Vol. 6, No. 1, December 2004

Will Your Brain Buy It?

Fernando Elichirigoity
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

One constant desire expressed in marketing discourse is that of wanting to know what consumers really think and feel about a product, and, ideally, how to ascertain their inner most desires before they voice them. Further, marketers may seek mechanisms that induce an irresistible desire to purchase specific goods--the ultimate "buy button" that marketers themselves push. In the quest for this knowledge, marketing researchers have employed qualitative and quantitative techniques, such as focus groups, participant observation and data mining.

There is, however, growing unease about existing marketing techniques and their overall value. Several recent articles in the popular business press have articulated concerns in the marketing community about the effectiveness of advertising in general and of research methods in particular as efficacious in eliciting true knowledge about what consumers really think or desire. For example, there have been concerns about the ineffectiveness of focus groups (Gross, 2003), waning effectiveness of mass media (Bianco, 2004), the fragmentation and fracturing of the mass market, caused by such new information and communication technologies, as TIVO, PDAs and video games, and the takeover of advertising agencies by accountants, focused on return on investment rather than creative advertising (Leonard, 2004).

One response to the perceived crisis in marketing has been the adoption of still new forms and techniques for reaching consumers. One such technique touted by some marketing researchers as able to solve the current limitations of marketing and consumer research is "neuromarketing." While in some use since at least 1998, the technique burst into the public arena with an announcement in 2002 by the Atlanta-based Brighthouse Institute for Thought Sciences of their approach to marketing research based on the study of the brain. The Institute announced its use of functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) for the purpose of identifying "patterns of brain activity that reveal how a consumer is actually evaluating a product, object or advertisement." The Institute further promised to "change the marketing world forever by using science to observe and understand the true drivers of consumer behavior" (Brighthouse Institute, 2002). Brighthouse thus located itself at the intersection of new ways of understanding the subject, now through biotechnical means, and the need of advertisers for solid knowledge about consumers.

The process of neuromarketing research involves placing a subject, flat on his back, head restrained to prevent movements of more than two millimeters, within a large metal cylinder that houses a large magnet or series of magnets. A subject described her research experience thus:

my head is packed into a spongy wedge, then further braced with earmuffs and a hockey mask. In the tube, amid a raucous buzzing, images begin flashing across the overhead display. Because the reactions Quartz (the researcher) is recording are subconscious, there's nothing to do but lie back and watch the parade." (Kahn, 2004)
As I discuss further below, the process of producing images of brain functions requires a sharp reduction of the normal movements of the subject and her conscious thought processes.

Most research projects involved a relatively small number of subjects, from four to twenty subjects per project being common. For some projects, subjects are asked to fill out questionnaires prior to having their brains scanned. The questionnaires enable researchers to compare verbalized preferences about a specific set of products and neurological data regarding those preferences. While many social scientists may object to the small number of subjects tested, some neuromarketers argue that, since the method is so accurate, the small number of subjects is sufficient. As Ken Bernhardt, a professor of marketing at Georgia State University puts it, "renting time on an MRI is expensive, but the tests are so accurate that the company only has to use about one-third as many paid participants" (Lovel 2002). Thus, in the minds of these researchers, the smallness of the sample becomes a virtue, amplifying the breakthrough status claim of neuromarketing.

Neuromarketing research is based on neuroscience, a branch of research with a long history dating back to the 1870s in London (Star, 1989). It has gathered enormous speed during the last few years with the invention and widespread use of advanced forms of tomography, including positron emission tomography (PET), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and functional MRI (fMRI). The Nobel Prize of Medicine in 2003 went to two researchers credited with discovering ways of using magnetic fields to visualize differences among structures three dimensionally.

Functional MRI is the technique often used for experiments in neuromarketing. To simplify what is actually a very complex process, we could say that it relies on the ability of powerful magnets to differentiate the level of oxygenation in specific areas of the brain. Neuronal activity in a region of the brain calls for more energy, which, in turn, brings a greater supply of oxygenated blood to that area. It is this greater level of oxygenation that fMRI is able to highlight (Heeger&Ress, 2002). While the technique has become increasingly routine in medical practice, its use to do primary research about brain functions and their location has been more problematic; interpretation of what the different images of the brain actually mean has been prone to ambiguity. FMRI images used as illustrations in the popular press are complex constructs, based on decisions made by the researchers about what to highlight and how. The whole process of coloring the images, for example, is highly interpretative. Dumit cites an article from Brian Murphy, who used an image created with PET scanning, coloring the image in forty different ways, to illustrate how coloration, taken out of context, can be very misleading. (Dumit 2004) Within the scientific community brain scans are interpreted within the context of accompanying graphics, narrative and mathematical data. Once the images start circulating outside the scientific community, the context quickly disappears and the images become transformed from an aid in grasping complex data to an uncontestable depiction of reality itself.

There is a certain irony in the claims of neuromarketers to have reached reality itself, unmediated and undiluted by conscious thought. In fact, just about every step of the process necessary for collecting data is highly "unnatural". Thus, for example, in a recently published study on consumer preferences between Coke and Pepsi, subjects were placed inside the noisy magnetic cylinder, heads firmly restrained, and given precisely measured squirts of "soft drink" via a plastic tube. The "soft drink" was emptied of carbonation in order to ensure reliable flow through the plastic tubes. (McClure et al., 2004) It is immediately evident that subjects are distanced from their own natural processes of drinking a product and that, as discussed below, neuromarketing research involves a technoscientific framing that aims at eliminating the social as much as possible.

Returning again to the issue of understanding what the brain images mean, we can see it as highly interpretative, in fact, as a process of construction. While public discourse about brain imaging may suggest that the technique is akin to filming brain activity in real time, the reality is one of different sets of images taken and decisions made about each image. The very categories with which the already complex images are analyzed are often based on dubious behavioral traits. An entertaining example of interpretative difficulties is provided in a recent article in Wired. We read about Jennifer Kahn, a journalist invited to participate in an experiment to measure her level of cultural sophistication or "coolness" in comparison to that of the researcher, Dr. Stephen Quartz, and his assistant, Ms. Annette Asp. The test was set up to measure the brain responses to 140 celebrity icons and products that purported to represent distinct levels of coolness. The items were selected and categorized on a sliding scale of "coolness" by the main investigator, Dr. Steven Quartz, with the help of a group of art school students. Apparently the original results did not quite match the expectations of the researcher and his assistant. When Kahn returned to learn the results three weeks later, she found out that she was a "high cool". This categorization did not last. A few weeks later she learned that the category "high cool" had been demoted to a lower level of sophistication called "cool fools." A new category, called "uncool connoisseurs," became the highest level in the scale, which the researcher occupied. Not surprisingly the new results matched more closely the original expectations of a very high level of "coolness" for both the researcher and his assistant and less so for the journalist. As Kahn summarizes the new interpretation of the same original images "I am a geek, he (Quartz) is a risk taker and Asp (the assistant) is absolutely fabulous."

While the article is obviously anecdotal, it serves to illustrate the process involved in reaching conclusions and the inescapable steps of interpretation that swiftly reintroduce the cultural, the social, the political unto the supposedly pure images produced by scanning the brain. (Kahn, 2004)

There has been some resistance to the practice of neuromarketing. A consumer group, Commercial Alert, has called for the Senate Commerce Committee to investigate the implications of neuromarketing for society (Consumer Alert, 2004). Consumer Alert makes several interesting points, including raising a red flag about one of the main investigators in Brighthouse specializing in addiction. Is neuromarketing, they wonder, going to be used to target groups of people vulnerable to addictive consumption and purchasing behavior? This watchdog group nonetheless concedes all the claims that neuromarketers make about the efficacy of their practices. This efficacy is no means established and this may be a more useful avenue of contestation.

Marketing Neuromarketing

The emergence of neuromarketing needs may be seen within the larger context of the rise of neuroscience. In fact, neuroscience is a set of discourses and scientific practices vying with genomics for dominance as theoretical framework for a post social construction of the subject. While both bodies of knowledge aim at reducing the social to the biological, they present very different forms of constructing the subject. Although genetic-based production of knowledge is currently more dominant, neuroscience is making progress in establishing itself as a potentially distinct standpoint for the study of the subject. The call by Donald Kennedy, current editor of the influential journal Science, for caution in the practice of brain research gives some insight into the neuroscience program for framing explanations about human individuality. He states:

Far more that our genomes, our brains are us, marking out the special character of our personal capacities, emotions, and convictions. As to my brainome, I don't want anyone to know it for any purpose whatsoever. (quoted in Hamilton, 2004).
As illustrated by the quotation above, neuroscience is being framed as capable of revealing the markers of our individual make-up. Note also the introduction of the concept of "brainome" as a concept distinct from "genome" but borrowing from the latter's discursive strength and also the unexamined certainty about the knowledge produced by neuroscience. All of this is not to say that genomics and neuroscience are oppositional. In fact, the integration of all the levels of neuroscience is conceptualized as including the genetic makeup of neurotransmitters. Both genomic and neuroscience aim to become overarching technoscientific frameworks for the study, the construction, of the subject.

Neuromarketing is highly dependent on the discourse and practice of neuroscience. It borrows the techniques and research technologies from neuroscience. It is indistinguishable from it except in subject matter, and, even in this area, is becoming more closely aligned as medical research increasingly tiptoes around areas of behavioral preferences. Neuromarketing also feeds on the increasing popularization of brain images purporting to show different aspects of mental activity or states of disease. The casual use of these images in the media lends an air of inexorable truth to the narratives and interpretations that accompany those images.

Neuromarketing represents a new way of producing knowledge about the consumer. It can potentially provide new knowledge usable by advertising agencies to market themselves and their marketing campaigns to advertisers searching for fresh ways of reaching consumers. One observer notes that advertising agencies have tended to produce knowledge through the practices of the social sciences (Hackley, 2002). Given that neuromarketing moves from psychology to cognitive neuroscience, we may well ask whether new types of advertising agencies grounded in emerging biomedical knowledge will emerge. It is also possible that hybrid forms of knowledge may result from the interactions between neuromarketing results and the cultural knowledge that agencies have produced and built upon in marketing campaigns.

At the core of neuromarketing we find a radical decoupling of the individual from her social context. The research practice, by placing the subject inside the MRI cylinder, by restricting head movement, by instructing her to avoid laughing or coughing, isolates the individual almost totally. The social disappears in the process of generating knowledge. With neuromarketing procedures promising a conversation with the brain, the individual herself disappears. In fact, the individual, as the bearer of idiosyncrasies, is often barely tolerated by the researchers who fear the tainting of the images by some specific characteristic of the subject under study. In the very process of selecting volunteers, researchers are looking for ways of straining out the social. Simon Cohn, in his study of practices in neuroscience centers in England, reports that researchers try to select out volunteers who might be too inquisitive. Thus, some refuse to work with people trained in psychology or with students that appear too curious (Cohn, 2004).

Neuromarketing represents an exercise in reconstituting the sovereign subject of marketing, namely the embodied bundle of desires that can be coaxed into buying what the marketer desires. It presents a novel interlocutor to advertisers, however, in that it is the brain and not the whole person that is of interest. Neuromarketing research, given the assumptions it embodies, aims at capturing brain activity purified from social and individual markers. It can be seen as a discourse and set of practices aiming at constructing a post human consumer. It may grow in influence, carried on the coattails of neuroscience more generally, but, like phrenology before it, is unlikely to escape the larger context of the social world.


Bianco, Anthony, The Vanishing Mass Market, Business Week, July 12, 61-68, 2004.

Cohn, Simon, Increasing Resolution, Intensifying Ambiguity: an Ethnographic Account of Seeing Life in Brain Scans, Economy and Society, 33(1), 52-76, February 2004.

Consumer Alert, Consumer Alert Asks Senate Commerce Committee to Investigate Neuromarketing, July 12, 2004, http://www.commercialalert.org/index.php/category_id/1/subcategory_id/82/article_id/259

Dumit, Joseph, Picturing Personhood: Brain Scans and Biomedical Identity, Princeton University Press, 2004.

Gross, Daniel, Lies, Damn Lies, and Focus Groups, Slate, October 10, 2003 (accessed 10/16/04).

Hackley, Christopher, The Panoptic Role of Advertising in the Production of Consumer Culture, Consumption, Markets and Culture, 5(3), 211-229, 2002.

Hamilton, Joan, Journey to The Center of the Mind, Business Week, April 19, 66-67, 2004.

Heeger D. J. and Ress, D., What Does fMRI Tell Us About Neuronal Activity?, Nature Reviews: Neuroscience, 3, 142-151, 2002.

Kahn, Jennifer, If You Secretly Like Michael Bolton, We'll Know, Wired, October, 138-147, 2004.

Leonard, Devon, Nightmare on Madison Avenue, Fortune, June 14, 2004.

Lovel, Jim, "Neuromarketing" Firm Launched by Atlanta Ad Veteran, Atlanta Business Chronicle, June 17, 2002.

McClure, S, Li, J., Tomlin D., Cypert, K., Montague, L. and Montague, R., Neural Correlates of Behavioral Preference for Culturally Familiar Drinks, Neuron, 44, 379-387, October 14, 2004.

Star, Leigh, Regions of the Mind: Brain Research and the Quest for Scientific Certainty, Stanford University Press, 1989.

Thompson, Clive, There is a Sucker Born in Every Medial Prefrontal Cortex, New York Times, October 26, 2003.

The images can be seen here: http://www.nucmed.buffalo.edu/nrlgy1.htm#colorscales