The Frontal Cortex

Neuromarketing

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.

Comments

  1. #1 ScottKnick
    October 27, 2008

    So, is there anything _good_ written on neuromarketing?

  2. #2 Anibal
    October 27, 2008

    An what´s your thoughts, its neuromarketing hyped or not.
    Montague and collaborators´ research provide some physiological evidence concerning the cultural representation of branding, will they discover some day the “buy button” to push it.

  3. #3 Rachael
    October 27, 2008

    I’ve never understood why it is so trendy to physiologically remove the distinction between seeing and doing. When we imagine doing something our brain produces some of the same output as it would if we were actually doing it – of course! Otherwise how could we imagine anything at all? What insight does this branch of research give us that we didn’t already know?

    (I’m certainly a fan of research for the sake of research, but this particular topic puzzles me…)

  4. #4 Neuromarketing
    October 27, 2008

    “You know mirror neurons have jumped the shark when they’re used to explain Abercrombie and Fitch.”

    ROFL! That quote’s going on my wall, Jonah!

    Roger

  5. #5 The Neurocritic
    October 30, 2008

    “You know mirror neurons have jumped the shark when they’re used to explain Abercrombie and Fitch.”

    Name the author of this quote…

    I’m sure the etiology of fandom has many root causes, from the basic Us. vs Them mentality of social primates to the sheer pleasure of watching bodily grace. But I’d like to propose a cellular mechanism for fandom: mirror neurons. I know this circuit of cells in the pre-motor cortex has become tragically hip in recent years, having been associated with everything from autism to empathy. But I still find mirror neurons to be an elegant explanation for why my brain is so riveted when I watch someone else run around on a court.

    You know mirror neurons have jumped the shark when they’re used to explain NBA fans.

  6. #6 Jonathan Salem Baskin
    November 1, 2008

    Most of the ‘science’ behind neuromarketing isn’t terribly new or conclusive: human beings remember some things better or more clearly than others, and meaning is a construct of context and personal experience. I’m not sure this is a revelation at all, actually: the Greeks wrote plays about it thousands of years ago.

    Brand experts are madly searching for ways to defend their preconceived notions of marketing as a mind-control (or influencing) endeavor. Facing difficult economic times and constant challenges from employers and clients to make brand and marketing expenditures more relevant to sales, marketers need to step up and deliver.

    So I find it fascinating that anybody would choose to dive deeper into the vagaries of mind or brain science, rather than ‘work the other way’ and experiment with defining brand more externally…in terms of the behaviors by companies and their consumers that constitute the complex dance of inquiry, transaction, and service.

    You don’t need sensitive sensing devices or religious faith to see and map the chronologies and dependencies of commercial relationships, so why not build models of brand that don’t influence those actions but rather emerge FROM them? Brand as behavior, not thought or intent.

    Anyway, I write a lot about the potential implications in my book, Branding Only Works on Cattle, and my chapter on the challenges of brand measurement is available for download for a short time on my site: http://tinyurl.com/5ne379

  7. #7 The Vlad
    November 3, 2008

    “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…”

    Actually nobody has yet recorded from mirror neurons in humans (Iacoboni has a conference abstract claiming to find mirror neurons in the human brain, but as far as I know this work has not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal. And even if it were, that would count little with me.), and fMRI data is problematic of interpretation (e.g. fMRI does not so much measure spiking activity as a whole bunch of other things…plus it has poor spatio-temporal resolution, yada yada). Anyway, just for the record…

    But why are mirror neurons an exciting idea, exactly? And what is it about them that compels people to write complete pseudo-scientific rubbish?

  8. #8 Anibal
    November 4, 2008

    Evidence for a mirror neuron system in humans also exist: Buccino et al., 2001 G. Buccino, F. Binkofski, G.R. Fink, L. Fadiga, L. Fogassi, V. Gallese, R.J. Seitz, K. Zilles, G. Rizzolatti and H.-J. Freund, Action observation activates premotor and parietal areas in a somatotopic manner: an fMRI study, Eur. J. Neurosci. 13 (2001).

    Though, we have to be cautious about fMRI measures of brain activity signals coupled with the deoxigenated blood (Logothetis 2008), this neuroimaging technique is a good window into the operations of the brain when undertaking cogntive tasks.

    Mirror nurons maybe are not what Ramachandran once said (though, almost)but it is an exciting idea becuase it is the neurophysological mechanisms for social cognition, a plausible view and explanation of “language as action”, the basis of empathy and social attunement… and the link between self and others.

  9. #9 The Vlad
    November 4, 2008

    Anibal,

    Did you actually read my post?

  10. #10 Anibal
    November 4, 2008

    You said:

    “Actually nobody has yet recorded from mirror neurons in humans (Iacoboni has a conference abstract claiming to find mirror neurons in the human brain, but as far as I know this work has not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal. And even if it were, that would count little with me.), and fMRI data is problematic of interpretation (e.g. fMRI does not so much measure spiking activity as a whole bunch of other things…plus it has poor spatio-temporal resolution, yada yada). Anyway, just for the record…”

    and i said:

    “Evidence for a mirror neuron system in humans also exist: Buccino et al., 2001 G. Buccino, F. Binkofski, G.R. Fink, L. Fadiga, L. Fogassi, V. Gallese, R.J. Seitz, K. Zilles, G. Rizzolatti and H.-J. Freund, Action observation activates premotor and parietal areas in a somatotopic manner: an fMRI study, Eur. J. Neurosci. 13 (2001).Though, we have to be cautious about fMRI measures of brain activity signals coupled with the deoxigenated blood (Logothetis 2008), this neuroimaging technique is a good window into the operations of the brain when undertaking cogntive tasks.Mirror nurons maybe are not what Ramachandran once said (though, almost)but it is an exciting idea becuase it is the neurophysological mechanisms for social cognition, a plausible view and explanation of “language as action”, the basis of empathy and social attunement… and the link between self and others.”

    And answering to your question i believe i did it, but maybe you have use more efficiently your mirror neuron system via an internet medium to know if i actually read your post or not.

  11. #11 Bruce
    November 10, 2008

    Just found this blog, sorry I’m late to the party. I think the concept of mirror neurons is a fantastic wake-up call to the left-brain/obtuse marketers and advertisers out there, who can’t comprehend that cutting off someone’s hand in an ad does more than generate recall. But Lindstrom’s book was very disappointing; for starters, most of the data was based on EEG’s not fMRI’s, which seemed to me like a bit of bait and switch. And he seemed to be breathlessly belaboring the obvious rather than generating new insights. No comparison with Read Montague’s book, which was thoughtful and deep; or with Jonah’s book, which is how I just found this blog.

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    December 11, 2010

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