Not many years ago, the concept of “neuromarketing” was presented as a revolutionary discipline. Introduced as the newest buzz word along such topics as neuroscience, emotions, sensory, unconscious, subliminal, neuromarketing was presented as the key to understanding consumer behavior. Those most passionate about the subject promised companies that it could even help them read their client’s minds.

As the concept continues to evolve, enthusiasm around neuromarketing has turned into an interesting debate regarding its reach, ethics and reliability. Now some even say it's time to give the practice its rightful place in the scientific community.

But first, what is neuromarketing? Roberto Álvarez, a researcher from the IE Business School, defines it as “the fusion of knowledge of neuroscience, economics and marketing.” In other words, it is the applied studies and technologies withiin the field of neurology -- such as functional magnetic resonance, electroencephalography and transcraneal magnetic resonance -- to determine the brain’s reactions to certain stimuli or tasks.

“From the marketing point of view, we are interested in establishing a link between the emotional reactions in the brain to stimuli or tasks," says Álvarez. "Some 95% of the decisions we take are basically emotional. Only the remaining 5% represent a rational process that takes place outside the emotional decision, often to justify it.”

Getting to know these cerebral reactions gives companies the opportunity to construct predictive behavior models for consumers, and with it allegiance to both specific products and brands. The potential economic payoff is vast.

The latest advancement in the field strives to adjust and improve the stimuli to which groups of people will be exposed, until they find the “perfect brain reaction and response to both the adequate and the ideal,” explains Álvarez. The five senses are targeted, adjusting smell, colors, sounds, textures and temperatures.

The director for the Neuroeconomics Centre in the Diego Portales University in Chile, René San Martín, notes that neuromarketing today appears more as an “entrepreneurial effort than as a scientific or academic one. It is very hard to find an academic department in a University that dedicates to neuromarketing.” 

Powers of persuasion

Neuromarketing has defenders and detractors. Some have categorized it as a pseudoscience. Critics say it lacks scientific studies that validate or revise findings. Indeed, most attention to the discipline comes from the private sector, and not academia.  The companies will use their findings to eventually implement them in commercial strategies. And, obviously, companies compete and don’t want the neighbor to find out. “Part of the status of science of our time has to do with passing through a process of revision. Neuromarketing doesn’t offer that,” confirms San Martín.

Álvarez counters that the discipline is in the beginning stages, and “have a very solid scientific base whose results are extraordinarily positive.” He adds that much of the negative criticism around it is due to prejudice because of lack of knowledge and reactions to fear of change.

The ethical side of neuromarketing is also up for debate. Is it ethical, for example, for a store to use stimuli in order to induce them to purchase something that otherwise they wouldn’t buy?

Miguel Muñoz, CEO of Conecta Research & Consulting, who has a PhD from the University of Edinburg warns that the ethical component arises the moment we accept to utilize knowledge of perception and decision-making in human beings.

San Martín says persuasion was not invented by neuromarketing, and historically has also been used in political campaigns in modern democracies. He does, however, acknowledge that it is hard to know how powerful such techniques could become as neuromarketing research advances.

“There must be the proper use of knowledge," he says. "It is the people’s responsibility to know about the tools that are used to persuade us."