Plumbing the Recesses of Consumers' Brains

A few years ago, I made a little pocket change by participating in a test at the New York City offices of a neuromarketing company. The company claims it can provide key insights about customers that traditional marketing techniques cannot, by literally getting inside their heads.

How is that, you ask? It utilizes electroencephalography (EEG), eye tracking, and biometrics such as galvanic skin response (GSR) to obtain insights into customers’ conscious and subconscious feelings, emotions, and preferences.

From a practical standpoint, it means someone puts dozens of sensors on your head, sits you in front of a video screen in a darkened room, and asks you to click a button every time you see a certain image. In my case, it was a blue frog -- an annoying little creature that I became so used to seeing pop up that I stopped clicking the button.

Then I fell asleep -- apparently rendering much of my data useless and confirming my long-time suspicions that there was something wrong with my brain. How can you fall asleep with a bunch of blue frogs on a screen?

There were other things, too, of course: advertisements for multiple products. I suspect the real test was discovering what, if anything, happened in my head when I watched these ads for a bank, a retail store, and a certain brand of cookie. I like cookies more than banks, so I suspect my reaction to that ad scored the most brainwave activity.

The company that paid me $75 to participate in this testing claims the insights it gathers from the brains of volunteers like me are more accurate than traditional focus group responses as they are gleaned directly from the brain and are therefore uncontaminated by cognitive bias. It also claims that its methodology allows it to access the subconscious desires that cannot be expressed by the consumer.

Neuromarketing has only been around about 10 years, but it's drawing a lot of interest from data scientists. The goal is to fuse scientific analysis of the brain through EEG sensors and fMRI scans with the goal of enhancing advertising messages.

As Alister Frost, ex-head of digital for Microsoft and current freelance digital consultant, explains:

Advances in neuroscience are teaching us how the human brain works, allowing us to glimpse deep inside our skulls to examine how advertising and marketing messages affect our brains. I call this ‘Little Data’ because it exposes many of the little things that happen in our minds, usually unconsciously, that may make or break the success of any marketing campaign.
In October, SensoMotoric Instruments (SMI), a leader in eye tracking technology, and Emotiv, a pioneer in brain computer interface neurotechnology, launched an integrated solution for neuromarketing, according to a press release. The solution combines a remote eye tracker and a special headset to measure both data streams, including data on emotional engagement.

Just recently, Vevo, an all-premium music video and entertainment platform, released a study that contends advertising associated with music videos is more impactful than ads served up via online TV and traditional TV programming.

According to Vevo’s "Music Video vs. TV Neuroscience Research Study," conducted in partnership with Universal McCann, music videos rank above online TV and traditional TV. Viewers better remember and connect with the ads accompanying the programming because they feel a more intense emotional connection to them.

You'd hardly expect to hear anything else from a company that specializes in music videos. But it is interesting, nonetheless, from the standpoint of neuromarketing. The report noted:

Using a brain-imaging technology known as Steady State Topography, Neuro-Insight wired the noggins of 100 study participants and recorded data from the areas of their brains that relate to everything from like and dislike to attention to detail to emotional intensity while the subjects viewed music videos from the likes of Beyoncé, Skrillex, and Nirvana and TV shows such as Grey’s Anatomy, The Big Bang Theory, and New Girl as well as the advertising inserted within all of the aforementioned programming.
How do you feel about advertisers probing your brain for deep data insight? Would you be willing to participate in neuromarketing research? I have to warn you that there is a downside: The dollops of lotion they use to attach the sensors leave your hair a greasy mess.

Noreen Seebacher,

Noreen Seebacher, the Community Editor of Investor Uprising, has been a business journalist for more than 20 years. A New York City based writer and editor, she has worked for numerous print and online publications. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, the New York Post, New York’s Daily News, The Detroit News, and the Pittsburgh Press. She co-edited five newsletters for Real Estate Media’s and served as the site's technology editor.

She also championed the commercial real estate beat at The Journal News, a Gannett publication in suburban New York City, and co-founded a Website focused on personal finance. Through her own company, Stasa Media, Noreen has produced reports, whitepapers, and internal publications for a number of Fortune 500 clients. When she's not writing, editing, or Web surfing, she relaxes in an 1875 Victorian with her husband and their five kids, four formerly homeless cats, and a dog.

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Re: Direct Access to your thoughts
  • 11/24/2012 8:08:12 PM


PredictableChaos writes

Imagine you couldn't communicate any other way.  Wouild you want a Doctor to access your thinking using a brain scan called an fMRI?

ABC had a story yesterday about a Doctor who was able to have a conversation with a man who can't speak or even move. 


Communication seemed extremely rudimentary in the case described by ABC News. However, one can imagine what it would be like when they develop this to the point of seeing and reading your thoughts and your internal dialogue.

I'm sure the NSA and Pentagon are working hard on this...


Somniferous content
  • 11/24/2012 8:00:50 PM


Noreen writes

Then I fell asleep -- apparently rendering much of my data useless and confirming my long-time suspicions that there was something wrong with my brain


That you fell asleep should have told them volumes about their content right there.


Re: Direct Access to your thoughts
  • 11/16/2012 8:22:01 PM

That's amazing!

Direct Access to your thoughts
  • 11/16/2012 6:09:46 PM


Imagine you couldn't communicate any other way.  Wouild you want a Doctor to access your thinking using a brain scan called an fMRI?

ABC had a story yesterday about a Doctor who was able to have a conversation with a man who can't speak or even move.  Wow. 

Uncommunicative Man Communicates


Re: Made me smile
  • 11/16/2012 3:18:51 PM

Noreen, could this be an appealing pursuit since we tend to lie on traditional marketing surveys.

Re: Made me smile
  • 11/16/2012 3:13:45 PM

Cordell, can't blame them for trying, but the fact remains that we are all wired differently. some like me have a few loose connections. to standardize involuntary reactions as specific interpretation is a journey in folly. lie detection test are not legally accepted as reasonably reliable. they can package and sell it but i am not buying it.

Re: Made me smile
  • 11/16/2012 2:38:35 PM

Yikes. I immediately thought of Alex in A Clockwork Orange getting his aversion therapy to cure him of his lust for violence. Noreen, do you have any souvenir pictures you'd like to share?

Re: Made me smile
  • 11/16/2012 2:01:41 PM

I'd do it. I've done it! It was a sleep study but same thing - 100 electrodes all over my head. And for the record Doreen, I had no trouble sleeping, so I'm not surprised you dozed off.

Anyway, my biggest hesitation is drawing too many conclusions about the studies.  The science is still pretty young, and they're finding all kinds of unexpected results.  I've been reading Brain Rules by John Medina.  One story he tells is about a brain surgeon attempts to map brains before he ever starts surgery.  Why?  Because they're all so different! It'd be nice if there was a master map for how our brain works but they're finding that you're brain works different that mine.  Well I certainly hope so!

Re: Made me smile
  • 11/16/2012 1:11:34 PM

I gotta tell you...the scariest part was how my hair looked afterwards!

Made me smile
  • 11/16/2012 1:03:08 PM

The idea of being wired with electrodes is both funny and frightening. But the post made me smile!