Walter McDowell – Biology-Based Measurement and the Future of Advertising

Walter McDowell, Assoc. Professor of Communications, University of Miami

For decades, the advertising and media industries have relied on conventional self-report surveys, experiments and focus groups to measure the wants, needs and attitudes of consumers and audiences. In terms of predicting subsequent human actions in the marketplace, the results often have been disappointing. One explanation for these shortcomings has been the belief that subconsciously embedded, emotional drivers, rarely detected by conventional research methodologies, have a profound influence on individual decision-making (Martin & Morich, (2011). One alternative approach to access these hidden persuaders has been to use certain biological measures as substitutes for language-based self-reports. In addition to familiar, long-standing measures, such as heart rate, blood pressure, and sweat conductivity, research firms now have embraced far more sophisticated tools, including Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), Electroencephalography (EEG), which delve into brain activity and more specifically, activity involving human emotions. The jargon invented by these includes “emotional involvement,” “emotional attachment,” “emotional engagement,” and “emotional dimensions.”

A simple Internet search will reveal dozens of private research companies claiming to be involved with “neuromarketing,” “neuroimaging,” “biometrics,” “neuro-physiological measurement” or some other biology-based measurement service that offers clients once-hidden knowledge about consumer/audience decision making. The recent emergence of neuromarketing as a means to tap into the subconscious motivations has received both accolades and accusations. Supporters proclaim this unorthodox methodology as an historic breakthrough in the science of consumer behavior. Detractors, on the other hand, scoff at its presumptions of sound science and see it as nothing more than modern-day “snake oil” promising far more than it can deliver. Criticism has increased in volume in recent years to the point that several industry organizations have initiated various seminars and task forces to ascertain whether neuromarketing has a legitimate future (Ariely & Berns, 2010; Easter& McClendon, 2010). The most ambitious effort so far has been a study conducted by the Advertising Research Foundation (ARF, 2011). Although the study offered some useful clarity, especially on experimental procedures and the need for statistical disclosures, it did not address adequately the higher-level epistemological issues of defining exactly what is being measured.  Although advertising professionals and academics continue to wrestle with the thorny problems of small, non-random sampling, confounding instrumentation, artificial testing environments, incorrect uses of research terminology, proprietary jargon, missing statistical data, and limited peer review, some nagging theoretical issues remain unaddressed. In particular, these inquiries and debates have seldom addressed the type of explanation neuromarketing or any biology-based measurement system supposedly provides. Presuming that most of the nuts and bolts execution problems can be fixed readily, the question remains – What exactly are we explaining? Brain measuring devices are not new and medical science has validated their usefulness in diagnosing all sorts of physical maladies from epilepsy to brain tumors, but physicians are cautious to endorse this methodology as a means to unravel the mysteries of the subconscious.

By examining the chemistry and physics of the brain, biology-based measures straddle the boundary between the so-called hard and soft sciences by exploiting the precepts of neuroscience and psychology (Hubert & Kenning, 2008). Of course for centuries humankind has acknowledged that a physical condition can engender psychological states, such as a persistent headache can cause depression and irritability. On the other hand, we also know that highly emotional circumstances in a person’s life can stimulate an assortment of physical responses, such as a personal tragedy evoking episodes of crying. The underlying logic of neuromarketing is that certain brain activity can unveil thoughts and feelings that individuals are unable or unwilling to express through language; most importantly, psychological states that reside in the subconscious.

At the core of neuromarketing is reductionist thinking. The notion of reductionism is as old as philosophy itself. The Newtonian epistemology asserts that the world’s apparent complexity can be resolved by reducing phenomena to their simplest components. That is, without the physical stuff of neurons, circuits, molecules or something like them, the higher level states would not exist at all. In the case of neuromarketing, the presumption is that all mental properties are derived ultimately from the physical properties of the brain. Of course an important caveat to this “bottom-up” thinking is that although the lower level particulars are always necessary they often are triggered by “top-down” higher-level, cognitive activity. That is, these particulars are indeed necessary but not necessarily sufficient to explain what is going on. For example, an attitude about an advertised product or service may be accompanied by an emotional state that is manifested physically. The question is how well can a purely physical response serve as a proxy for detecting a complex attitude?

Critics of excessive reductionism assert that the whole is not only more than the sum of its parts, but also less than the sum of its parts because some properties of the parts can be inhibited by the organization of the whole. From an epistemological point of view, this means that it is not enough to analyze only the individual parts of an observation, nor is it enough to analyze it only as a whole or system. True understanding of a complex phenomenon requires shifting the perspective from the whole to the parts and back again. Corresponding with this change in perspective comes a need to change the type of questions asked.

A theoretical touchstone for this essay is a rather obscure but enlightening book I discovered years ago Forms of Explanation: Rethinking the Questions in Social Theory by Alan Garfinkel (Garfinkel, 1981). Although the author is a hard science researcher in the UCLA Department of Integrative Biology and Physiology, he disagrees with the reductionist approach that human attitudes and behavior can be reduced to mere biology, which in turn can be reduced again to mere chemistry and physics. But he also recognizes the importance of understanding the basic “atomized” building blocks of any observed object or phenomenon. Instead of takes sides on this eternal debate, Garfinkel argues that some questions about human behavior require what he calls a macro-explanation, while others require a micro-explanation. He maintains that micro-explanations typically are better at providing answers to questions pertaining to how, while macro-explanations are better at providing answers to questions pertaining to why. For example, for advertising research a biology-based approach may be more appropriate to better understand how a consumer feels about a brand but a more conventional verbalized approach may be more appropriate to better understand why a consumer claims to prefer that brand.

Inevitably, the future of advertising will incorporate more consumer knowledge derived from the hard sciences, such as biology, chemistry, and physics to complement that acquired from the softer sciences of psychology and sociology. While criticisms of technical execution, statistical disclosure and ethics are essential to assure good science (As the ongoing ARF neuromarketing project aims to do) advertising researchers still must reconcile the broader conceptual issues of the relevance of questions asked and the explanatory power of the methods used.


  • ARF Project. (2011) Advertising Research Foundation. Neurostandards Collaboration Project.
    Website. Retrieved July 25, 2012 from
  • Ariely, D., & Berns, J.S. (2010). Neuromarketing: The hope and hype of neuroimaging in business. Nature. Section: Perspective/ Science and Society, 11, 284-292.
  • Easter, B., & McClendon. E. (September, 2010). Is Neuromarketing a Fantasy or the Future?
    It Could Give Marketers an Edge, but Questions Remain About Effectiveness and Ethics.
    Advertising Age. Retrieved October 10, 2011 from
  • Garfinkel, A. (1981). Forms of explanation. Rethinking the questions in social theory
    New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  • Hubert., M, & Kenning, P. (2008). A current overview of consumer neuroscience.
    Journal of Consumer Behavior, 7, 272-292.
  • Martin, N., Morich, K. (2011). Unconscious mental processes in consumer choice: Toward a new model of consumer behavior. Journal of Brand Management, 18, 483-505.