The discomfort of digital neuromarketing.

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Considering the long history of marketing, neuromarketing is in its infancy.  But, it feels like it was always going to be inevitable.  The marketer has always benefited from a little psychology.  After all, we want to tap into that font of behaviour.

And, we want to trigger the desire switch.

So, it seems that we wouldn’t have able to avoid mashing marketing and science together is such a way. 

It just sounds like the prequel to a dark dystopia, doesn’t it?  Think Minority Report, Feed, or Total Recall.  The all-capitalist hells where marketing invades the conscience, calling you by name, and uses your buying habits against you.  I would imagine that many of these futures would have had a history in the discomfort of digital neuromarketing.

But it is here.  Not in a dark and claustrophobic science fiction franchise.  No cyborg spiders clicking up the stairs.  No memory-alteration-wholesale or marketing feeds implanted in the brain.  Just good old twenty-first century MRI scanners

And, scientific research.

PIcture of a brain marketing

OK – it isn’t really all that simple:  it’s behavioural neuroscience!

We may recognise the equipment that would begin to yield digital neuromarketing results, but we aren’t going to equip our offices with lab equipment.  As good as we all would look in white coats, we are probably going to wait for the scientists to release their results.  Or, wait for Google and CBS who have both invested in neuromarketing technology.

But what results are they looking for? 

What is the picture of a brain going to show us that will change the face of marketing forever?

Well first, neuromarketing relies upon the behavioural neuroscience model.  The premise that “all that is psychological is first physiological” sits at the centre of neuromarketing.  Essentially the brain is an organ, and our reactions to stimulus can be traced through imaging.  We can see which areas of the brain are active and what neurotransmitters are released.

Ultimately, neuromarketing is measuring stimuli that activates our mirror neurons.

neuromarketing decision makaing

Fair enough.  I mean.  What is a mirror neuron?

Let’s start with pictures. 

Our brain loves a good picture.

Over half the population can class themselves as a visual learner.  This is because the brain processes visual stimulus much faster than any other.  Images activate the parts of our brain that convinces us that what we see is genuine.  It is also the part of our brain that is responsible for the “imitation game.”

You know, when we identify with a character or a specific action in media. 

Yes these. These are your motor neurons.

They create the emotions that are pivotal to our cognitive and emotional drives.  Basically, in physiological terms, neuromarketing studies the parts of our brain responsible for the decision-making process. 

And, why do we look at the mirror neurons?

Because, even the most logical decision has an emotional base.  Or, so leading psychologists say.

No one image solution marketing

So, what does neuromarketing tell us?

On one hand, it is great that we can see what type of stimulus can influence our buying decisions.  Scientific imaging has also unlocked cool extra little titbits.  For instance, if a character in your poster or social media post has their eyes pointed in a specific direction, that will influence the reader and their eyes will also be drawn to that area of the ad.

What we do have to remember, before we all start consulting psychologists, is that neuromarketing is still very much in its infancy.  We are also forced to remember that humans are a complex creature.  After however many millennia of evolution, and mixed genetics, there is no one-image-transfixes-all solution to your marketing problems.

I am not saying that behavioural neuroscience hasn’t provided us with useful information.  What I am suggesting is that we must be careful about how we interpret the results.  Marketers tend to be reductive in their analyses of such things.

For instance, there are a few areas where neuroscience can be co-opted.

Reaction to colours

That pesky colour psychology conundrum.

There’s a lot of literature on colour psychology.  In essence, it is supposed to report the ways in which certain colours (and colour combinations) impact the buyer.  The problem is, much like anything else, the reaction to colours is subjective and individual. 

What neuromarketing can tell us with certainty is buyers react to colours.  It can surmise and suggest that specific colours have certain effects.  What it doesn’t do is prove it.

There are psychological studies that do detail how colours in our environment impact behaviour in humans.  But that is not how the message has been received.  A colour psychology blog post is easy to write, and many have, mostly because some seem to think that writing a list of colours and their respective industries is useful.

Advocates of neuromarketing often pull colour psychology first out of the hat.  As if colour psychology is a good use of neuromarketing.

neuromarketing micro narrative

Neuromarketing and storytelling

Neuromarketing is about measuring emotions.  Storytelling is the one of the best ways to illicit an emotional response.  At its core, storytelling tries to reach the recipient and force them to identify with a protagonist.  Television ads have always worked on the basis that storytelling will have an impact.  In fact, marketing works best by delivering micro-narratives and triggering those motor neurons.

Once again, however, there’s an element of subjectivity to this too.  The media has to be taken into consideration too.  However, the same story told through video might not have the same impact as the story that is written.  If just over half of the people in the world respond to visual stimulus, where does that leave the rest?

Again, there is no one-word-suits-all solution. In fact, a healthy background in linguistics might be of more use.  Moreover, it has always understood that language has impact on human behaviour.  Neuromarketing, though it is still young, has really only given us the pictures to prove that.

UK multicultural society

The problem of subjectivity, experience and society

Firstly, my cynicism might seem unfounded.  However, psychology can rarely be illustrated by singular terms.  There are many deep-rooted complexities that skew the findings.  What marketers don’t consider when discussing broad issues involving the human condition is there are external, and often environmental, factors.

As such, what impacts a human isn’t just a simple case of ‘physiology first’.  Any reaction is a result of triggers embedded in experience, society, politics and other influencing subjects.  Culture and nurture are just as important factors.  In fact, before the physiological reaction that determines human behaviour, the triggers need pulling.

It’s the reason that Chinese wear red to evoke prosperity, yet Middle Eastern cultures see red as the colour of evil.  Moreover, can you expect a white middle class male from Bournemouth to respond the same way to stimulus as an orphaned young teenager from Palestine?

Neuromarketing suffers from the same bias.


Bias in marketing studies.

That has always been a large part of the problem with these studies.  They are heavily Eurocentric, performed for the benefit of Anglo-Americans and the capitalists in Europe. 

This isn’t a criticism of culture at all.  But you can see how the results might not yield accurate results.  Especially, considering the UK has been fortunate enough to be a multicultural society. 

Potentially, by lending too much credibility to neuromarketing results, we could be ignoring a large part of our market.

neuromarketing reduction

Is neuromarketing any use to us at all?

Much like any study or subject that aims to either unlock, or emulate, human behaviour it always needs to be treated with an air of cynicism.  Believing so fully in these modern-day science fiction tales can lead to disappointing results.  But, that doesn’t mean they cannot be of use to marketers.

Neuromarketing, much like other studies, cannot give you specifics.  It can however give you guides.

It can tell us that images should be an important part of your marketing campaigns.  Neuromarketing illustrates the power of personalisation, and why you should take every opportunity to make the experience a very individual one for your customers. 

The advantage neuromarketing has, is that it is looking directly into the physiological aspects of the subconscious.  Over time, this will yield more results.  And although marketers might tend to reduce the findings into simple ‘10-ways-to’ blog articles, neuromarketing can usually highlight areas that marketers should be focussing on.

As always, if there is anything you wish to add to this article, or any questions then please fell free to comment below.  Join in the conversation.

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