Is Neuromarketing Modern-day Snake Oil?

Don Schultz
Marketing Insights
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Key Takeaways

What? Neuromarketing has been lauded by some as a silver bullet.

So what? Are scientists or marketers exagerating the application of neuroscience in marketing?

Now what? Don't fall victim to unsubstantiated claims, and do your own research to verify the validity of findings and integrity of methods.

​Nov. 16, 2016

Have neuroscientists tried to peddle the silver bullet of marketing, or are marketers the real champions or pseudoscience?


A few weeks ago, I was in London, discussing various advertising and marketing approaches with a group of colleagues. I mentioned we had been doing some work with neuromarketing and had found some interesting insights. At that point, one of my colleagues from the U.K. said, “You’ve joined the snake oil marketing team.” Having not heard that terminology in many, many years, I asked for an explanation.

“That’s what we’re now calling the people who have succumbed to the charm and excitement of all the new neuromarketing terms and techniques,” said the colleague. “They think they have found the ‘silver bullet’ of marketing and communications, the bright, shiny new technique that few people understand. So, they are out in the hustings, busily promoting “neuro” to anyone and everyone who will listen. Sort of like the liniment and restorative pitch of men who used to travel around with fairs and carnivals, promising magical properties and solutions for whatever ails you. Get the money and get out of town. Makes the ‘black boxes’ of marketing research seem pretty tame.”

That put me in my place, especially in London where everyone who doesn’t have a British accent has 50 points automatically deducted from their IQ score.

About the same time, I ran across several research papers which seemed to fall in the same genre but were offered as useful and valuable knowledge in respected publications and journals.

The author of the first one, “Emotional Ads Work,” had done limited research and declared that “emotional” ads worked 31% of the time, “rational ads” worked 16% of the time, and those that had both “emotional and rational appeals” worked 26% of the time. The source of this knowledge came from the prestigious Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA) in the U.K. The figures were based on the IPA’s ongoing Effectiveness Award competition. In the U.K., being an IPA case is sort of like getting some chips off the holy grail of advertising. (Enter a case, get it selected and included in the Effectiveness Awards, and your future in the advertising field is assured.)

This bit of knowledge, sent me to Google Scholar to find some information about who came up with the concepts of “emotional” and “rational” as forms of advertising. “Combined” was fairly easy. I assumed those are adverts which could be considered emotional or rational or were too difficult to classify. The authors just called them “combined” and moved on.

Google found 194,000 academic listings for “advertising appeals: rational and emotional.” I found citations for newspaper rational and emotional appeals, rational and emotional appeals for web sites, rational and emotional appeals for high- and low-involvement products, emotional and rational appeals for bicycles and breakfast cereals and even automobiles. But I never discovered who created the classification in the first place.

The big problem, of course, is what is rational and what is emotional? Obviously, I didn’t read or even scan all of the 194,000 listings on Google Scholar. But what became instantly clear is that there were almost as many definitions of rational and emotional as there were advertisements studied. There seemed to be no consistency, only opinion. But, all those studies got published so there must have been some rationale among the journal editors and reviewers.

That led me to the next stage of my research project. If advertising practitioners can’t agree on what rational or emotional appeals are, could the neuroscientists do any better?

Again, I went to Google Scholar. In a paper titled “Emotion, rationality and decision-making: how to link affective and social neuroscience with social theory,” which had appeared in the September 22, 2015 issue of the Journal of Frontiers in Neuroscience, the authors, Verweij, Senior, Dominguez and Turner from Germany, Australia and the U.K. had conducted a thorough review of the relevant literature on neuromarketing and areas such as rational choice, behavioral economics and public policy, post-structuralism and plural rationality theory. Under the heading of “Behavioral Economics and Public Policy,” there is one paragraph, which seems to answer the question I had been asking. Verweij, et al stated:

“Even though behavioral approaches have risen to prominence in the social sciences, the main premise on which they are built—namely that emotion and cognition can be treated as separate—is incongruent with neuroscientific evidence showing that these two functions are largely integrated in the brain and are mutually enabling. It is therefore, not surprising that attempts to pinpoint the substrates of Systems 1 and 2 have had contradictory results.”

What does all this mean? Simply put, the “snake oil salesmen” in the “rational and emotional” areas may have been the advertising and marketing practitioners, not the neuroscientists. They are the ones who have foisted off concepts such as a left and right brain, emotional and rational appeals, frequencies of three exposures, hierarchies of effects and many other pseudo-scientific terms and concepts over the years. Maybe the neuroscientists, not the snake oil salesmen, who are bringing the cold, hard light of day to all the mysterious concepts that have been developed, proselytized and accepted over time—not because they were right but because they promised to be able to classify rational and emotional and “combined” advertising effects into convenient buckets into which all of us could all dip our cups and drink the Kool-Aid they had created.

The moral of this story: Be careful who you condemn. He or she may have more knowledge and support than you, and that’s scary in a marketplace where information travels at the speed of light.


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Author Bio:

https://auth.ama.org/PublishingImages/Don-E-Schultz.gif
Don Schultz
​Don E. Schultz is a professor (emeritus-in-service) of integrated marketing communications at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.
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