Wednesday, September 14, 2005

How serious is neuromarketing ?

On June 22, 2002, an american advertising company called The Brighthouse Institute for Thought Sciences is officially launched with a press release. Their goal is to use brain imaging techniques to ''unlock'' the consumer's mind and understand what is behind consumer's decisions to buy a product.
Quote:According to Brian Hankin, President of Thought Sciences, marketers will now be able to understand, for the first time ever, the drivers of their consumers’ behavior.-more-“Imagine being able to observe and quantify a consumer’s true response to something without the influence of groupthink and other biases that plague current research approaches,” says Hankin. “This could not only help marketers truly understand why specific marketing efforts are effective, but it could also help societal concerns such as identifying why the current anti-drug campaign has not effectively deterred our youth from using drugs.”

There was and still a big scare among consumer's advocates who tried to stop neuromarketing. I believe consumer's advocates are right under the condition that what neuromarketers are promoting is actually true.

However, let me tell you why one should take Neuromarketing with a grain of salt. If there is any damage that this new approach may do to the consumer and the society it is in raising the overall price of a new product on the market and in misrepresenting the sciences of the mind as scary and manipulative. Why is this ?

First: The FMRI technique mentioned and which will be widely used in Neuromarketing because of its non invasiveness shows only that a product x activates structure a or b known for such and such features. It might be that structure a, known as a pleasure center, lighten up when I see a bottle of Coke and it might be that this same structure lighten up even more when I see a bottle of Pepsi but there is a big jump to do in interpretation in order to see the level of activation as a preference for the product. The FMRI signal is produced by an increase in the level of oxygenation of the blood in a certain brain area, relatively to other brain areas, in response to a regional and specific metabolic demand. This kind of physiological response is very slow compared to the neural response which is behind it. FMRI signal is then constrained by time and does not reflect the state of the entire neuronal network involved in the task but shows us the more activated structure in the network in a defined time frame. Now, the intensity of this regional increase is relative to the level of oxygen in other brain areas. So, in the case of an increased intensity to a stimulus, either the whole brain is more active or other brain areas are less activated or deactivated. FMRI scientists know that even deactivation could mean something.

FMRI technique started to be widely used in research 10 years ago and scientists are still trying to understand some of its features.

Second: Brighthouse proclaims that Neuromarketing will ''observe and quantify the consumer's response'' without the influence of context and others. I understand that marketing requires that you should probe consumer's tendencies and preferences even before product conception and commercialisation. But on the other hand, advertisement is all about context and group thinking. Advertising is perception in a context, it is context biased, it is adressed to the person and not to the brain. For this reason, I don't buy into the rethoric of Neuromarketing because there is a huge leap between Neuromarketing and advertising. The person is not only a brain, it is a brain embedded in a variety of contexts including the body and its physical and social environment.

Third: What is useful in the fact that ice cream made by Z tickles a specific area in my brain ? Unless there are lasting changes in the brain like recpetor expression levels in the activated structure as in the case of addiction, there is always place for competition. The contrary explains why ''...the current anti-drug campaign has not effectively deterred our youth from using drugs.'' it is because youth behavior is driven by context, the group context, and once they use drugs on a regular basis or even on a non regular basis -depending on the drug used- addiction is established through lasting changes in levels of brain receptors for the drug.

Fourth: What to think if an advertisement campaign based on Neuromarketing fails ? Should we consider this as a refutation for Neuroimaging ? To which extent, in this particular context, results from economic and social interventions based on hard science (because Neuromarketing is being sold as more certain, based on hard science and not on surveys) will affect the status of this science ?

There is nothing for the consumer to be scared of in Neuromarketing since knowing somebody's brain better (and I doubt Neuromarketing could achieve this) does not necessarily mean knowing better her or his mind - brain in a body in a social context. Moreover, the consumer's mind will always be the target of the new economy, Neuromarketing or not. The entire new economy is based on targeting our subconscious. Neuromarketing is no exception. The only way out for consumers is vigilance and consumer education. As the success of Neuromarketing depends on the extent to which its target is a subconscious process, I believe that being aware that we are a target can help to reverse the process.

My concern is elsewhere. There is a huge risk for the science itself, namely Neuroimaging, when its status as a new science is put at risk by factors for which it has no test and on which it has no control. In other words, Neuromarketing is more dangerous for the science it proclaims as its core principle because it will obscure the public understanding of this science by stretching it beyond its current limits.

No comments: