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Danger Ahead? The Rapidly Evolving World of Neuromarketing

Gw_fmri_neuromarketingjpgYou know the old joke: If Henry Ford had asked consumers whether they’d be interested in an automobile, they’d have told him no—they really just wanted a faster horse.

For all the targeting capabilities martech is bringing to bear these days, it may offer less than we realize in understanding, much less predicting, what products we are most likely to buy, or what we really want from a brand.

The fact is, people may not (in fact, usually don’t) really know what they prefer, or they may edit their real preferences when asked about them—revealing what they think they think, or what they'd like to think they think. Social desirability (the urge to seek approval) may shade their responses. Or they may just want to pick “the right answer” in surveys and focus groups.

Which brings in the whole field of neuromarketing and the use of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), or “brain scans,” to quite quickly and accurately assess the neurological impact of advertising across the parts of the brain associated with "value," "emotion," and "motivation," according to Insead Knowledge.

Ferreting Out Focus Group Fallacies

As I discussed in my book The On-Demand Brand, scientists at Baylor University, for instance, have used fMRI to determine true preference for Coke or Pepsi, and scientists at UCLA can tell whether you’re really a Republican or a Democrat. Meanwhile, Mars long ago discovered that fMRI had the most predictive of in-market ad effectiveness. Survey results didn't even come close. Put another way, fMRI "shows that when evaluating brands, consumers primarily use emotions (personal feelings and experiences), rather than information (brand attributes, features, and facts)."

As Insead puts it, advances in Electroencephalography (EEG) also show promise in assessing memory processing, attention, and emotional engagement. According to Martech Advisor, for instance, Cheetos once discovered that while focus group participants said they didn't like an edgy prankvertising-style commercial, brain scans showed they actually loved the spot. Participants said they didn't want to admit liking it for fear of being judged. The prank campaign was a huge success and helped Cheetos position itself around mischievousness and thrill-seeking.

Perhaps more importantly, these technologies are helping marketers understand how to manipulate consumer emotional response as well. Harvard Business Review once famously pointed out that fMRI showed that showing a higher price tag while people were tasting identical wines made the wine taste better—by "changing the actual neural signature of the taste."

From Brand Promotion to Breaking-and-Entering?

Still, the whole notion of neuromarketing raises serious questions. What happens when guesswork is taken out of advertising?

As Campaign recently pointed out, technological advances are such that we're not far from a day when your brain's activity signals will be made available to a degree in which "brands will be able to literally read the market's mind, in real time." One can just imagine what brands—or platforms such as say, Facebook—might do with that kind of intelligence.

What happens when the same technologies that track our behavior can also scan our brains as we drive past billboards or walk into stores, to send us just the right pitch—nearly guaranteed to work—right at the most opportune moment?

What responsibility do marketers bear in protecting consumer privacy and, for lack of a better term, mental sovereignty? What do we, as a society, need to do to make sure that happens?