Last week, I reviewed Buyology, a new book on neuromarketing, in the Washington Post. Although the book is based on a large, privately funded neuromarketing experiment, I wasn’t so wowed by the science:
If “Buy-ology” itself is any indication, these companies got ripped off. It’s not that the book doesn’t have interesting moments: I enjoyed learning about how slices of lime got indelibly associated with Corona beer and why the logos plastered on race cars are so effective at getting consumers to buy particular brands. However, what makes these stories interesting is that, unlike the rest of the book, they aren’t shackled to pseudoscientific explanations meant to encourage larger advertising budgets.
Take mirror neurons, a much-hyped circuit of cells in the pre-motor cortex. These cells have one very interesting property: They fire both when a person moves and when that person sees someone else move. In other words, they collapse the distinction between seeing and doing. That’s an exciting idea, but Lindstrom isn’t content to stick with the science. Instead, he uses mirror neurons to explain everything from the atmospherics of an Abercrombie & Fitch store (the “large blow-up posters of half-naked models” make your “mirror neurons fire-up”) to the smell of coffee in the morning, which causes these cells to “see a cup of Maxwell-House.” Lindstrom cheapens the mirror neuron hypothesis by turning it into a justification for almost every successful marketing campaign: Even the triumph of the iPod is merely mirror neurons at work.
He also oversimplifies his explanations of brain-scanning experiments. He describes his own research in breathless prose as “the largest, most revolutionary neuromarketing experiment in history,” but his data rarely hold up to closer examination. For instance, he thinks it’s incredibly profound that images of well-known brands, such as Harley-Davidson, trigger the “exact same patterns of brain activity” as does religious iconography. These data, however, clearly say more about the limitations of brain scanners and Lindstrom’s experimental protocol than about brands or God. After all, motorcycles typically trigger very different feelings than pictures of nuns and church pews. If these things all look the same in a scanner, then you’ve missed something important.
You know mirror neurons have jumped the shark when they’re used to explain Abercrombie and Fitch.