Is Neuromarketing about to Explode?

I invite you to follow me walking down beautiful Las Ramblas in Barcelona, as I was some years ago. Imagine a nice looking woman stops us offering a nice amount of money to get participate in marketing study: we are to follow here into a nearby hotel and, sitting comfortably, choose the commercial we like the most from a well know-fast food chain. Our task is simple, basically consisting in sitting in a very confortable couch, watch three commercials and respond to the questions of a nice young researcher. Nowadays, many other (maybe you have experience it as well) individuals are participating in focus groups and market surveys all around the world. To put it in perspective, the marketing sector is a powerful industry spending 400 billion dollars per year in advertising campaigns in the world.

Some of such conventional marketing methodologies have shown little impact: we now know that only 2% of survey participants tell the truth and only 5 % of purchase decisions are conscious. This is partly because most of our purchase decisions and based on our emotions and sub-conscious processes, and partly because it is difficult to communicate what we really think. This clearly indicates there is definitely room for improvement in the way marketers and advertisers are researching the consumer behavior.

It was just a matter of time before Marketers were going to be look at Neuroscience for more objective ways to collect their needed data, and the happy encountering came in 2002 which the development of so called Neuromarketing. Neuromarketing is an emerging field of study commonly described as the application of neuroscientific methods to analyze and understand human behavior related to markets and marketing exchanges.

From Neuroscience to Marketing

If we were now to go back to Las Ramblas to be invited to a modern Neuromarketing campaign, we would probably face three types of brain mapping technologies being also vastly used by neuroscientists in their research:

  • Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI): is the most commonly used tool for neuromarketing, measuring cerebral blood flow and giving poor temporal but a very good high spatial resolution on what areas of the brain are activated after an stimulus. However, fMRI is extremely expensive, has to be used in a controlled environment (wouldn’t fit in a Ramblas hotel!) and in some countries is not allowed to be used for neuromarketing purposes. This technology was used in the most well-known neuromarketing study carried out during the tasting of popular drinks such as Coca-Cola and Pepsi, and although it failed to provide the rationale on why one Brand was selected over the other, it really showed that while being aware of the brand the frontal lobe (where attention and short memory seem to reside) get more activated.
  • Magnetoencephalography (MEG) emerged in the mid-sixties and has gained considerable attention in the last decade because of the tremendous improvements made in measuring and imaging magnetic fields in the brain. While like fMRI this technology is very bulky expensive and has limitations, a few valuable studies have demonstrated that specific frequency bands correlate to controllable cognitive tasks such as recognizing objects, accessing verbal working memory, and recalling specific events. This in fact suggests that the best way to use MEG is to measure activity in areas known or expected to produce activity given specific tasks rather than to conduct exploratory experiments.
  • Electroencephalography (EEG) EEG devices are relatively inexpensive, robust, and wearable, making such EEG technology of recent interest for agile marketing surveys, and there are companies already offering neuromarketing solutions. Although EEG lacks the spatial resolution that MEG and fMRI have, it offers very good temporal resolution. For example, EEG was first used by Davidson in 1979 to study the link of affect and electrical patterns in the brain. His studies and others later validated the idea that electrical patterns were lateralized in the frontal region of the brain. Generally, the measure of alpha-band waves (8-13 Hz) in the left frontal lobe indicates positive emotion.

All these technologies have their positive and negative sides, and they all have contributed to advance in the field in the last ten years.

So, again, is Neuromarketing about to explode?


Progress has been made in both Marketing research using more objective techniques, and Neuroscience, to understand better human the links between brain activity and behavior, although many questions are yet to be answered in both fields. There is an increasing interest by both Marketers and Neuroscientists in the field, and the interest in finding the answers will surely benefit both. Ethical considerations have to be carefully looked at since many fear that a “magic subconscious button” will be found to make unaware consumers buy what they don’t really want, but this is yet to be seen and proven.

When my son will be walking down Las Ramblas in a few years time he may be asked to participate in a study, but it will surely be nothing like what I experienced. Surely, Neuromarketing and many other new objective tests will be carried out to try to find out what he thinks about a famous food chain, but whether they can objectively find out what he really thinks it is not yet clear. Meanwhile, let’s find answers to the many questions we have to solve and advance in the discovery of how our brain works. Enjoy the Neuromarketing journey!

To learn more :  Neuromarketing: The New Science of Consumer Behavior

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