC voted for Reagan in far greater numbers than those who watched CBS or NBC”. The same experimenters repeated their study four years later on Peter Jennings’ reports for the Michael Dukakis―George H.W. Bush campaign, with the exact same results. Conversely, however, neuromarketing technology could conceivably be used to test the ‘objectivity’ of such news reports: perhaps it could be legally mandated that during news reports, some form of indication must be on the screen to let viewers know the brain activity (preferably translated into a more accessible form) elicited by the news program they are watching.

As long as the source of a feeling remains unconscious, it will be attributed to the most direct cause available. To illustrate, in one psychological study two groups were made to watch a gruesome video. One group was given a placebo, and told that this pill would induce feelings of nausea and discomfort. The group given the placebo rated the video more favorably than did the group without the placebo. If the placebo group could attribute their feelings of discomfort to the pill instead of the video, despite the true source of the discomfort being so obvious, the effect of smiling during a news report must be infinitely more surreptitious. As Gladwell says for his example above, “the ABC viewers who voted for Reagan would never, in a thousand years, tell you that they voted that way because Peter Jennings smiled every time he mentioned the President. They’d say that it was because they liked Reagan’s policies, or they thought he was doing a good job. It would never have occurred to them that they could be persuaded to reach a conclusion by something so arbitrary and seemingly so insignificant as a smile or a nod from a newscaster.”

As the concept of cognitive dissonance shows, we try to integrate our emotions into our conscious personality (i.e. coming up with a reason for them, even if one has to make it up, as is found repeatedly in cases of hypnosis when a patient is asked why they did a task that they had, without the patient knowing, previously been ordered to do during hypnosis). Awareness of the true causes of our emotions allows us to avoid attributing false causation to them, and even an awareness of the existence of neuromarketing is enough to encourage critical consumers to second-guess their motivations for desiring a product, to separate practical purchases from indulgent purchases.

There is a documentary called The Persuaders which deals with the ubiquity of advertisements, providing a magnificently concise description of how a product serves to represent a particular emotion (as dictated by the brand image), the purchase of the product in question becoming a substitute for feeling that ‘actual’ emotion. The final ‘moral’ of the documentary is that consumers should base their purchases on rational, practical needs, rather than for indulgent purposes. Even in an area as subjective as clothing, there have been numerous convincing studies (the work of Carole Jackson in particular) which aim toward ‘objective’ standards of attractiveness (no doubt implicitly based upon biological preferences, such as the 0.67 waist-to-hip ratio which has been found to be universally most attractive in women). Though there are certainly alterations according to changes in fashion, much of Jackson’s work is based upon the idea of balancing out one’s natural characteristics: if you have short legs, don’t cuff the bottoms of your pants (which makes them look shorter); if you have a heavy build, a loosely-cut suit (Brooks Brothers) will likely look better on you than one which is finely cut (European cut); people with certain skin tones (divided into four ‘seasons’) look better in certain colors, whereas other colors make them look unhealthy or garish. There is certainly a case for rational purchasing, but there are certainly cases which are less schematized, in which the consumer’s pleasure is the sole factor of concern.

In the classic case of the “Pepsi Challenge,” blindfolded consumers are given a small sample of both Pepsi and Coke, and told to judge which one they like more.

McClure et al. (2004) discovered that there was a higher preference for Coke over Pepsi, and also the recruitment of emotion and affect-related areas of the brain (hippocampus and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex), when respondents were told they were drinking Coke. However, blind testing suggested no such thing. [Broderick et al., 2006: 3]


[a]ccording to fMRI Pepsi® selection stimulated brain centres responsible for the reward system (ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC)). In the case of the subjects who chose Coca-Cola® quite different brain centres were activated ― the hippocampus and the lateral prefrontal cortex (LPFC), structures responsible for self-esteem. [Kwiatkowski, 2008: 3]

It is evident, then, that brand image possesses a significant impact on consumer preference, and it is intriguing that the different brands elicit qualitatively different emotions. Brand image, though, is particularly contingent, that is to say it alters with every new commercial released for that brand, and perhaps even every time that a person sees another person consuming a particular brand (e.g. if my friend drinks a Coke, the persona of my friend ‘rubs off’ onto the brand image in my own particular case).

The notion of brain plasticity (which Catherine Malabou has seized upon in her writings) provides an intriguing problematic to this notion of advertising & branding aimed directly at the brain: external events (as in traumas) can alter the physical structure of the brain, and with it the behaviours and libidinal infrastructure of an individual. The repercussions of a barrage of advertisements to the brain, then, may lead to lasting structural changes in the brains of consumers. On the other hand, however, it is a stretch to conjecture that any advertisement can elicit a significant change in brain structure (since it is only traumas which bring about such significant changes), and even if lesser stimuli could affect the brain’s structure, such changes would occur regardless, simply due to everyday stimuli (non-neural advertisements included).

For another example, Sunsilk used eye-tracking software to identify the ‘hot spots’ on two advertisements with a single detail changed (found here):

The latter advertisement (with the woman’s eyes looking at the product), as the heatmarks show, motivates the viewer to get a better look at the product’s packaging, which facilitates visual memory and thus improves the chance of a shopper recognizing the brand when glancing at it on a shelf. As advertising moguls say, advertising alone can only motivate a trial purchase: after that the product is on its own. If a product’s effect (as with the Sunsilk above) is merely subtle, the consumer will be much more vulnerable to imaginary distortions encouraged by brand image. At the same time, however, there remains a trade-off between whether a non-drastic difference is worth the money spent on the product, which acts as an incentive for the consumer to remain critical.

Contrary to the message of the documentary The Persuaders, I argue that the subjective aspects of purchase decisions (i.e. the emotions elicited from using certain brands) must be viewed as an essential component of the product being purchased. Provided that these emotions are sufficient to motivate a purchase, the brand images which elicit them must be seen as self-fulfilling prophesies. To illustrate, if I buy a pair of Adidas running shoes―as opposed to a pair of Nike shoes of the same quality, price, and appearance―the main qualitative difference will be the brand image, in this case the motif of ‘teamwork’ which Adidas emphasizes. In the language of psychoanalysis, this phenomenon is called introjection ― the process of incorporating an external object into one’s ego, one’s integrated sense of self. (In fact, the ego itself has been defined as ‘those elements of the subject which is reflected in his or her objects’.) Introjection is a ubiquitous phenomenon, and can occur deliberately (as with purchases) or accidentally (as with one’s geographical surroundings, though one’s reaction to them remains largely in control of the subject in question, except in the case of ‘Stockholm Syndrome’-like resignation, which is quite common).

While there are certainly instances where a purchaser becomes quickly disillusioned with their purchase, this is often a result of an uneducated choice ‘on the spur of the moment’, e.g. buying an article of clothing of an unflattering color or shape. Given that a plethora of information exists to guide one’s purchases (in the case of clothing, even the average Cosmo magazine contains practical information, e.g. the ‘which bikini is best for your body type’ trope), there is little excuse for such careless purchases, and this is hardly a reason to inveigh against neuromarketing. Gary Ruskin (of Commercial Alert) expresses worry that neuromarketing will be used for cigarette advertisements, but neglects the fact that neuromarketing cannot convince anyone to do what they do not want to do, provided that their motivation is strong enough. Those individuals which, given their situation, decide in favor of trading several years from their lives in favor of an easy, stress-relieving activity, will only experience an increase in their ‘imaginary’ fulfilment. For the legions of working-class citizens who work long, dreary hours in a factory, such reinforcements may be their sole solace during their working hours, and provided that no one is harmed by second-hand smoke, they are doing no harm, as they are aware of the consequences of their actions. Those individuals who feel obligated to quit smoking (and have hence abandoned the ‘image’ encouraged by cigarette advertisements) will have no more difficulty quitting than they would otherwise.

There is still a significant problem which neuromarketing cannot solve alone: not all popular advertising campaigns lead to increases in sales. As well, to put another problem succinctly, neuromarketing marvellously identifies the effects of advertisements, but cannot explain why they are so. Why was the Molson Canadian “I Am Canadian” advertisement so popular? Which sociopolitical factors laid the groundwork for nationalistic sentiments, and how did these factors come to the attention of such a mass audience? During an episode of the comedy cartoon South Park, “[a]dvertisements for popular ‘alcopop’ vodka beverage WKD from Torquay, England-based Beverage Brands elicited vigorous brain responses, while ads for the Red Cross and reliable old Tetley tea produced much less reaction. The takeaway, says [the director of neuromarketing consultancy Neurosense, Gemma] Calvert, is that ads ‘congruent‘ with their environment outperform those that are ‘incongruent’ ” (Haq, 2007: 1). If this is true, then marketers must bear in mind that the ‘environment’ includes not only the immediate geographical context, but also the vast sociological, political, and economic trends. In another sociopolitical context, the “I Am Canadian” advertisement would have fallen on deaf ears. As this case shows, however, those companies who are able to pick up on these trends can direct them for their own ends.

Lastly, on an auxiliary note, it is encouraging to keep in mind the increased potential for serendipitous discoveries that may result from an influx of R&D money to neurological studies. Especially if neuromarketing becomes a lucrative venture, our best minds flock toward this profession, and it is no stretch of the imagination to believe that such increased attention upon the workings of the brain could lead to insights into Parkinson’s disease and other as-yet incurable disorders of the brain. Ariely and Berns (2010: 289) even suggest that because “[i]n spatial navigation tasks such as driving, and presumably navigating a building, the hippocampus has a key role,” neurological data could possibly be used by architects “to design buildings and retirement communities that mitigate the memory loss associated with Alzheimer’s disease.” Though critics such as Gary Ruskin use a utilitarian argument, saying that “The ill effects of this quest for the ‘Buy’ button are many, while the potential benefits are few” (Haq, 2007: 3), there are in fact many of opportunities to benefit consumers and (perhaps) simultaneously make large profits.

Given that neuromarketing imaging provides greater specificity than all other methods of market research, it is not likely that this methodology will be abandoned. It is able to isolate the specific factors of a given stimuli (e.g. analyzing an advertisement frame-by-frame) and show precisely the emotions which were elicited. Though detractors could easily prophesize a Baudrillardian apocalypse in which the imaginary and real have lost their distinction, where one cannot tell one’s own thoughts from those of ‘the powers that be’, one could just as easily enjoy the kaleidoscopic symbolism instilling everyday life with pizzaz, the ability to craft one’s own personality through deliberate introjection, and the sheer fascination of taking part in consumer culture.

As neurotechnology becomes cheaper and neuromarketing becomes more accessible to the average company that needs to advertise its product, the myriad of advertisements that already variegate the world will become more individualized, more eye-catching, and more aesthetically pleasing. Advertisements may become entertaining to watch in and of themselves, just as people watch collections of advertisements that aired during the Super Bowl for the sheer pleasure of witnessing the vast creativity which has gone into them. With the added fulfillment resulting from each purchase, people may be able to get their emotional and identity needs ‘over with’, and have more time and energy left over for working productively, becoming informed, and spending time with their family. All of this is utopian, of course, and there will always be heteroclites who oppose society’s codes in favor of ‘authenticity’; more likely the effect of neuromarketing will remain relatively unnoticed amongst the majority of the populace. The addition of neuromarketing to the world need not make it better nor worse, but only different.


*: It must be noted, however, that not all such theories are bullshit: as Riso, and I believe Lacan as well, have argued, many intellectuals have a tendency toward paranoia, thus their intellectual focus often gravitates to phenomena which match this structure of the Other of the Other, thus having the same structure as the aforementioned bullshit, but resting on fact. In fact, it is not unlikely that powerful businesspeople with a touch of paranoia in them may want to take the place of their fantasy, i.e. arranging themselves into the structure of the Other of the Other, in a paradoxical twist.



**Note: The essays in green are the ones that are worth reading. (Both of the books cited are worth reading.) The essay by Ariely & Berns is particularly excellent.



  • Neuromarketing is the latest method of collecting data, and is seen as being more objective than other methods. Because of this, it has gained a fair amount of popularity in recent years.
  • There are five main technologies used by neuromarketers: 1) Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), which measures brain activity in particular parts of the brain (good at specifying where things happen, but with some time lag); 2) Encephalography (EEG), which measures the frequencies of brain waves by (good at specifying when things happen, but not precisely where in the brain); 3) Electrooculography (EOG), which measures eye movements; 4) Electromyograph (EMG), which measures facial responses (including those which are only microseconds long); and 5) The ‘IM Index’, which “uses 200 questions to assess perception, attention, unconscious impact, and emotion” (Haq, 2).
  • Because the brain works in a nonlinear manner, with many areas of the brain working together to perform a single function, the idea of a “buy button” is laughably simplistic. Nevertheless, however, the most subtle factors (such as a smile in a news report) can powerfully influence people’s opinions, though they do not consciously realize this.
  • In response to advertising associating emotions with brands and products (which motivates people to buy these products as a substitute for feeling that articular emotion), critics such as those in the documentary The Persuaders encourage consumers to base their purchases on entirely rational & practical factors. However, in some purchase decisions (e.g. clothes), rationality cannot encompass every aspect.
  • A problem that still remains for neuromarketing is the fact that not all popular advertising campaigns lead to increases in sales. At the same time, however, cognitive data should be viewed as historically determined (to some extent), and in advertisements (such as the Molson Canadian Beer “I Am Canadian” ad campaign) become popular because their creators know how to read sociopolitical trends (in this case, nationalism) and take advantage of them.
  • Advances in neurotechnology, augmented by the possible future influx of brilliant minds into neurological research, present numerous opportunities for benefiting the human race.
  • It is just as easy to interpret the rise of neuromarketing optimistically as it is pessimistically, and in fact the changes brought about by advertisements aimed straight at the human brain may have significant positive repercussions for society as a whole.


About Graham Joncas

We are a way for capital to know itself.

Posted on July 22, 2011, in Business, Culture, Media, Politics, Psychoanalysis, Science, Semiotics, Technology and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Hi Graham, just a note that Canada has more than one Neuromarketing company, for example True Impact Marketing (www.trueimpact.ca). The difference lies in the fact that we actually conduct fMRI and EEG studies as opposed to building ‘theoretical models of generations’ etc. To be honest, I can’t begin to understand a single thing on the BtoOne webpage. Let alone try to find Marketing applications.

    I believe Neuromarketing is pure science, not magic. It’s not the recipe for ‘super ads’ but it does help businesses make better decisions and drive sales.

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