by: Roger Dooley

Slate science writer Daniel Engber finds the concept of neuromarketing dubious, and in particular has a problem with FKF Applied Research. FKF has been particularly successful in getting highly visible press coverage of its interpretations of fMRI brain scans.

That the conclusions reached are sometimes obvious and sometimes contradictory doesn’t seem to bother FKF nearly as much as it gets under Engber’s skin. The latest affront to Engber’s scientific sensibility was a lengthy piece in the Atlantic written by Jeffrey Goldberg (see Jeffrey Goldberg’s Brain).

In a scathing piece titled “Jeffrey Goldberg, Neuropundit?” and subtitled “The Atlantic goes cuckoo for neuro-puffs,” Engber takes on the forces of neuromarketing while trying to avoid calling Goldberg a hapless dupe.

To see such shameless inanity in the pages of the Atlantic fills me with a deep, amygdalar rage. It’s hard not to admire your brain, Jeff. (Who knew it was so sanguine on the Middle East?) But I’m less impressed with the people who profiled it.

Goldberg has fired back in A Challenge to Slate Magazine,

My article on brain-scanning, “My Amygdala, My Self,” which appears in this month’s edition of the Atlantic — the go-out-and-buy-it-and-support-journalism version of the Atlantic — has apparently made Daniel Engber of my home-away-from-home magazine, Slate, very unhappy, in part because Mr. Engber, though apparently quite young, is also quite humorless, and apparently because I gave FKF Applied Research free oxygen. Engber’s position is that the neuroscientists over at FKF are charlatans, and he has pursued them with Moby Dick-like intensity.

Goldberg goes on to relay an offer from FKF to scan Engber’s brain (while resisting the impulse to make snarky comments about possible difficulty in locating that atrophied organ):

So here it is, a public challenge from FKF. I think it would smart for Engber to go out and actually see what these neuroscientists are doing firsthand, rather than simply criticize from afar. And I’m reasonably sure they won’t put him in the special genital-shrinking fMRI machine.

I’m glad to see public debate about neuromarketing, but I’ve got a problem with the whole premise of this exchange. Scanning one individual’s brain and drawing shaky conclusions proves nothing. Ranking Super Bowl ads based on an interpretation of brain activation proves nothing, as I wrote a couple of years ago in Super Bowl Ads: GoDaddy Girl 1, Neuroscientists 0. Sure, it can generate publicity. And, if it’s controversial, it can generate even more publicity. What the industry needs isn’t more hype, but more solid research data. A few peer-reviewed studies correlating fMRI predictions of ad effectiveness with actual consumer purchases would mute the critics and do a lot more for industry credibility than any number of glossy articles that end up making neuromarketing look like high-tech phrenology.

I don’t think the people at FKF are charlatans as Engber suggests. These are smart people. (And, clearly, PR geniuses.) But sticking Engber’s head in an fMRI tube won’t quiet Engber or the other neuro-critics.

Here’s MY challenge: publish the data. Organize a proper study that shows how expert interpretation of brain scans can consistently choose ads that are more effective in boosting sales. Let others review the methodology and raw data. Publish the study in a scientific journal, not a consumer magazine. That will go a lot farther to making brain scans a widely accepted marketing tool than concluding that, for example, “Hillary Clinton causes a strong reaction in the brains of some voters.”

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