Marketing to Your Mind

The New Science of Neuromarketing

Until now, marketers have used techniques such as focus groups, questionnaires, levels of excitement and other such straightforward methods to ascertain what consumers are really interested in. But with the advent of a new field in neuroscience — neuromarketing — all that is changing.


“Neuromarketing is a branch of marketing that incorporates the latest research in neuroscience to better understand what types of experiences would appeal to audiences, and explores how this information could be used to drive purchase intent as a result,” says Acuna. The main technique used by neuromarketers is functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which basically takes a snapshot of brain activity by increasing blood oxygenation. By measuring a subject’s brain responses, a scientist can find out how the person is setting preferences and making decisions. Sometimes, the results are startling.

In a study published in Psychological Science, scientists at a UCLA research facility showed subjects three anti-smoking ads and asked them which ads were likely to make them want to change their behavior. In addition, they recorded brain activity of these subjects as they watched the ads. What the researchers found was that the brain-activity results correctly predicted how a larger population would respond to those ads (by calling a non-smoking hotline), while the subjects’ verbal answers didn’t. Put simply, while a subject thought they would be moved to call the hotline by ad A, their brains predicted correctly that they’d react more strongly to ad C. In fact, not only did the subjects themselves fail to identify which ads would change their behavior, so did industry experts.

In another study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers from Stanford University and the California Institute of Technology looked at the medial orbitofrontal cortex, the area of the brain that perceives happiness, and found that when the price of a product — in this case wine — was increased, subjects showed an increase in pleasure or enjoyment as well, thereby suggesting that pricing a product low isn’t always the best course of action for a product. In fact, the study proved that price plays an important role in a person’s enjoyment of a product, and hence the right price point can be very important in tricking the brain into wanting the product.

Several companies are now using EEG and fMRI data as part of their neuromarketing efforts. “In the past, Microsoft was mining EEG data to understand users’ interactions with computers, including their feelings of surprise, satisfaction, and frustration,” says Acuna. “Frito-Lay has been studying female brains to learn how to better appeal to women. Findings showed the company should avoid pitches related to ‘guilt’ and ‘guilt-free,’ and play up ‘healthy’ associations. Google made some waves when it partnered with MediaVest on a biometrics study to measure the effectiveness of YouTube overlays versus pre-rolls. Result: Overlays were much more effective with subjects. Daimler employed fMRI research to inform a campaign featuring car headlights to suggest human faces, which tied to the reward center of the brain. The Weather Channel used EEG, eye-tracking and skin-response techniques to measure viewer reactions to three different promotional pitches for a popular series.”

For most scientists interested in neuromarketing, it’s not about the marketing but the science. But commercial applications for this kind of research abound, and at the center of it all is your brain.


So the next time you’re in a car showroom looking for your next set of wheels and find that little car in the corner smiling at you, you might as well smile back. It’s marketing at its best. And it’s already in your mind.

This article was originally published in the Winter 2013 of Brain World Magazine.


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