Sally Satel, 12.08.09, 08:30 PM EST
Neuromarketers claim that brain waves reveal what consumers want.
Neuromarketers are becoming the next generation of Mad Men. They are working for companies like Google, Frito-Lay and Disney. But instead of directly asking consumers whether they like a product, neuromarketers are asking their brains.
Using electroencephalography (EEG)--a technology typically used by neurologists to diagnose seizures--marketers measure brain wave activity in response to advertisements and products. Electrodes placed on the subject's scalp collect the data. The consumer herself doesn't say a thing.
And that's the point. In the new world of neuromarketing, it is the more immediate, unedited emotional brain-level reaction to a product or ad that presumably indicates what the consumer really wants, even if she doesn't really know it. The rational and deliberate responses elicited in focus groups are considered unreliable.
No wonder EmSense, a San Francisco-based market research company, succeeded in raising $9 million in capital last month.
EmSense tests products with a band-like EEG device called the Emband that goes across the consumer's forehead. As she shops, the four sensors contained in the Emband collect data that, according to the company Web site, "open a window into the mind of the consumer."
Brain activation detected through the band's sensors is believed to signal the consumer's emotional engagement with a product. Engagement, in turn, is essential to sustaining interest and in enhancing memorability, important for developing brand loyalty. Yet the practical dimensions of neuromarketing are far from well-established.
First, how well does EEG detect emotion? It can gauge alertness, yes, but the more subtle kinds of mental states that relate to purchasing decisions--such as attraction, disgust, nostalgia or aspirational fantasy--are not accessible via brain wave analysis.
Second, the notion of a discrete "buy button in the brain," as marketers call the holy grail of marketing, is deeply naive. Response to the shape, smell and color of a product is the culmination of complex processes that engage many areas of the brain.
As one team of neuroscientists described it in a medical journal: "Distributed [neural] networks serve to allocate and direct attentional resources to the stimulus, to relate the stimulus to internal representations of self and environment to decide what action to take, to initiate or inhibit the behavioral response, and to update internal representations after receiving feedback about the result of action."
In short, there is nothing close to a direct path between brain activation and actual consumer behavior.
To the extent that brain activation patterns can yield any useful marketing information at all, the more of the brain that is monitored--or the more spatial detail there is--the better. Most EEG marketing firms use devices that cover the entire head, not just the front. These bathing cap lookalikes are studded with from 32 to 64, even 128, sensors in order to maximize the data collected.
Third, and most important, we still don't know whether any measure of neural activity predicts actual market performance or sales better than existing methods. Right now the data that are trumpeted by neuromarketers as revelatory have not been published in peer-reviewed journals. Nor has testing occurred under real-world circumstances in which consumers juggle their pocketbooks, the foreseeable reaction from spouse (??????you bought what?!??????), other purchases they have recently made and even their mood at the time they go shopping.
Companies don't sell to brains; they sell to people. And human actions are determined by an array of motives and impulses that come into play once the subject removes the EEG apparatus from her head.
Until the EEG marketing paradigm can prove itself to independent scientists, consumer actions will always speak louder than brain activation. Nonetheless, the allure of neuromarketing is obvious: Traditional focus groups seem too fuzzy and subjective; brain technology is objective, measurable and scientific.
Having raised an impressive $9 million, the least one can safely say about EmSense is that it surely knows how to market itself. But whether EmSense, or other neuromarketers for that matter, can deliver on their high-tech promises remains to be seen.