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This is your brain on advertising

Queen’s neuroscience professor Susan Boehnke explains what’s possible in the emerging field of neuromarketing.

[Advertising in Times Square]
Queen's Executive Education at Smith School of Business has launched the Essentials of Neuroscience for Marketers program. The two-day session, Jan. 16  and 17, 2020 in Toronto, gives marketing leaders a practical understanding of neuromarketing and how to use it in their businesses. (Photo: Joshua Earle / Unsplash

NOTE: This article has been updated as the two-day session will now be held Jan. 16  and 17, 2020, instead of Oct. 3 and 4.

Everyone in advertising knows about John Wanamaker. The 19th century American department store magnate famously declared: “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted. The trouble is I don’t know which half.” If only neuromarketing were around in Wanamaker’s day, his ad buys might not have been as wasteful.

Neuromarketing uses eye tracking and other brain science technology to better understand what consumers like and how they buy. But it’s still relatively new, and misconceptions about its capabilities abound.

To help separate science from fiction, Queen’s Executive Education at Smith School of Business has launched the Essentials of Neuroscience for Marketers program. The two-day session, Jan. 16  and 17, 2020 in Toronto, gives marketing leaders a practical understanding of neuromarketing and how to use it in their businesses. The program’s lead instructor, Susan Boehnke, assistant professor and neuroscientist at Queen’s Centre for Neuroscience Studies, recently discussed the promise of neuromarketing – what it can do, what it can’t, and what to know before you buy in.

Question: Do you sense a growing interest among marketers in using neuroscience?

Susan Boehnke: I would say so, yes. I just compiled a list of most of the active neuromarketing companies out there for our Executive Education program, which is one of the takeaways attendees are going to have from the course. Right now, it’s a bit of a Wild West in terms of companies offering these services. You have some solid companies that have emerged, mostly out of academic labs. They tend to have a degree of credibility. But you also have a lot of entrepreneurs just opening up shop, buying off-the-shelf technology, and making claims about what they can measure.

Q: Why the fascination with neuromarketing?

SB: For a long time, companies determined whether people liked their advertising or packaging by asking them in a focus group or with a survey. These are still useful methods. You do need to ask people what they think. The problem is that people can’t always articulate why it is they feel a certain way, why it is they behave certain ways and why they make certain decisions. The hope when people started to apply neuroscience technologies to marketing was that you could get an objective measure of those things that people can't articulate. What people say in focus groups is clouded by cultural things or simply wanting to give the answer they think the experimenter wants to hear.

Q: What neuroscience technologies are being used in marketing?

SB: Eye tracking is one. There’s also biometrics – like galvanic skin response and heart rate. If you want to measure the brain more directly, the two methods are: electroencephalography, or EEG, where you have electrodes over the head to record the collective yelling of a whole lot of neurons together; and functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI. This is brain scanning where you can actually look at detailed change in blood flow throughout the brain. Change in blood flow is used as a proxy for brain activity.

Q: What are some of the upsides and downsides of these methods?

SB: EEG has deep roots in academic neuroscience and goes back decades. The good thing about EEG is that you get a continuous signal. You can know second by second how these signals are changing as people are watching, say, a video ad. The problem with EEG is that you don't know exactly where the signals are coming from in the brain. fMRI does provide really good spatial localization. You can say we saw more activity in certain areas of the brain, for example the ventromedial prefrontal cortex or the hippocampus, in response to one ad compared to another. Certain areas are more directly involved in decision-making processes, others in memory or in regulating our emotions. But you can't exactly say when those signals occurred on a millisecond-by-millisecond basis.

Q: What about eye tracking?

SB: If you’re an ad agency, why wouldn’t you want to see where people are looking at your ads? One issue, though, is that what people are looking at doesn’t necessarily reflect where they are attending. As an example, think of being at a cocktail party. You’re looking at the person you are having a conversation with but your attention has drifted to the back of the room where your ex-girlfriend is talking to another guy. So you’re looking at the person in front of you but that doesn’t mean you’re processing anything that person says because your attention has drifted. There is some cutting-edge gaze modelling happening in academia using big datasets that may help sort this out in the future.

Q: How might neuroscience be used in advertising?

SB: Let’s say you have a print ad and you’re going to use eye tracking to see where people are looking. You may find that people aren’t actually paying a lot of attention to a certain part of the ad that, creatively, you are trying to highlight. It looks like people are being attracted to, let’s say, a contrast line in the visual display of the ad and therefore not looking at the product. So then you go back to creative and change that contrast line a bit, and that might allow people to naturally go up to where you want them to look. You can also study a person’s brain signals with EEG and say, OK, when they are looking at this particular spot on the ad, what are their brain signals indicating about their level of attention or engagement?  And what does that mean?

Q: What can’t neuroscience do for marketers?

SB: It can't read minds. You can’t actually read people’s thoughts. I think sometimes there’s a belief that neuroscience can do more than it can do. I can't overstate the limitations of these technologies. But you can get signals that have been shown to be predictive of future buying behaviour, and that's why I think people are buying into neuromarketing.

Q: So the capabilities go beyond just telling us whether or not consumers like a particular ad?

SB: Neuroscience, to some degree, will give you insights into what engages people, but no one technology on its own is going to give you a simple, reliable explanation. The key, however, is in the design of the experiment – having an expert who can actually properly design an experiment that will give you meaningful insights. It is about choosing the right groups to compare and looking at signals from a group of people that is sufficient to provide you with some reliable and valid inferences. Take the example we just discussed about using eye tracking of a print ad. Neuroscientists have to do some interpreting to get the results, which is why it’s critical to have a neuroscientist with some expertise in vision and visual biases to interpret what’s going on.

Q: Can you point to any studies that have shown neuromarketing's effectiveness?

SB: I’ll give you an example of a study that I took my students through last year in my Neuromarketing class at Queen’s. It was done by neuroscientists at a university in Germany. They were interested in seeing if you could use signals from fMRI to predict buying behaviour for Duplo chocolate, which is one of those impulse buys sold at every checkout of every grocery store in Germany. They put women in an MRI and presented them with different merchandising displays for Duplo and asked the women whether they liked them and would buy this chocolate.

Then they test marketed these different merchandising displays all over Germany and got the Duplo buying data from each of these stores. And they were able to show that they could come up with an algorithm of the different brain signals that were involved in the reward and decision-making pathways – and that this actually predicted which merchandising displays would be most effective. So the fMRI signals were better at forecasting sales than the women’s verbal answers.      

Q: What are the ethical considerations for marketers using neuroscience?

SB: There are some perils but part of them I think are unfounded. They are under the assumption that we can actually manipulate people's minds. What neuromarketing can do is basically make ads that were created by advertising creative people maybe slightly better, or decide which ads are better. It’s just another tool for advertisers. Now, that being said, there are things to consider such as vulnerable populations. So imagine people with pathological gambling addiction or shopping addiction. If you’re specifically trying to target the things that are going to make these people even more vulnerable, that's a problem. But I question whether the technology is actually able to do that. . . yet.

Another issue that will need to be considered is privacy of the data. Who owns the neural data that neuromarketing companies record from subjects? A great example relevant in fMRI work is the presence of pre-existing conditions, such as a brain tumour. What if this was shared with insurance companies? What if the company did not disclose this incidental finding to the subject? What if they did it inappropriately? This is not too much of a problem now since the vast majority of fMRI studies are done in partnership with academic institutions, where there is ethical oversight. However, these kinds of issues should be covered by comprehensive regulation ahead of neurotech development that would make neuroimaging devices more accessible to industry.

Q: What are some issues marketers should consider before they hire the services of a neuromarketing firm?

SB: I worry that some companies will buy an off-the-shelf EEG system and software, and the company selling that system says, ‘Oh, here’s a canned signal, and we’re calling that signal engagement.’ And there are those companies out there. That worries me because in neuroscience good experimental design and interpretation is key. So I think the number one thing people have to look for when they source a company is, Do they have real neuroscientists who can think through these issues? You want to be assured the company’s work is standing on the shoulders of all that basic research that was done in academic labs.

If I was a marketer hiring a neuromarketing firm, I would say, ‘Let me be the first subject in the study so I see exactly what you’re doing.’ Obviously they wouldn’t count the results but I would definitely want to be subject number one so I can vet their methods.

Learn more about neuroscience and neuromarketing at Queen’s Executive Education’s Essentials of Neuroscience for Marketers, Jan. 16  and 17, 2020 in Toronto.

This article was originally published by Smith Business Insight.