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Neuromarketing is the hot new thing. And while it has some some remarkable applications for it as a means of gathering insight, there are problems as well.
The process employs several technologies to get a more honest answer to how people react to color, language, package design, etc. and to be fair, the process does just that. As Phil McGee, Director of Insights and Category Management at Campbell’s discussed when he was a Brand Show guest, neuromarketing is great way of measuring patterns of brain activity and seeing what behavior centers of the brain light up when exposed to different stimuli.
But the methodology has three main limitations.
Culture and Context
Neuromarketing overlooks the roles of context and culture. The brain responds to certain stimuli in the lab, but the measurements cannot adequately address the reasons behind those responses.
Unlike other organisms, human perception is filtered through symbolic thought. We assign meaning to things which in turn shapes how we react to colors, ideas, objects, etc. As such, the biological responses provided in a neuromarketing project reflect a biochemical response to a single point of time and do not necessarily reflect the actual triggers behind those responses.
In the lab, the person may be responding to idealized and subconscious memories of childhood or what it means to be a good mother. She may be simply responding to changes in light. But outside the lab, the shopper is part of a complex environment. Is shopping a task or a pleasure? Do individuals buy based on flavor and package design, or do they buy because the product conveys status in a different cultural context?
Biology of the Lab
People respond to laboratory settings in more than purely psychological terms. Once you have established a process that makes individuals feel like lab specimens, there are biological and psychological results. Frequently, cortisol levels rise, causing stress responses. Once the questions begin and people begin to feel like they are providing valuable information (independent of their conscious answers), serotonin levels elevate and stimulate the pleasure centers of the brain. So, the point at which materials are presented in the research can fundamentally alter the results.
Finally, there is the simple problem of inferring too much information from the data. Assuming that the data is important, researchers and more often, the consumers of it, assume connections that may not be there. We fall into the logic traps of both fallacy of the false cause and the deductive fallacy. In other words, we assume causality when none exists. The data produced in neuromarketing can tell us many things, but much of the relevance we attribute to it is grounded in the fact that we want it to tell us certain things.
So, what does this mean for neuromarketing?
The point is simple: human beings are complex creatures and products of our cultural backgrounds. If you ignore context and meaning, then you have in fact missed most of what you need to know. It is key to remember that while neuromarketing is a marvelous methodology, it is still just one tool in the research and marketing toolkit.
- Gavin Johnston, Two West Chief Anthropologist
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