Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Neuromarketing: subliminal advertising reinvented?

The idea that advertisers and salespeople can successfully persuade us by taking advantage of our ignorance has always been haunting. Subliminal messages that don’t reach our consciousness but supposedly affect our decisions have been controversial throughout their rich history. Governments have been accused of using subliminal stimuli to brainwash societies, and suicides have been blamed on messages in heavy metal songs that don’t surpass the subconscious. Because of their perceived danger, subliminal ads have previously been banned in Canada and denounced by the United Nations.

Yet despite the panic induced by these Big Brother-style advertising strategies, evidence from scientific studies suggests that subliminal messages are not nearly as effective as they are perceived to be. Indeed, scientific interest in subliminal advertising has effectively died out. Could recent advances in neuroimaging technology change this?

Dan Ariely and Gregory S. Burns discuss the hope and hype of “neuromarketing” techniques in an interesting, recent Perspective paper in the high impact journal Nature Reviews Neuroscience. They define neuromarketing as “[t]he application of neuroimaging methods to product marketing.” In the paper, the neuroimaging method they mainly discuss is functional MRI (fMRI), which can potentially be used for consumer feedback during product development and to investigate the effectiveness of advertising strategies. The authors review the very limited body of studies on fMRI and neuromarketing, and they discuss the great pragmatic and ethical challenges that neuromarketing research will face before it can become regularly used by corporations seeking to create the perfect product and ad agencies looking to craft the ideal commercial.

One of the main issues that Ariely and Burns discuss is whether fMRI can reveal “hidden information” about consumer preferences that cannot be obtained from conventional marketing study methods. Do we have thoughts about products that are below the threshold of our awareness? And if so, can we see these thoughts by scanning a brain with fMRI? How can/will advertisers use this information? The answers remain to be seen, as there is currently a dearth of research in this area.

The hidden information that neuromarketing enthusiasts hope for reminds me of subliminal persuasion. If brain activity can teach us more about the subconscious than traditional study methods can, it is possible that new insights on subliminal advertising will spark a renewed interest in the technique. However, as history has taught us, accompanying such an enthusiasm will likely be fear, protest, and new regulations.

Ariely and Burns, admitting to be inherently optimistic about neuromarketing, believe that “neuroimaging will soon be able to reveal hidden information about consumer preferences.” They do think, however, that this information will probably help product design processes more than it will help advertising. But given that advertising effectiveness is such a poorly understood area of marketing, it is hard to fathom that advertisers will not jump on the opportunity to try neuroimaging on consumers.

Whether neuromarketing will lead to better product design and more effective advertising depends on a myriad of factors. Perhaps the greatest hurdle at the moment is the cost-effectiveness of neuroimaging relative to traditional marketing tools. Functional MRI is far from cheap. Additionally, fMRI is far from flawless in its ability to accurately elucidate meaningful information about the brain. Will neuromarketing quickly become yesterday’s technological fad? Will neuromarketing give us tastier food, better movies, and more beautiful buildings? Or will neuromarketing violate us like we have never experienced before, robbing us of our privacy and freedom of choice, controlling our brains while we waltz about in ignorance?


Ariely D, & Berns GS (2010). Neuromarketing: the hope and hype of neuroimaging in business. Nature reviews. Neuroscience, 11 (4), 284-92 PMID: 20197790


  1. I think you're dead right that neuromarketing is the new subliminal advertising. Also, I wonder whether neuroimaging will be able to provide marketeers with any information that simple psychological testing couldn't do. It's plausible that fMRI could reveal stuff about preferences that subjective self-report couldn't... but will it be better than say an Implicit Association Test?

  2. Thanks for your comment and letting me know about the IAT. I tried it myself, and I am convinced that the test reveals information about the subconscious. What's interesting is that in the future, tests like IAT could be used in conjunction with neuroimaging techniques (and perhaps a battery of other tests) to increase the reliability and validity of subliminal measures. This type of study could not only be used by marketers, but it could be used in law to ascertain things like subconscious motives in criminal cases.