Neuromarketing is the study of how people's brains respond to advertising and other brand-related messages by scientifically monitoring brainwave activity, eye-tracking and skin response.

In one early neuromarketing study, Read Montague, a neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine, used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to study what he called "the Pepsi Paradox." The study was inspired by a series of TV commercials from the 70's and 80's where people were asked to take "the Pepsi Challenge." In the commercials' blind taste test, Pepsi was usually the winner. In Dr. Montague's study, subjects were fairly evenly divided between Pepsi and Coke; however, when the subjects knew what they were drinking, 75% said they preferred Coke. Montague saw activity in the prefrontal cortex, indicating higher thought processes, and concluded that the subjects were associating the drink with positive images and branding messages from Coke commercials. In another study, at Daimler-Chrysler, researchers found that the "reward" centers of men's brains were activated by sports cars, in a similar manner to the way the same areas of the brain respond to alcohol and drugs.

The results of neuromarketing research can be surprising. In Buyology, Martin Lindstrom documents a three-year study. Among his findings:

  • Warning labels on cigarette packages stimulate activity in a brain area associated with craving -- despite the fact that subjects said that they thought the warnings were effective.
  • Images of dominant brands, such as the iPod, stimulated the same part of the brain activated by religious symbols.
  • An image of a Mini Cooper activated the part of the brain that responds to faces.

In 2007, a team of scientists from Carnegie Mellon University, Stanford University and the MIT Sloan School of Management were able to use MRI to study what the brain does while making a purchasing decision. By watching how different neural circuits lit up or went dark during the buying process, the researchers found they could predict whether a person would end up purchasing a product.

Some anti-marketing activists, such as Gary Ruskin of Commercial Alert, warn that neuromarketing could ultimately be used to manipulate consumers by playing on their fears or unethically stimulating positive responses. Practitioners argue that such precise manipulation is neither possible nor desirable. According to BrightHouse, an Atlanta-based consultancy firm, neuromarketing only seeks to understand "how and why customers develop relationships with products, brands, and the company itself."

This was last updated in May 2009

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