A neuromarketing publicity stunt?

As I mentioned in a previous post, I believe that neuromarketing can provide empirically valuable (albeit financially costly) insights about consumer preferences. A caveat before I begin:  I recognize that my approach as an academic to the topic of neuromarketing is likely to be different than a firm that is looking to sell neuromarketing services. Whereas academics typically want to answer questions that inform theory (and leads to publication in peer-reviewed journals), the neuromarketer wants to answer questions that improve sales (and leads to happy clients).

Speaking of happy clients, the media has covered the New Scientist‘s partnership with a neuromarketing firm, NeuroFocus, to test which of three covers would be most appealing to potential customers:

Which cover do you prefer?

Neurofocus presented the three covers to nineteen men and used an EEG-based approach to measure the men’s reactions. EEG is short for Electroencephalography, and is a technique in which electrical activity due to underlying brain functioning is measured on the scalp. The firm has some sort of model that takes into account potential brain activity related to, among other things, emotion and memory, and the results indicated that the image to the far left was most preferred. (The details from the press release and news reports are quite hazy, likely because the model is a proprietary tool for the firm).

I was curious what a simple self-report test would show. So I presented an undergraduate marketing class (N = 45) the three covers side by side. I asked the class which cover they would be most likely to purchase. Interestingly, only 11.11% of respondents preferred the cover endorsed by NeuroFocus, whereas preferences were evenly split between the other two covers (at 44.44%). (Note: the majority of the class was male, but otherwise I do not know how similar or dissimilar they were to the EEG participants.)  The results of my impromptu test are not necessarily damaging to NeuroFocus’s claim that its methods are valuable. It may be the case that the use of EEG adds value beyond self-reports of preferences. For instance, neuromarketing  techniques like fMRI or EEG may capture consumer reactions that are either not easily accessible to consumers or not socially desirable to state.

Good or bad science?

What bothers me about the publicity about the test is the conclusions being drawn about the ability of the technique to improve sales. To quote Dr. A. K. Pradeep, Chief Executive Officer of NeuroFocus.

What these results for New Scientist add is clear, unmistakable, and very public validation for the core science that underlies all that we do at NeuroFocus. We are proud to have helped New Scientist achieve this success, we appreciate their confidence in our capabilities, and we invite the rest of the publishing industry and other companies as well to adopt this 21st century marketing science for their own advantage.

Exaggeration? Maybe. The evidence for “success” was derived from comparing the sales figure of the tested magazine to the sales figures for the magazine published the same week one year earlier. There was a 12% increase in sales one year later.

The New Scientist one year earlier.

Because more than one thing differed between the two magazines (the date of publication, the cover image, the text, the PR surrounding the EEG test, etc.), it is not appropriate to attribute the success to the use of EEG per se. So, was New Scientist better off selecting the left cover (above) than either of the other two possible covers? That question is difficult to answer because an experiment was not conducted to test whether the results of the EEG translated to consumers’ preferences for the three magazine covers in the marketplace. Ideally, all three versions would be published and randomly assigned to newsstands to see which version sold best. That may be a lot to ask,  but you need science to draw strong conclusions about the science of neuromarketing.

BTW, read the press release.