On me ‘ead, son

Posted by on Nov 30, 2006 in Uncategorized | One Comment


There’s a lot of bollocks floating around about neuromarketing. That is, the application of brainscanning tools to understand “what’s really going on” inside individual brains. Vendors around the world are exploiting the ignorance of marketing folk; marketing folk are fascinated by this ‘star wars’ technology.
Not all vendors are snake-oil suppliers; but some are even prepared to admit that such a thing should go on.

Take this from Dr Lewis of the very nice Neuroco, based in the UK

“Whenever there is ignorance and, not surprisingly, even the best informed brand manager is unlikely to be well informed abut so dauntingly complex a subject as brain function, there will be flim-flam artists and snake oil salesmen” Admap May 2005

Yesterday a bunch of folk who blog at neuroscience marketing were among the few to spot a new piece of dodgy neuro-marketing research released by the Radiological Society of North Americacalled MRI shows brains respond better to name brands.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I think neuroscience is a really valuable source of learning about human behaviour and a lot of powerful stuff has emerged in recent years (like for example the fact that we think ’emotionally’ rather than ‘rationally’. But this study is quite typical of stuff in the field of neuromarketing. Bad science, bad theory, lots of extrapolation. Here’s what some of what my posted comment said:

This doesn’t ‘prove’ anything of the sort that folk want to believe, I’m afraid. Tiny sample to start with. Huge amount of extrapolation. And the end of the day….all it says is there was some brain activity when an individual subject was exposed to a visual stimulus. Not what it was or why. Or even how that relates to behaviour (which you’ve repeatedly and rightly highlighted on the blog).

…so what would you imagine the opposite result telling us? That nothing was going on at all in the brain of individual subject? Now that would be a shocker.

… The more of the “magic”-neuoroscience stories appear the greater the disappointment in what can be delivered. And the potential value of the discipline to marketing and business folks will not be realised. The application of neuroscience to marketing and other mass behaviour phenomena is still very young – a “fledgling” discipline you call it on previous posts…just like the purer science itself.

A couple of years ago, Susan Greenfield told the UK MRS Conference that we’re not even quite “at the end of the beginning” of neuroscience and that the current methodologies are like “Victorian photography”: more interesting for what they fail to reveal than for what they do reveal. Let’s just be careful til then.

Have a look again at the flip-top brain scan visual at the top of this post.

What is it showing? Go on, have a guess…

I’d better tell you:

A typical response in the brain to the subject seeing a visual of a loved one.

And this shows how pointless the neuromarketing schtick is right now.

Because it tells us nothing about this person and their next action. Nor anything about future actions. Nor anything about the future of that relationship. Or relationships between humans in general. Or indeed about Love (see, I’m not scared).

What it does tell us is that something is going on in this subjects head. “A typical response in the brain to the subject seeing a visual of a loved one”. (That’s nice quoting my own post before I’ve finished it).

But how does any of this help us understand human behaviour, when most of it is the result of interaction with other humans? Which is as true of the behaviour marketing is interested in as it is of the more important things, like love and happiness (or the absence of).

Instead of looking inside heads, perhaps we should look between them, given that this is where humans meet and influence each other…?

Nuff said

1 Comment

  1. ed
    December 29, 2006

    Hello Mark. It’s Ed Tam from Naked. I’ve built a new blog. Tell me what you think. http://www.edmonkey.typepad.com. Ed