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Neuromarketing - An Easy Guide to Separating the Neuroscience from Pseudoscience

featured_post_image: '' author: Adam Karmi

What Is Neuromarketing ?

Neuromarketing is the specific application of neuroscience (the study of the brain). Neuroscientists monitor, analyse, and explain consumers' brain activity reacting to different marketing stimuli using a variety of tools. Marketers then use the data collected to dictate or enhance their marketing strategies.

Why Use Neuromarketing ?

While asking questions through traditional surveys can reveal what consumers are saying (and something of what they are thinking) regarding any given topic, neuromarketing has the power to reveal how they truly feel. This is achieved by tapping into their unconscious emotional thoughts. 

What Consumers Say VS How Consumers Feel

In many cases, what people say and how they actually feel may not entirely match up. If you have not done so already, I recommend reading, my previous article, Exploring Consumer NeuroScience: Are We In Charge of Our Own Decisions? The article explains how we, as consumers, are unconscious to the majority of the decisions we make.

So, before diving into how neuromarketing tools can improve your consumer insight, here are some short yet profound facts about our brains, followed by some of the most common neuroscience myths.

Facts about the brain

The brain contains approximately 86 billion neurons. If lined up continuously they’d reach halfway to the moon!


The brain in your head is not your only brain. We actually have a “second brain” in our intestines, containing 100,000 neurons.  This is where the gut bacteria impacts the body’s level of potent neurotransmitter serotonin, which is the chemical that makes you feel happy. This also explains the phrase “trust your gut feeling”.


Multitasking actually makes you less productive. It involves your brain switching from from one task to another, which decreases your attention span, learning, performance and short term memory. So... “don’t half ass two things when you can full ass one.”


Time for some quick fire neuroscience mythbusting...


There is no such thing as being right (creative) or left (logical) brained, we are all... well, “both brained”.


We actually use most of our brain, all of the time. Yes, even when sleeping!


Yes, that's right, pick your drink back up. This myth has been scientifically debunked. However, alcohol does cause damage to the connective tissue on the end of neurons… so, on second thoughts, you might want to put that drink back down.

Everything you need to know about current Neuromarketing tools

fMRI (Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging)

How it works: fMRI uses a large magnet to measure activity in the brain. It does this through measuring the oxygen level in the blood.

The Good: It has excellent spatial resolution (\~1mm), meaning it can accurately detect the increase of activity in a specific region of the brain. An example of this would be detecting activity in the prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain known to be in charge of complex cognitive behaviour and decision making.

The Bad: High running costs could be off putting. Additionally, measurements are relatively slow in relation to the pace of brain activity taking place.

EEG (Electroencephalography)


How it works: Using a headset placed on the scalp and fitted with up to 256 electrodes, this method measures the brain's electrical activity in response to attentive, emotional, and memory responses.

The Good: It is a great way of collecting data as it can reveal evoked response potentials (ERPs) or spectral power, and provides these sets of data in an excellent temporal resolution (\~1 millisecond).

The Bad:
Provides poor spatial resolution (which, in contrast, is the opposite of the fMRI capabilities). Also, there are many external influences that affect the reading, making it difficult to interpret data and in turn skewing the accuracy of results.

Other tools include:
Galvanic Skin Responses (GSR), and Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS).

When it comes to neuromarketing, there is no 'one size fits all' tool that will deliver all the best results. Instead, consider a combination of different tools to ensure a more accurate study that fits the objectives of the research. 

The Pepsi ParadoxDollarphotoclub_87112676.jpg

In 2004, Read Montague of Houston’s Baylor College of Medicine initiated an experiment to clarify and build on earlier findings (2003) by Clinton Kilts regarding the brain's role in product preferences.

The experiment involved just under 70 test subjects, an MRI as tool to measure volunteers’ brain activity and 2 brands of cola, Pepsi and Coca-Cola.

Phase one - Blind Taste Test

This part of the experiment saw volunteers given the 2 types of cola without them knowing which one they were trying. Results showed that, in fact, the majority preferred Pepsi over Coca-Cola!

Also, reviewing the brain's spatial activity revealed that when volunteers sipped the Pepsi beverage, there was a greater amount of activity in the Ventral Putamen, an area of the brain associated with the brain’s reward system.

This was an interesting finding. How could Pepsi’s beverage taste be so clearly preferred, yet sales in the U.S and the rest of the world show such dominance by Coca-Cola? This question was answered in the second phase of the experiment.

Phase two - Taste Test

This time the colas were labeled and volunteers were shown exactly what they were drinking. Surprisingly, this time, they chose Coca Cola as the better tasting beverage.

MRI results revealed that in this phase of testing, there was a vital change in the brain's activity.  This time, the medial prefrontal cortex got involved in the action. The cerebral cortex is known to have a higher cognitive process, causing the volunteer to reject the initial feeling of reward (better taste) for the feeling of association with a brand (value).

So what did we learn from the Pepsi paradox ?

The study revealed that strong (positive) branding has the power to prevail over superior product value. Few studies have yet been conducted to explore these fascinating outcomes, but this famous example was (and still is) enough to excite marketers all around the world.


Neuroscience Vs Pseudoscience

The Pepsi Paradox is great example of a positive step towards using neuroscience to enhance the understanding of the underlying emotions of consumers.

On the other hand, in recent years neuromarketing has lost some credibility as certain neuromarketing firms continue to exaggerate capabilities and create preposterous and inaccurate claims.

By adversely exaggerating current capabilities they look to convince businesses to invest in their “futuristic tech and analytics”.  And it seems we as consumers are easily manipulated - it has been proven that the mere image of a brain could result in people trusting a brand more, as it pushes consumers towards making assumptions that this brand has been backed by science.

An article by the Guardian has revealed how consumers are falling for pseudoscience, and how academics can stop this.

What’s next for Neuromarketing?

Neuroscientists have come a long and impressive way in understanding how the brain works, and technological advancements to the tools we use to understand and measure the brain's activity have matched this progress. However, we still have a long way to go.

Although it’s exciting that we can now monitor the brain's activity and highlight reactions to marketing stimuli through the aforementioned technologies, we have yet to gain the required skill set, scientific evidence or technological advancements to fully interpret and classify the results into clear objectifiable results in which marketers can then use to direct their marketing strategies.

While we must be wary of current pseudoscience, it must not negatively impact the impressive advancements in both medicine and technology within the neuroscience space.