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Neurotrash! Sifting through the science and nonsense of neuromarketing

Technology & Data

Neurotrash! Sifting through the science and nonsense of neuromarketing


Harvard neuroscientist Jared Cooney Horvath has a thing or two to say about neuromarketing. Is it useful? Is it pseudoscience? Is it all made up for a quick buck? Ben Ice gets the expert’s take.

This article originally appeared in The Truth Issue, our October/November 2018 print edition of Marketing magazine.

Truth Issue cover 200Neuromarketing is the practice of tracking activity in the human brain, observing activity, thought patterns and more to hopefully understand customers on a deeper level. EEG (electroencephalogram), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and a never-ending, hyper-sophisticated toolkit are used to understand and explain how we react to ads, experiences and products.

Experts in the field garner attention from marketers the world over and neuromarketing theories and practice have – guilty as charged – even appeared in the pages of Marketing throughout the years.

Here, Marketing meets with Harvard neuroscientist Jared Cooney Horvath for an expert’s take, putting the tools and tropes promoted by neuromarketers to the test.

Spoiler alert: it’s not looking good for neuromarketing.


1. Tools

  • The STORY: neuromarketers conduct studies with state-of-the-art brain-tracking instruments like EEG and MRI to glean insights into what’s going on in consumers’ brains.

  • The TRUTH: you’re much better off sending out a questionnaire.

Jared Cooney Horvath 150 BWTo be of any use to marketers, neuromarketing has to provide a sophisticated, detailed and scientific understanding. The problem is, says Cooney Horvath, “All of the neuroscience tools, except for one, undershoot questionnaires by about 30-70%” in terms of accuracy and insight.

Questionnaires – neuro or otherwise – aren’t exactly the sexiest tools in today’s world of marketing automation and real-time datalytics. Is it our obsession with the latest and most detailed insight that leads us to neuromarketing?

“People go, ‘cool, we can avoid the questionnaires and go straight to the source – to the brain’,” he says, “but it doesn’t matter what the brain says.” Eventually it has to come back to whether or not a consumer will buy a product.


MRI, says Cooney Horvath, is the only tool that comes remotely close to being on a par with questionnaires. He poses a comparison: “Questionnaires cost maybe five cents a sheet to print and the time of the person to take it could be 30 seconds. MRI costs $15 million for the machine; you’re looking at another million for the analysis equipment, and the time it takes to do it and get the measures is ridiculous… And still it’s slightly worse than a questionnaire.”

An MRI study would work by a subtraction method, wherein numerous – “about 100” – commercials would be shown to a subject, followed by 100 competitor ads, then subtracting one from the other to conclude “on average, here’s what you think”.

In a questionnaire? “I can show you one commercial. Here it is, what did you think?”

It speaks volumes that Cooney Horvath and other practitioners of neuroscience – armed with these tools and using them for scientific tasks and not marketing – continue to rely on questionnaires. “There’s a reason people haven’t got rid of them. Even in neuroscience we still ask the questions because it’s the easiest way to get the answer.”

All the tools bomb

Tools like EEG, MRI and NIRS (near infrared spectroscopy) are all highly reactive. A subject sneezing or even blinking can send a recording out of the window.

Conducting the experiments and obtaining results is a cumbersome task. Dozens of trials must be performed. “Then you realise that you really can’t get a personal reading, because everyone’s brain is different.”

As for eye tracking – another popular piece of technology wheeled out by those claiming to be on the cutting edge of marketing science – it “definitely doesn’t do what you think it does,” says Horvath. It turns out it doesn’t have much to do with the brain anyway.

But more on that later.

Everyone’s brain is different

Findings from one brain scan cannot easily be applied to other people, let alone groups of people. Measuring one person’s brain, followed by that of another could show something entirely different, or it could look the same. So, he explains, the next step would be measuring multiple people hundreds of times to reach some sort of average. The problem (besides the cumbersome difficulty and heavy investment of managing such a task) is once you get that average, it doesn’t reflect everybody.

“Just because I know this part of the brain lights up when these people did this on average, does that mean I can predict [someone else’s] behaviours? Nope. Because their brain is going to be slightly different as well.

“Not only is the measurement beyond difficult, the analysis is beyond difficult. The conclusions you can draw from them are so far removed from ‘will you buy a product or not?’ it’s silly.”

Adding to the difficulty here is that not only is everyone’s brain different, they are also all changing in different ways all the time.


2. Irrational, emotional beings

  • The STORY: human beings are irrational and make purchasing decisions based on emotions, so for better marketing, start tugging at those heartstrings!

  • The TRUTH: no, we’re not.

Of course, there are times when our emotions do override logic, like having a stress response or in situations of ‘flight or fight.’

“But these are random, few and far between moments,” he says, and for the most part they’re very short. The one exception would be in instances of prolonged stress, but, ideally, as he points out, that shouldn’t come into your marketing.

“I don’t think you’re going to stress your customers out for two years before you sell them the product.”

All the feels

Nostalgia, pity, guilt, happiness, sadness? “All of that is great,” says Cooney Horvath of emotions that may drive decisions, but none of this negates logic. “Just because I feel something, it doesn’t make me illogical.”

The fact is, emotions and logic cannot be separated. “Just to say ‘we want to tap into your emotions because you’re not going to think your way through a purchase’? No. Tapping into the emotions feeds into the logic and adds to the decision they ultimately make.”

The idea that people will behave irrationally rather than rationally, and are therefore more likely to follow emotions is true only in the incredibly short term, “so if a bear pops up and scares you now, yes, you’ll be more likely to be completely reactive. But next week when you think about that moment, guess what? You’re going to be highly rational about it.”

“So if a commercial I’m seeing for Coke shocks me or moves me enough and I just happen to be putting a hand on a Pepsi can…” it may be enough to change one’s mind.

“Unless I can catch that moment, it becomes nonsense.”

Based on this, effective in-store advertising at point of selection, as well as personally targeted online ads served at the right moment, may have some influence.


3. Mirror neurons

  • The STORY: by activating a consumer’s mirror neurons, we can convince them to mirror our activity. Show someone sipping an icy cold beverage, and consumers will crave that beverage.

  • The TRUTH: they don’t exist.

There’s no magic neuron that fires when one person sees another doing something. It’s worth taking a look into ‘covert activations’ though. “What mirror neurons really are, are what we call covert activation: when I see somebody doing an action, I mentally imagine myself doing that action.”

The difference? It’s a choice.

“When I’m watching a basketball game, I’m doing it; when I’m watching a movie, I’m doing it.

“It’s not a mirror thing, it’s not ‘I saw it and it fired off in my brain’; it’s ‘I saw it and I chose to enact it so I could feel closer to that moment’.”

We only choose to do it with people we trust. “We have all this research that says mirror neurons activate only when somebody feels safe around the other person… but they don’t fire off when you’re a stranger or if I don’t like you.”

So does showing someone drinking an icy cold beverage make a consumer think of that product?

“If you do it right, yeah.”

Will it make someone more likely to buy it later?

“I don’t know, but that’s an easy data question, the answer to which appears to be no.”

The only time we are covertly activated without choosing is in instances of seeing pain. It’s why we flinch when we see somebody stack in a skating video. It helps us build our understanding of the world, and make predictions and decisions about what to do and what not to do in the interest of keeping ourselves safe from harm.

4. Predict versus explain

  • The STORY: armed with a clear enough understanding of how their brains work, we are able to to predict and influence consumer behaviour.

  • The TRUTH: that’s impossible.

“The conception of the brain as being a driver is essentially wrong,” says Cooney Horvath. The brain doesn’t dictate behaviour, it is responsive and reflective of our behaviours.

“There were some experiments done in the 1980s and ’90s that led us to thinking and speaking as though the brain were a driver but, free will aside, that’s not how this ballgame works anymore.”

True neuroscientists talking about the brain will say ‘it correlates with this behaviour’ or it ‘reflects’ this behaviour. “They don’t say it ‘drives’ this behaviour.”

For neuromarketing to be viable and of worth to marketers, it has to be predictive. We have to be able to look at a brain response and say ‘this person will do the following’. “Until you can reach that prediction point where you can say, ‘I can guess your decision before you do it,’ then it all becomes nonsense,” he says.


“Any time a neuromarketer comes out and says ‘we can tell you’re forming a memory’? No. You cannot,” Cooney Horvath asserts dismissively.

Memory is a very long process. To measure if a subject has formed a memory takes weeks, and to know if they have in fact done so, a marketer would still have to ask them or test them.

“Once you reach the stage where you’re asking me, why do you need to measure my brain? Just ask me! All the information you need to know comes out of that question.”


Along with emotion and memory, attention is the final “big ticket item” as Cooney Horvath calls them.

First, while it may be reflected in the brain, “attention doesn’t happen in the brain”. Today, eye tracking is very commonly rolled out as a measure of attention. If a consumer looks at an ad or a certain part of it, you have their attention, right? (Another thing Cooney Horvath points out is that eye tracking has nothing to do with neuroscience and everything to do with psychology, but neuromarketers still love it.)

An exercise: pick a word in this sentence. Focus on it, then listen to the world around you.

“Right now your eyes are focused on this word, so if I was using your vision as a proxy for your attention, I would assume you really love this word, but actually, your attention is way out here listening.”

Attention is just a filter. “They eyes let everything in and attention filters the shit out of that stuff.”

There’s a famous example – a video of two basketball teams each passing a ball around.

Viewers are instructed to count how many times the team in white passes the ball. During the action, a person in a gorilla suit walks through the action, beats their chest and then wanders off. Viewers are then asked how many times the white team passed the ball. They may get the answer right, but seldom notice the gorilla. “You totally miss it,” says Cooney Horvath.

(This test can be found easily online, but it won’t work on you now that you’ve read about it – sorry!)

“When we use an eye tracker,” he asks, “how many people look at the gorilla? 100 %!” Everyone looks at it all the time, yet they still don’t notice it until prompted at the end of the video. “You look at it, but you don’t see it.”

“You can’t use eye tracking as a proxy for attention… you can’t use the brain or behaviours to measure attention.”

So what’s a better way to know if someone’s paying attention to you? “Ask them!”

Whether it’s emotions, memories or attention, the humble question is still put forward by Cooney Horvath as the best way to measure what someone’s thinking. “There’s a reason people haven’t got rid of the questionnaire – even in neuroscience we still ask the questions because that’s the easiest answer.”

It has been noted that in questionnaires and surveys, people are known to sometimes provide inaccurate answers, and so some marketers may not use them anymore.

“They go ‘oh [respondents] are going to lie, they don’t know why they’re making these decisions’,” says Cooney Horvath, of the marketers with doubts about their subjects’ questionnaire results.

“Trust me,” he adds, “if the person doesn’t know, their brain’s not going to know. You’re not going to magically find the answer in their breathing pattern or in skin galvanics, lie detectors, in the brain or in the body”.

“If they don’t know and they’re not going to tell you, you’re not going to find out.”


5. Quackery!

  • The STORY: basically the entire practice of neuromarketing.

  • The TRUTH: neuromarketing seems to be, if we listen to Cooney Horvath, all bogus.

Marketers should be sceptical of anyone selling neuromarketing. “The first question you ask anyone who says they’re a neuromarketer is ‘Great, where did you get your neuroscience degree?’”

Cooney Horvath hazards that “99% will say, ‘Oh, I didn’t’, because they don’t do neuroscience, they do marketing.”

He gets a little indignant at this point. “There are people who devote years of their lives to earning the right to say ‘I understand neuroscience.’

“If you read a book, that doesn’t make you a neuroscientist. If you watch Brain Games, that doesn’t make you a neuroscientist. If you once saw a picture of a brain, if you once saw the movie Lucy, that doesn’t make you a neuroscientist.”

Brain speak is commonly used to sell pitches and delight would-be clients. ‘Neuro’ is, in a sense, a tempting buzzword. “The fact that I said ‘neuro’ makes you want to believe it more,” he says of the neuroenchantment phenomenon.

At the end of the day, however, it sounds like even the latest in neuroscience takes a rather exploratory view of the brain and how it works. “Any neuro claims that we can do X, Y and Z with the brain are lying to you, because no one can prove anything with the brain at this point.”

Originally, neuroscience’s aim was to crack the brain “like a code”. Practitioners believed “once I had your brain mapped, I could solve you.”

“That’s just not how this game ended up working,” Cooney Horvath says. Today, neuroscience aims to “describe” the brain, and to seek potential cures and treatments for diseases.

When applied to marketing, it sounds like the best neuroscience can do is confirm what we already knew. “The only thing neuroscience can supply is the underlying mechanisms of why some things work or don’t work.

“So as a marketer, you know which ads work well and which ones don’t. You have ideas as to what’s going to hit and what’s not going to hit. Neuroscience can come in and say ‘here’s why that one hit, and here’s why that one doesn’t hit.’”

So is there some glimmer of hope for applying neuroscience in your next big strategic move? “Once you know the why, then you can own the techniques with a little bit more footing and can manipulate them with a little more agency, a little more purpose.

“But it doesn’t change what you already knew.”

Cooney Horvath remains sceptical and believes it shouldn’t change marketing. The millions of dollars and hours invested into better understanding the brain in the name of scientific research makes sense, but in marketing, “you haven’t got the time and it’s definitely going to cut into your bottom line.”

Final thought on neuromarketers? “All they’re doing is repackaging stuff you have known for decades and selling it back to you… trust your own intuition, trust your own experience, trust your own training and you’ll do better than anyone with an EEG machine. Every day of the week.”

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Image credit:Vlad Tchompalov

Ben Ice

Ben Ice was MarketingMag editor from August 2017 - February 2020

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