Neuromarketing: Pressing Your Buy Button

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It was a Sunday night and on the stage was a famous director receiving Oscar Award. In his thanks-giving speech, he said, “I’d like to thank my neuroscience partners who helped us enhance the film’s script, character and scenes.” The director is none other than the famous James Cameroon. You will be amazed to know the fact that Hollywood studios harness the power of your brain waves to win Oscars.

Well, monitoring consumer reactions to strategize business may sound like a concept that has just evolved out of a sci-fi thriller. Well, when I heard of it for the first time, I felt this way. But neuromarketing uses medical technologies like Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) to study brain’s responses to marketing stimuli. It is a relatively new field. The term ‘neuromarketing’ was coined by Ale Smidts in the year 2002. So, you can say that it helps companies to determine the reason someone prefers iPods over Zunes and Pizza Hut over Dominos.

Several rationales bothered me to explore questions like “What’s the need?”, “Can same response create different patterns in the brain?”, “Does a person adequately represent the group and hence the pattern generated?” and several other questions about its effectiveness.  “Can’t a simple questionnaire be enough to come up with a rating of consumer responses?” Well, this article focuses on the technology, the businesses that have benefitted from this and ultimately, delves into neuroethics.

How does the Neuromarketing Technology work?

Earlier neuromarketing used several psychological methods like the Implicit Associations Test (IAT) and biological data collection techniques like facial coding system, eye-tracking, galvanic skin response (GSR), assessing the breathing and heart rates.

However, modern neuromarketing implements several neuroscience technologies like Electroencephalography (EEG), Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS), Magnetoencephalography (MEG), fMRI and Positron Emission Tomography (PET) that record the brain’s activities in addition to the psychological and biological data as collected in traditional methods.

The major techniques and technologies are described in brief below.

1. Implicit Associations’ Test (IAT)

IAT is implemented to measure ‘implicit attitudes’. Implicit attitudes can be described as mental representations of objects or self without conscious awareness or subconsciously. So, these can be influenced by past experiences.

So, IAT relies on the fact that the past experience of a person can mediate favorable or unfavorable feeling, thought or actions towards social objects that he may not be aware of. IAT requires users to make a series of rapid judgments.

For example, a typical IAT procedure involves a series of tasks. In a task, a person has to classify a name, say Suraj and an attribute, say happiness, into pleasant and unpleasant. In another, he has to classify it as black and white and in another black/pleasant and white/unpleasant. These words, say black and white appear at the top right and top left corner of the screen. The name or attribute, here Suraj and happiness, appear in the middle. A person, then, has to press the right or left arrow key in a matter of seconds.

However, this is more of a psychological measure and anyone can still manipulate with the test. It is the limitation of this technique that forced researchers to explore new avenues.

2. Electroencephalography (EEG)

EEG records the data provided by the surface neurons. EEG technique is non-invasive and the sensors can record very-low-frequency brain waves.

It is well known that different areas of the brain are responsible for various functions. So, different cortical areas of the brain get activated differently depending on the type of stimuli.

3. Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI)

fMRI gives an estimation of the oxygen level in the brain’s blood flow. The working of fMRI is based on the fact that blood contains iron, which can change the magnetic fields around them. During the experiment, a subject is scanned in a tube generating magnetic fields while lying on his back.

This technique is more accurate than EEG in determining the increased brain activity in a certain region in response to a certain stimulus as compared to EEG. EEG suffers from the drawback of having large artifacts in signals.

Artifacts are the distortions or noise in the signal received due to the blinking of eyes, the motion of body parts or faulty wiring in circuits. However, fMRI is an expensive technique and requires the presence of professionals with sound knowledge.

The Measurement Parameters

A neuromarketing study by Dr. Hakan Boz in 2015 used a questionnaire with EEG, Galvanic Skin Response (GSR), heart rate and eye-tracking to reveal that traditional data collection methods are insufficient to measure the emotional responses to products.

Ariely and Berns (2010) have mentioned in their scientific publication that measuring the brain waves reveal consumers’ subconscious responses to marketing stimuli. That’s why researchers and market analysts moved onto new measures.

But what are the indicators that we intend to measure?

Neuromarketing intends to measure memory retention, emotional engagement, purchase intention, response to the advertisement message, affinity to a certain brand and novelty of a product.

We make decisions based on our emotions. The stronger the emotions, the stronger are the brain waves and hence, more is the emotional engagement. A stronger response to innovation may lead to a successful commercial campaign.

Areas of Application

1. Food and Beverage

neuromarketing in food and beverage industry

Consumers’ food choices are often driven by reasons of which consumers aren’t aware themselves. Vincenzo Russo, Professor of Neuromarketing at IULM University of Milan, has coordinated several experiments aiming at the food and wine sector. According to him, the gaze of the person portrayed in the advertisement has an impact.

For example, if a model in the advertisement stares at the audience, the audience builds a rapport with her. However, if she stares at the product, the effect is more direct.

Professor Russo and his team performed experiments for the advertising of an Italian winery, with posters and advertising messages with a female model next to some bottles. In one version, she looks towards the viewer and in another, she looks towards the bottles. They reached a conclusion that in the second ad, she guides the attention of the viewers more towards the product. Thus, it helped the brand to fine-tune its advertising campaign and messages.

2. Tourism

Discover your Aloha video of Hawai Tourism

The Hawai’s Tourism Authority has partnered with Expedia Media Solutions to come up with a video ‘Discover your Aloha’. Rather than show mere lush green landscapes, the campaign measures viewers’ facial expressions through their webcams as they watch and then offer them a personalized tourism package.

Researchers at the University of Split have studied the neuromarketing potential for tourist destination brand positioning. In a study by Dr. Boz on tourism pricing strategy, it was observed that people paid more attention to discount rates than reduced price. So, in the advertisement campaign, mentioning the discount percent, say 25% would be more effective than mentioning ₹ 2000 rupees off for a ₹8000 package, although both mean the same.

3. Automobile Industry

A significant neuromarketing study by Daimler Chrysler in 2008 led to a better understanding of people’s reactions to cars. The subjects were shown different images of car grilles.

They realized that a portion of the temporal lobe called fusiform facial recognition that enabled facial recognition was highly active for certain cars. They hypothesized that the main reason behind the sales of BMW’s Mini Cooper was, at least, subconsciously, its adorable design. The study also highlighted that the subjects were fascinated to Ferrari 360 Modena and BMW Z8 due their association with social status and wealth.

According to Lindstorm (2008), neuromarketing studies have demonstrated unexpected results, confirming that people don’t know what lies beneath their brains. They revealed in a study that some fMRI images showed that people do like television show although they confirmed a priori that they don’t like them at all.

4. Neurocinema and Hollywood

BrainMovie of Avatar

Several neuromarketing companies, these days, brain test movie trailers for the major studios through fMRI and GSR.

A year before Avatar hit screens worldwide, James Cameroon, the director asserted in an interview with Variety magazine that more neurons were activated while watching the movie in 3D than in the conventional form.

The BrainMovie of Avatar is available on YouTube and one can easily observe the changes in brain activations. Stephen Susco, the writer of the horror movie Grudge, claims that horror filmmakers can potentially control the viewers’ brains by adding amygdalic excitements and thus maximizing their profits.

Neuromarketing Companies

Neuromarketing is currently 2 billion dollars industry. Here are a few neuromarketing companies.

1. Salesbrain

Salesbrain claims to be the first neuromarketing agency in the world. According to the company’s website, ‘SalesBrain’ has been accurately targeting the brain’s ‘buy button’ since 2002 and has trained over 25000 people worldwide.

2. No Lie MRI

No Lie MRI Inc.’ provides unbiased methods for lie detection and extends its services in the legal system. It offers MRI based lie detection technologies which it claims to be more effective than competing technologies like the polygraph.

3. MindSign Neuromarketing

San Diego-based, MindSign Neuromarketing is known for its considerable efforts in neurocinematics and it’s the company involved in Avatar’s success.

4. Other Companies

Some other top players in neuromarketing are SoftProdigy, Forbes Consulting, and EB Neuro SpA.

Challenges for a Neuromarketing Startup

Here are the typical challenges for a neuromarketing startup.


neuromarketing fmri

A typical fMRI scanner can cost anywhere between $1.3 -$2.6 million (~₹10 crores).

2. Complexity of the process

Reducing the noise during signal acquisition has always been a challenge in medical signal processing. The signals from the forehead probes in case of EEG can have high noise due to blinking of eyes leading to artefacts in the signal. Even in fMRI, the subject has to remain immobile for about 30 minutes, which is a painstaking task.

3. Need of qualified professionals

The use of fMRI requires the presence of a professional that demands higher usage and maintenance costs.

4. Ethical Concerns

Apart from the technical limitations, neuromarketing has elicited ethical concerns. Gary Ruskins, the Executive Director of Commercial Alert, pinpointed three potential problems that can be caused by neuromarketing.

Firstly, he feared the rise of illness due to the promotion of harmful products. Secondly, he feared the promotion of degrading values. Thirdly, he believed that neuromarketing can be misused to establish political propaganda.

V. Sebastian, in a technical article, advocates against the tampering of confidentiality and freedom of individuals due to neuromarketing tests. It is quite possible that the agencies conducting tests on subjects can send data to multiple companies. It is very important that the subjects who volunteered should have full access to their test reports.


Due to a lot of controversies surrounding the ethical concerns, Neuromarketing Science and Business Associations was formed that drew up a code of ethics that must be followed by its affiliated agencies.

However, rules alone aren’t sufficient. The transparency of the tests conducted is significant. Participants should be able to withdraw at any time during the test despite signing an agreement.

All in all, it can be said that neuromarketing can work wonders for a more curated marketing experience. It is still in its infancy and criticism is certainly not the cure. It has an enormous potential to revolutionize the market, pricing models and shopping experience.

About Post Author


I started this blog for my love of writing and disseminating my views on things that excited me. I don't have a clear direction with this blog. However, you can find content mostly related to higher education, career development, MedTech, finance, and budget travel hacks. Background: After graduating in Mechanical Engineering from IIT (BHU) Varanasi, India, I pursued a dual degree Master's program in Europe (MS in Biomedical Engineering at RWTH Aachen, Germany and MS in Bioengineering at Trinity College Dublin, Ireland). I am currently working as a 'Manufacturing Engineer' in a MedTech company in Ireland.
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