Thomas Ramsoy – The Brain Buzz: Harvesting the True Impacts of Neuromarketing

Thomas Ramsoy, Professor of Marketing, Copenhagen Business School

What can advertisers learn from modern neuroscience? Any online query will indicate that despite it’s recent emergence, the term “neuromarketing” is already abundantly used (1). Popular science books and branding gurus alike suggest that “going neuro” is indeed the future of advertising, and such accounts are supported by academic approaches (2-5). But how do we know? Wherein lies the added value of neuroscience in advertising and marketing? Rather than being blinded by the flashing brain pictures shown in abundance, we need to focus on added values.

Today, neuromarketing has already demonstrated novel insights into consumers’ minds and actions (1), even to the stage that it raises ethical concerns on behalf of the consumer (6, 7). The methods of neuromarketing – ranging from measures of facial expression, skin conductance and pupil dilation, to state-of-the-art measures of brain activation – all bear on a common theme: they provide measures of mental processes that the consumer is not privy to, or willing to convey. Hence, these measures have already demonstrated an added value to the academic and commercial market researcher in their understanding of the consumer.

Several trends can be identified in which it is suggested, but not necessarily expected, that neuroscience can affect advertising in the foreseeable future. While marketing research has already seen a flourishing of tools for the assessment of consumer perception and choice, the impact for advertising has been less prominent. Indeed, one may claim that it is highly potent to employ the insights from neuroscience – a biological understanding of human behavior – in advertising. In this paper, I present a few notable insights in neuroscience, and discuss how they can influence the future of advertising.

Avoiding doing bad

Knowing how the brain works reflects a way to understand how our minds work and, by extension, how consumers ‘tick’. In doing so, we can identify several cases in which neuroscience and related sciences can help advertisers avoid making bad decisions. As the famous quote from John Wanamaker goes: “Half of my marketing budget is misspent—I just don’t know which half…” With recent insights from neuroscience, it may be possible to avoid at least some of the inefficient part of the marketing budget.

One such example is the case of inattentional blindness. A number of studies have demonstrated that even when information is presented at plain sight, it can fail to be processed (8, 9). Notably, in older healthy people, the inattentional blindness effect is even larger (10). What drives such effects? Just the sheer complexity of the visual display, or that specific attractors from visual or other senses, can lead subjects to be inattentive to otherwise salient information. Knowing exactly the mechanisms and premises for this effect can have a tremendous impact on how communication is shaped, and what the target group is. Neuromarketing insights like these can have significant impacts on how we choose to communicate to specific groups of consumers, and in avoiding bad designs that fall prey to inattentional blindness and other communication maladies. In addition, neuromarketing provides the tools for determining exactly where the cognitive and emotional traps reside. For instance, complexity and effort have significant effects on pupil dilation (11, 12). Thus, knowing complexity responses up front during beta-testing of advertisements can provide an important tool for knowing when complexity level exceeds a critical threshold and information gets lost on consumers.

Today, neuromarketing is only emerging as a new player on the business arena, and it has barely passed the tests of validation and reliability. With increasing insights from neuroscience being transferred into advertising, neuromarketing can gain an additional footing in affecting the way in which we communicate to consumers.

Motivating forces

Models of consumer motivation – what drives consumers to seek out and obtain information and products – traditionally describe such processes as overt, conscious and controlled. In this perspective, consumer choice is the process of a deliberate, controlled and conscious decision making process. However, recent studies have demonstrated that consumer choices can be significantly affected by unconscious stimuli and processes (13, 14). Similar findings have been demonstrated in a variety of situations related to consumption choice (3) and monetary decision making (15). These findings suggest that unconscious processes both can affect choice behavior, but also demonstrate that specific brain regions are related to such effects. Indeed, it has been demonstrated that some of these deep brain structures, including the striatum, most likely operate unconsciously (16). This implies that the generation and maintenance of motivated consumer choice can operate altogether at an unconscious level. Indeed, it has been suggested that two motivational systems operate simultaneously in our minds: an overt and conscious “liking” system, and motivational “wanting” system, often operating under the limen of consciousness. Such a distinction both parallels accounts in behavioral economics and have distinct foundations in the brain. Indeed, a recent study has demonstrated that engagement of these subcortical and subconscious neural processes can indeed outperform subjective preference judgements in predicting – in a small sample – product success at the cultural level (17).

Knowing how to employ this and other sources of knowledge from neuroscience will be one of the challenges for advertising in the near future. Indeed, it can be contended that consumer assessment is only one half of what neuromarketing is about. The other half, barely used in today’s business, consists of the more tedious work of becoming updated on the science of how consumers feel and think. During the past couple of decades, cognitive neuroscience has provided dramatic changes in our understanding of human perception, attention, consciousness, memory, emotions, preference formation, decision making and social behavior. Becoming up to date on this knowledge will provide advertisers with new skills and tools for communicating with consumers in their struggle to obtain attention, preference, choice and satisfaction for their products and services. It will provide a crucial next step in the toolbox of advertising.


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