For some years now the marketing industry has been intrigued by the possiblity of using brain science to get a handle on people’s secret desires. Using brain scanners, the hope is to perfect the marketing of products by learning which presentations trigger the brain’s “cool” or “must buy” buttons. The always great magazine Wired ran a story in its October 2004 issue on the neuromarketing research by Steven Quartz with the superb title “If you secretly like Michael Bolton, we’ll know”. (Quartz, by the way, is rumored to have a book out this year explaining “the neurobiology of cool”.) Still, personally I only know of one real neuromarketing study, namely the well-known Neuron-study conducted by the Montague group which investigated how knowing the brand of two different cola products influences their consumption. (Quartz is one of the co-authors of this study, but hasn’t published anything else on the subject in peer-refereed journals.)
Now, in connection with the American super bowl, Marco Iacoboni has conducted an “instant-science experiment” where he and his colleagues imaged 5 subjects in an fMRI scanner while they watched the ads run during the breaks in the game. He then published a preliminary report on the http://www.edge.org website which has prompted a slush of comments. The New York Times referenced Iacobon’s short article, and a number of bloggers have made their thoughts public in the days since. See for instance the Neuromarketing blog’s positive reaction here, and then compared it to the Mind Hack guys’ much more negative reaction here.
For my own money, I find the general idea of investigating the neural machinery that make us react in one way or another to ads and products both highly interesting and very important. (It is an important aspect of out lifes.) I don’t feel, however, that any neuromarketing experiment at the moment will be able to tell an ad agency anything really important. Our knowledge of how the brain’s preference system works is simply to rudimentary. The way Iacoboni claims he can see activity in his subjects’ brains which are at odds with their overt reports must be treated with the utmost skepsis. Even if some ad actually elicits a high response in the reward system this activity may not, simply, correlate with a clear-cut preference for the ad. The reason is that the reward system is composed of several different structures which may interact and compete for the final verdict. (This is something I myself often see in my own research on aesthetic preferences for works of art.) Iacoboni, an expert of mirror neurons, also speculates that one ad, which very strongly activated the premotor region, might be the most “succesful” ad. But how does he know that the mirror neurons located in this region even play an important role in the formation of preferences? This is certainly news to me. It may well be true, as he writes, that mirror neurons activity underlies some sort of empathy with the persons depincted in the perceived ads, but I have never seen any experimental evidence linking empathy to preference. We might well prefer persons we empathize with, but nobody has, as of yet, demonstrated that we do so, to my knowledge at least.
As important as this research is in principle, we should be careful not to get over-excited about single studies that claim a lot. Especially if they are based on group analyses involving data from only 5 subjects! We should go forward with research on neuromarketing, but at the same time remember that there is a long way to go.