Matthew Keegan
Apr 5, 2017

Neuromarketing: Ad gurus who do the voodoo based on what you view

The proliferation of smartphones and affordable wearables means marketers can take controversial methods of measuring ads’ impact out of the laboratory and into the street.

Watching you: Wearable tech enables neuromarketers to monitor the subconscious ways consumers respond to ads.
Watching you: Wearable tech enables neuromarketers to monitor the subconscious ways consumers respond to ads.

The term ‘neuromarketing’ typically brings to mind sci-fi style scenes in which consumers are linked up to machines in a laboratory to detect their subconscious reactions to marketing materials through brain scans and biometrics. But scientists are now saying that this area of research — which, in theory, produces data that can be used to help create better campaigns and more relevant products — can now be done online, remotely, through mobiles and wearable tech.

It’s a development that might shake up a field that has been on the radar of many international brands for some time. As far back as 2008, tech giant Google made waves when it showed it could track people’s brainwave activity, eye movements and skin responses to measure the effectiveness of YouTube overlay adverts versus pre-rolls. 

The concept is popular idea among marketers because it represents an alternative to traditional research methods like interviews and surveys, widely considered flawed as consumers either don’t know, can’t articulate, or will even lie in their responses. Neuroscience, in theory, is able to remove such ambiguity by directly measuring observable brain behaviour. The emotional engagement, attention levels and memory storage of respondents are common metrics.

Ethical concerns have plagued this field since its beginnings, however; with critics concerned that these insights into consumers’ inner brainwaves could be used to manipulate and sell them things they don’t really want.

Yet neuromarketing is still on the rise, albeit slowly. According to a 2016 report by BCC Research, the global market for neuromarketing technology reached US$22 million in 2016 and is expected to double by 2021.

Driving this growth is new technology, which claims to be making it possible for neuromarketing to be done without the need for big machines in a lab. Some personal devices like mobiles and watches already contain the tech for some neuromarketing studies.

“We are already seeing the next generation of mobile phones with software that can track what viewers are attending to while they view an ad on their phone, and simultaneously measure their levels of arousal using heart rate apps via the mobile,” says Gemma Calvert, professor at Nanyang Business School in Singapore and a pioneer in the field of neuroscience marketing.

There have also been examples of consumer wearables, such as Fitbits and Apple iWatches, using biometrics to capture heart rate and galvanic skin response (GSR). In 2016, Apple acquired Emotient, a startup that uses artificial intelligence to analyse facial expressions and read emotions. There is even talk of adding 3D cameras to iPhones that, in theory, can measure facial expressions and track eye movements.

Other companies in the field, such as SKIM Group and Split Second Research claim that in the future it will be possible to capture consumers’ immediate subconscious response to adverts viewed on a mobile using clever swipe-based response time tests that can reveal how the campaign has impacted on the perception of the brand.

“Neuromarketing techniques that can be run on mobile platforms, that provide near immediate consumer feedback and are cost effective are clearly gaining the most traction globally,” says Calvert. “In the future, we are going to see the ramification of tests, the inclusion of multisensory measures and context-dependent measurement devices.”

The big plus side of these new digitally-connected practices for marketers is the potential for scalability. 

“These techniques are a lot more scalable than they have been in the past,” says Roger Dooley, author of Brainfluence: 100 ways to persuade and convince consumers with neuromarketing. “Bringing participants into a neuromarketing lab has more limitations and costs can be high. Throughflow of participants is going to be very low compared to what you can do online with people using their phones or their tablets which could easily scale to hundreds of thousands of participants or more.”

However, although this new tech looks set to grow in use and influence, it’s still early days when it comes to widespread adoption in Asia.


Microsoft, 2009: Microsoft tracked the brain activity of Xbox gamers towards ads and found that spots that excited several parts of the brain apparently made viewers more likely to go out and buy the product.

Campbell’s Soup, 2010: The brand redesigned its soup cans after in-depth neuromarketing research. Among the changes it made were removing the picture of a spoon and adding steam above the photo of a bowl of soup. 

Porsche, 2015: Porsche was roundly ridiculed for its advert attempting to demonstrate that the brain reacts in similar ways when driving their car and piloting a fighter plane. 

Angry Birds, 2015: The US research firm Spark Experience discovered that ads running just before players launched a ‘bird’ were looked at much less and for a shorter time than those that ran just after a successful shot.

Trump vs Clinton, 2016: Spark was also behind a study that monitored the brain reactions of 30 participants to a series of Trump and Clinton clips, finding that Trump garnered a significantly higher attention level.

“Here in China there are not too many people in the neuromarketing field yet,” says Charles Merkle, president and CEO of CBC Marketing in Shanghai. “Companies like Alibaba, for example, do web page testing with neuromarketing tools, but it’s still a very limited area in China and it cannot be compared to what is done elsewhere”. 

This view is supported by other marketers working in the APAC region.  

“Some of these new neuromarketing trends are still in their infancy, but we do monitor the new trends very closely,” says Mathieu Bertin, expert researcher at Synergy Marketing in Japan. “Currently we still do things in lab, based on brain activity tests, eye-tracking, facial recognition and traditional methods like surveys and interviews.”

Concerns around the reliability of data collected through some of the new neuromarketing tools in online, mobile and wearables might be one explanation as to why it is not currently being used as readily as it might be. In neuroscience circles, laboratory tests like electroencephalogram (EEG), which measure second-by-second brain activity of participants, are considered much more accurate. 

“We’re already experimenting with wearables for biometrics and eye-tracking that allows us to test not only in the lab, but in natural environments such as the home and car clinics in select markets,” says Keith Low, head of Nielsen Consumer Neuroscience for Greater China. “However, currently, most of our research, including all of our work in China, is still done in the controlled laboratory environment to ensure the reliability of the results.”

Credibility remains an issue. Industry experts are urging marketers to cut through the hype and be wary of poor science and unreliable data when it comes to some of the new techniques. 

“The science behind some of these new neuromarketing studies isn’t quite as well defined yet,” cautions Dooley. “Generally, there isn’t a lot of really good academic published research on these techniques, instead what you have is individual service providers who are using their own data to support their conclusions.”

Face time: Startups are using AI to analyse expressions and read emotions as consumers watch their smartphones.

And that lack of an objective standard inevitably leads to varying quality. 

“At Nielsen, we are aware that not all consumer neuroscience suppliers share our commitment to science and quality,” Low explains. “We are actively working with industry affiliates to constantly educate our clients about the right questions to ask potential partners to make sure only the highest quality research informs business decisions.”

Integrity is just one of the factors. The ethical questions around neuromarketing haven’t gone away, and may even have become more pertinent to ask if the techniques start to spread into consumer mobiles and computers. 

“Due to the personal nature of some of the data gathered through neuromarketing, there is often this sense that there is increased potential for brain manipulation or some kind of ‘black magic’,” says Bertin. “I think the best way to be ethical about it is through transparency. To actually tell the consumers, online surfers, exactly what data is being gathered, when the data will be erased and what the data will be used for. 

“It’s not only true for biometric data, but for companies like Facebook or Google; we don’t really know what is being gathered about our online behaviours and I think there should be more transparency in this area.”

Others in the field refute any possibility of manipulation being at play.

“There is no ‘buy button’ in the brain and we are not in the business of manipulating consumers,” says Low. “Consumer neuroscience is about using modern tools to help brands improve their communication and engagement with customers.”

Science and technology may well have found new ways to tap into our subconscious to reveal new insights, but perhaps the biggest challenge
for marketers right now is knowing how to actually use all the new data to create better products and campaigns. 

“Most of these techniques are not perfect standalone predictors of behaviour,” says Dooley. “For instance, eye-tracking alone isn’t going to tell you much about future behaviour, although it does tell you what people are looking at. Biometrics in mobile apps may not be totally predictive, but when you start combining a whole variety of techniques, you can begin to put together a more complete picture of what the consumer is experiencing and perhaps how they might behave in the future.”

So, while some of the new advances in neuromarketing seem promising and have individual merits, perhaps it’s not time to dispense of traditional methods just yet, but to see them as pieces of the jigsaw towards gaining a more complete picture of consumer behaviour.

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