Neuromarketing Shoots Itself in the Foot

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by: Roger Dooley

may be their own worst enemies. Neuromarketing, and its slightly more
established sibling, neuroeconomics, are exciting areas in which new
research findings pop up every week. Unfortunately, the rush to
commercialize the technology seems to lead to an overabundance of hype
and claims that are difficult to back up. A good example is the recent
New York Times Op-Ed piece This Is Your Brain on Politics which we chronicled in Political Neuromarketing.

publicity is good publicity, right? In this case, perhaps not. This
editorial described the rather bland conclusions from an fMRI study of
a small number of voters as they reacted to different candidates in the
current presidential primary race. This wasn’t necessarily a bad study,
but perhaps it wasn’t the best one to put forth in such a visible
location. The respected science journal Nature published its own editorial, Mind Games, which was harshly critical of the NYTimes piece:

op-ed work has not been published in a peer-reviewed journal, and the
article is self-evidently too insubstantial in scientific detail to
assess the strength of either the methods or the data. A group of
cognitive neuroscientists was swift to object to its conclusions —
which veer close to a modern-day phrenology — in a response to The New
York Times.

The results described in the op-ed are apparently the claims of a commercial product posing as a scientific study.

The Los Angeles Times piled on with Brain scans, the new snake oil. Yesterday, Ars Technica pilloried the New York Times in An editorial war on science.

Reaction around the blogosphere was almost entirely negative:

It would be easy for a self-proclaimed neuromarketing
missionary to dismiss the outcry as a Luddite over-reaction.
Unfortunately, that’s not the case here. There is plenty to criticize
in the article, and we didn’t see any vigorous defense emerge to blunt
that criticism.

One might still consider a prominent Op-Ed piece in the Times to be worth enough to weather the blistering critiques. How many marketers, political or otherwise, read Nature?
Or blogs that mostly post about neuroscience? Still, we wish
neuromarketing companies would go public with data that is a bit more
bulletproof than what was presented in the controversial Times
piece. Having the nascent neuromarketing business compared to
phrenology leaves a lingering whiff of pseudoscience in any discussion
of the topic. University researchers interested in exploring the topic
may be dissuaded – who wants to be involved in something that seems
related to parapsychology? (We do note that even parapsychology
attracts a few scientists – Harvard researchers just published fMRI
research that debunks the notion of ESP. )

We found the partnership between OTOInsights and Indiana University encouraging – we hope that some academically solid neuromarketing research emerges from this effort.

the neuromarketing industry really needs is peer-reviewed research that
ties together brain scan results (or other neuro-data) and actual
market performance. Marketers do split-run tests all the time to
compare different ads, products, prices, etc. How difficult can it be
to run this kind of test in conjunction with some neuro-data collection
to take data interpretation beyond the realm of guesswork? Doing so and
releasing the results for public scrutiny would silence most of the
critics and set the stage for far wider acceptance of neuromarketing

Until there is some unassailable data published,
neuro-skeptics will continue to make snide references to phrenology.
Let’s hope those days are soon behind us.

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