Neuromarketing Research Suffers from a Brand Image Problem

Is the secret to advertising success hidden in magical, mystical mappings of brain activity recorded during advertising exposure? This is a great follow-up question to the points that I raised in my initial blog on the importance of understanding conscious and unconscious processes when managing effective brand communication.

While reviewing the results of Sands’ Research Super Bowl Ad study, I was reminded  of how complex the phenomenon of human minds processing brand messages is, and the tendency of neuromarketing to oversimplify it. You see, among my most respected colleagues in academia, neuromarketing research suffers from a brand image problem.

One reason is that neuromarketing firms rarely share methodological details of their studies or subject their work to the process of scientific peer review — the primary mechanism for quality control in academic research. One of my responsibilities as a research professor is to serve as a reviewer of manuscripts reporting results of studies that other researchers hope to have published in scientific journals. Therefore, I thought I would offer a brief review from that perspective of the Sands Research Super Bowl Ad study.

The first things I like to do when reviewing studies is point out the positive elements. There are a couple of positive points that I gathered from the press release that Sands Research issued. The press release makes some important and valid points about the strength of biometric measures and how the mind processes advertising. It correctly states that a huge strength of biometric measures is the ability to analyze cognitive and emotional processes evoked by advertising that unfold at a millisecond by millisecond level. This is a level of analysis that digs below explicit consciousness and, as I stated in my last blog, is critical to obtaining a complete picture of how the mind processes brand messages.

A second valid point in the press release is that the precise nature of emotional experience evoked during branding moments of an advertisement is a key determinant of message effectiveness. This statement is consistent with decades of research demonstrating the importance of context on how specific stimuli are perceived and responded to. This idea simply expands the notion of context effects to include emotional experience as a form of context in which brands appear during advertising exposure.

It is important to note that the Sands Research press release on the Super Bowl Ad study makes no mention of empirical data obtained as part of this study that backs up this idea. Stay tuned, because I am currently working with students in designing experiments that will empirically test this and I will discuss this in future blogs.

Now for the negatives. First and foremost, completely judging advertising effectiveness based on a mysterious neural engagement score that appears to be derived from summation of brain activity across multiple regions is — at best — misguided. The human mind and its mental processes — the very center of any desired effects of advertising — arises as a result of the activity of complex, highly interactive, and extremely flexible brain networks.

Given this complexity, using this activity as an indicator of supposed engagement without specifically defining the precise neural/psychological processes that engagement references is of little use in gaining true insight into effective brand communication. Without this level of detail, the heat maps depicting neural activity across brain areas while people view Super Bowl ads displayed on the Sands Research website are difficult to interpret. The same is true for their graphs of "neural engagement" and "valence.”This should hopefully serve as a warning to brand communication managers to not get wowed by sexy brain images and squiggly lines that are used to communicate the results of neuromarketing research.

Speaking of their valence score, which, as near as I can tell indexes positive and negative emotion, it oversimplifies the nature of human emotion. The conceptualization of emotion as existing on a bipolar scale anchored by positive/negative experience does not reflect the most recent understanding of emotion. The latest research in neuropsychology indicates that emotion consists of independent positive and negative dimensions meaning that both positive and negative emotional experience can be simultaneously evoked by any stimulus including advertisements.

The bottom line is that the answer to the question I first posed — is the secret to effective advertising hidden in brain activity — is yes AND NO! Neuromarketing research, including the limited academic basic science work in this area has not yet studied the complex interactions between different forms of emotional experience evoked by advertisements, attitudes and ultimately behavior.

Neuromarketing firms are in many ways, guilty of leaping ahead of the state of basic science in this area and drawing grand conclusions about the relative effectiveness of for example, Super Bowl ads, based on patterns of brain activity whose psychological meaning is not completely clear.  Based on my understanding of functional neuroanatomy and viewing of the brain activity maps provided on the Sands Super Bowl study webpage, I could build a scientific argument for a different ranking of the listed spots.

Is a very significant part of the secret to powerful brand messaging hidden in recordable brain processes, ABSOLUTELY! However, biometrics, including EEG, only provides a glimpse of a part of the mental experience of processing and responding to an advertisement.  Most neuromarketing research firms focus on the development and supposed usefulness of “neural” metrics for measuring advertising effectiveness. I contend that the focus should be on figuring out how biometrics can be validly combined with other quantitative and qualitative measures to conduct multi-level analyses of interacting mental processes underlying advertising effectiveness.

One of the highlights of my summer will be working on practically useful and valid ways of combining biometrics with other measures of mental processes engaged during advertising exposure in developing what I would term “communication experience” metrics rather than “neural” metrics of advertising effectiveness. So much for the myth that Professors get the summer off!  It will be an exciting effort and I look forward to sharing my thoughts with you.