The human brain is the most complex object in the known universe. Its billions of neurons interconnect through trillions of synapses and constitute the densest information network in the natural world.
Among those trillions of connections are the secrets to trillions of dollars in global consumer spending. Unlock the secrets of the mind, and you possess the code to unlimited profits.
Increasingly, marketers are turning toward brain-imaging techniques, such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), in the quest for the Holy Grail "buy button." We call it neuromarketing.
The brain, however, is reluctant to reveal its code.
Lyall Watson is credited with saying, "If the brain were so simple we could understand it, we would be so simple we couldn't."
Perhaps that is why John Wanamaker's famous adage about not knowing which half of advertising dollars are wasted remains largely true a century later.
The truth is that people do not know why they buy what they buy, so they cannot tell you. If you ask, they will tell you great stories about why they drive an Escalade, for example, but their reasons will scarcely correlate with the truth.
As with nature, consciousness abhors a vacuum. Stories will quickly rush to fill the void where none exist. Marketers need a way around this storytelling problem.
Along came brain-imaging technology—and if you've ever seen the output of an fMRI, the pictures are awfully pretty. But do the brain scans really allow the marketer inside the black box?
For the types of marketing studies reported in the popular press today, the answer is decidedly no, for two reasons. One reason has to do with the way the brain works, and the other has to do with faulty reasoning.
Your brain is an elegant information-processing system because information is stored as patterns of connections. Individual neurons are virtually meaningless, and you can remove any one of them without appreciable effect.
That prevents the problem of the so-called grandmother cell. Localized damage to the brain may cause you to forget some things about your grandmother, but she's not going to disappear altogether the way she would if she were represented by a single neuron or even a small group of neurons.
That pattern of activation distributes across a wide network of neurons, and imaging techniques designed to detect relatively intense blood-flow-related activity at very local points are poorly suited to capture such widespread distributed activation.
As illustration, consider a traffic metaphor.
Imagine sitting motionless in a Los Angeles traffic jam. The worst congestion chokes your particular stretch of highway. Yet a civil engineer could not diagnose the problem by looking solely where you're parked. All the highways interconnect, and travelers modify their routes on the fly based on feedback from radio traffic reports.
Just as an fMRI can pinpoint major changes in local brain activity, a city planner can illustrate the most-congested byway. That pinpointed congestion cannot tell us that a traffic jam in Pasadena may have been caused by commuters switching course to avoid a pileup in Glendale. It's not that local brain—or traffic—activity tells us nothing, but it certainly omits many of the most-relevant details.
Even if brain imaging were a more perfect predictor of human behavior, the logic behind most marketing fMRI studies is tautological: the logic dictates only one answer to the question.
It stands to reason that consumers like—or at least prefer—the products they choose. Thus, consumers should have some emotional connection to those products. And despite the brain's distributed nature, emotion reliably triggers certain areas of the brain.
So, for example, we drag the poor Pepsi drinker down to the lab and throw her in the magnet (fMRI slang). We know that she prefers Pepsi, and we know that preferences originate as psychological events. We also know that psychological events originate in the brain.
Thus, we know there is a difference. We know the difference is emotional. We know the difference is psychological and originated in the brain. Of course there are differences in brain activity.
Yet, we turn to the magnet with mystical admiration and praise it for finding differences in activation between a preferred product and its competitor. And we treat with reverence the rather obvious fact that the differences lie in brain areas associated with emotion.
Differences in preference lead to difference in brain activity—every time. And research from our lab takes this even one step further. If we merely show you the logo of a brand you like, your heart slows down as a result of increased attention, and the muscles you use for smiling begin to activate ever so slightly.
Those kinds of physiological changes come far downstream from brain activity seen in fMRI studies, but physiological changes must originate in psychological events. We could have simply asked the consumer which brand she preferred, and she would have told us. Thus we could have obtained the same results with a 50-cent questionnaire rather than a $4 million magnet: There is a difference. We knew that already.
I make a living as a psychophysiologist. I passionately believe in the ability of the brain and body to tell us things that elude conscious self-report. But there's no magic here. We have to ask meaningful questions in cleverly designed experiments.
Neuromarketing is the future. But it's the future because of the talent and training of the people in the field. It cannot be about the equipment. Because the equipment will answer any question you ask, no matter how trivial.
And marketing does not advance from trivial questions.
Take the first step (it's free).
You may also like:
- How to Identify and Avoid Survey Response Bias [Infographic]
- Small Towns Present Big Opportunities for Marketers: Rural-Business Expert Becky McCray on Marketing Smarts [Podcast]
- Qualitative Research: Even More Important in the Age of Big Data
- Five Ways AI Is Changing the Future of Marketing Research for the Better
- How Well Do You Know Marketing Trends? Test Your Knowledge. [Quiz]