In the basement room of a swanky private London club, a man in a baggy brown hat is watching an advert. Trailing from his hat is a bundle of wires connected to a laptop. Behind him, a screen displays a series of wiggly lines and what looks like a graphic equaliser. As the advert plays, the bars on the equaliser rise and fall with the action.
This is neuromarketing, a technology that I’m told will increasingly shape our lives, probably without our knowing it.
It’s the answer to every market researcher’s prayer: a way to get inside the heads of consumers, literally. It addresses the biggest problem facing conventional market research, says Thom Noble, managing director of Neurofocus Europe, the company running the demo: “What people say and what they think is not always the same.”
Just the facts
Neuromarketing can strip away the confusion and reveal the truth, says Noble. Did that trailer make you want to see the movie? Did that food packaging whet your appetite? How can we tweak future products to make them more successful? The answers are written in your brainwaves.
The heart of Neurofocus’s technology is a brain-imaging technique called high-definition electroencephalography. Inside the hat, an array of up to 128 EEG sensors record electrical activity leaking from the wearer’s brain through their scalp.
Those signals can be displayed as wiggly lines on a screen and, more usefully, are also converted into three measurements that market researchers care about: attention, emotion and memory. The algorithms doing that are based on published biomedical research into neurological conditions that impair those three functions. And an eye-tracking camera reveals exactly what caused a viewer’s brain to react in the way it did.
How do you feel?
An advert that fails to grab people’s attention, engage their emotions or lodge in their memory is useless, says Noble. But simply asking people if an advert, movie or gadget worked on those levels is a poor guide to whether it really did.
The company also converts the EEG data into three other metrics: intention to purchase, novelty and understanding. These are not derived from neuroscientific research but from Neurofocus’s own analysis of the EEG patterns evoked by successful and unsuccessful adverts.
The firm’s satisfied clients include CBS, Microsoft and PayPal. But is there independent evidence it can really work? A forthcoming paper in the journal Nature Reviews Neuroscience says it can: there is growing evidence that neuromarketing techniques can indeed reveal information hidden to conventional methods.
Other brain-imaging techniques such as functional MRI may well do the job better than EEG but are much more expensive, concludes the paper, written by behavioural economist Gregory Berns of Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, and cognitive neuroscientist Dan Ariely of Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.
Berns and Ariely also highlight the ethical risks of neuromarketing, such as privacy concerns over “mind reading” and suspicion it will be used to “trick” people into buying things they don’t want or need.
Noble acknowledges such concerns, but says the marketing industry itself has good reasons to ensure the new techniques are used responsibly, he says. “There are some standards that need to be applied.”
Neurofocus has a high-level scientific advisory committee with members from institutions as august as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard University and the University of Oxford. But until we have solid, peer-reviewed evidence that it works, the suspicions that neuromarketers are blinding their clients with science will remain. At least I think so: perhaps I need a brain scanner to be sure.