Neuro-Marketing: a heaving cesspool of scams, lies and fraudulent pseudo-science


Full disclosure: I’m an Experimental Psychology student at Oxford, so the vitriolic that follows might be biased somewhat by my belief that science should be done properly and that it’s startlingly immoral to wave pictures of the brain around and demand huge amounts of money for producing absolutely nothing of value, in the process making a mockery of serious neuroscience.


Marketers and advertising agencies have always conducted research into consumer behaviour. And, quite naturally, commercial research has drawn heavily on techniques applied in academic psychology: interviews, focus groups, and questionnaires. Both academics and marketers alike know the drawbacks of these methods, people don’t always know what they like, or they claim to like something and then buy its competitor given the choice, or just make things up to sound like better people. For decades, economists, psychologists, and marketers have moaned incessantly about these problems. And, one by one, they found their solutions.

Economists went into denial and prefer to believe that everyone is completely rational and likes money as much as they do. Ok.

Psychologists said “oooh, that’s interesting. I wonder why they do that…Do you reckon we can train monkeys to do it?” Because they’re like that.

And one day someone said to the marketers and advertising agencies “pssst! You don’t have to ask people what they think anymore because I have this new tool called fMRI lets me see in people’s heads. I can tell you what they really want even if they don’t know it. Because Science and brains, right! Woooooohhhh…”

FMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) is a research tool that uses high powered electromagnets to (usually) measure the oxygenation level of blood in the brain. In this way, it can tell us the how the distribution of oxygenated blood differs in different parts of the brain. On the assumption that a greater level of neuronal activity uses a greater amount of oxygen, fMRI offers an important research tool which allows us to infer that certain regions of the brain are related to certain cognitive or behavioural functions.

But, and I cannot stress this enough, it is only as good as the experimental design. In a properly conducted neuro-scientific experiment we might ask “What areas of the brain are related to a perception of colour?” So I persuade you to climb into our fMRI machine, and show you an image with lots of colours in it, and see that your whole brain is active, all of it, going nuts. So I also look at your brain when you look at a greyscale version of the same image, and I start to see some areas which are using different amounts of oxygen in the two conditions. Great. Let’s do it 2000 more times to average out any irregularities…Oh and let’s do it to 10 other people because maybe your brain is just weird, or maybe grey just makes you think of your ex and what I’ve really found is a ‘your ex’ brain region, or maybe any of a 100 different things that could be happening.


Simple enough right? There are 3 ways neuro-marketing is doing this wrong.


1)     Methodologically

As far as I can tell (none of this work is ever published so it’s impossible to be sure) the primary methodology in the case of, for instance, a movie trailer is to show a subject in the fMRI machine 2 or 3 different versions of the trailer and then look at the patterns of activity in the brain associated with each.

Nice and simply: they don’t use enough people, they don’t have a controlled experimental design, they don’t have a testable hypothesis, they don’t have defined regions of interest, they don’t have enough trials, and frankly I’m not sure if they know what a brain is.

From what I can glean from a bit of sleuthing: clients are typically shown a series of snazzy pictures of brains, 3d pie-charts, and graphs with wobbly lines on it. In theory, these demonstrate any and all manner of things. ‘Neurosense’ claim that their DePsypher™ analysis can identify neural networks that metric:

  • Brand loyalty
  • Memory encoding
  • Brand empathy
  • Brand salience
  • Brand liking
  • Brand recognition

Oh, the Brand recognition circuit! That must have evolved at around the same time as that bit which lets us use information from the light entering our eyes, or the bit which makes sure our muscles are prepared for running away from predators. I’m going to tell you right now that all that DePsypher™ tells us is how stupid Neurosense think their clients are.


2)     Conceptually

Real neuroscience has to go from cognition to brain data, and not the other way around. Looking at the brain and telling us what is happening in the mind is called ‘Reverse inference’, it’s a big no no and it’s precisely what neuromarketers do. If no systematic change is involved in the experiment, there is really no reason to believe that differences in neural signals are associated with anything in particular, least of all ‘brand recognition’.


3)     Naming things.

Come on, guys! DePsypher™?! That’s awful.

And frankly it’s a shame that no one thought to ask any of the following questions when all this ill-informed neurobabble started: What science? Where is it published? Do you think we could see some replications of this study? Are you sure you’re using that fMRI right? And what was your experimental design in this experiment? Don’t you think it’s contradictory to be claiming to use scientifically valid methodologies and yet refuse to tell us what these methodologies might be since your entire capital is wrapped up in keeping your methods a secret, because really you have nothing of substantive value to offer?  Seriously, how dumb do you think we are?

As a result of no-one yelling these questions loudly enough, there are now more than 100 companies that use commercially available imaging neuro-technologies to scam vast amounts of cash out of gullible multi-nationals. Many of these can’t even be bothered to invest in fMRI and rely instead on the older and cheaper EEG (which is useful in many scientific studies, but certainly not in this). For example, over the last 15 years ‘Neurosense’ (now a huge multinational itself) have routinely scammed a list of clients that would make any advertiser green with envy:

American Express, BBC, Coach, Coca Cola, FGV Projectos, Ford Motors, Givaudan, GSK, Hakuhodo, Heinz, ICM, Intel, Ipsos, ITV, Johnson & Johnson, L’Oreal, McDonalds, Ogilvy, Omnicom, PHD Media, Procter & Gamble, Proximity, Seren, Sky, Thinkbox, TNS, Unilever, Viacom, Wunderman…


So it’s literally all nonsense and it’s making them rich…but they do do nice powerpoints…


By Sean R Mills