Since the 1990s, marketers have used the tools of psychological and brain science - EEG and fMRI brain imaging, and facial and eye tracking to gain a better understanding of what goes on in consumers' brains. This practice, often called "neuromarketing", has claimed that it can detect a consumer's decision several seconds before the consumer consciously believes he/she makes it. The practice also claims that it can show what consumers really think about a product or an advertisement, rather than what they say they think.

Accordingly, neuroscience is said to provide a more accurate and authentic insight into consumer behaviour. Rather than testing new packaging or television advertisements with questionnaires and discussion focus groups, brand owners are now turning increasingly to these "neuromarketers". Neuromarketers have pointed to several highly successful product launches and advertisements that had scored highly on neuromarketing screening techniques.1

The critics

Recently, a few commentators have instigated a public backlash against neuromarketers and neuromarketing.2

The critics point out that most neuromarketing testing today is carried out with cheap portable dry-contact EEG headsets, whose data is said to be noise-filled, unreliable and not independently verified. Despite this, neuromarketers are said to elevate their test results to be the same as those that are only obtainable in controlled and time-consuming clinical brain scanning. More importantly, the critics point out that neuromarketing is plagued by the problem of reverse inference: the false assumption that every change in brain signal means that the consumer is thinking or feeling some specified thing, such as indicating preference or an emotion.

Changes in brain activity could in fact be due to any number of thought processes completely unrelated to the stimulus. For example, a study of women’s brains that showed that, when presented with the packaging for a packet of crisps, a brain area lit up which is often associated with feelings of guilt. As a result of that study, the neuromarketers concluded that the packaging design was too decadent, and suggested a more humble design. However, that brain area may have lit up to any image of a packet of crisps, because of our inherent guilt at enjoying high-calorie food. Further, there is in fact no one area of the brain that processes guilt, and many areas of the brain will light up when processing many kinds of emotional states and feelings.

Brand owners and advertisers should therefore take heed of these criticisms and "put the brake" on their rush to expensive neuromarketing assessments. For the time being at least, and until science can overcome the inherent limitations of neuromarketing, traditional interview-based assessments may in fact be more reliable.