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Consumer Neuroscience vs. Skepticism: An Inside Look at the Challenges of a Novel Field

By Ibrahima E. Diallo

Neuromarketing image courtesy of flickr user cmcbrown 
A few years ago, I read a New York Times article that really caught my attention. The article detailed the emergence of a technique that would allow marketers to “make ads that whisper to the brain.” The notion that researchers could probe my mind seemed like an exciting yet frightening proposition. As I read the article, it piqued my interest to learn more about “neuromarketing.”

What is neuromarketing and how does it work?

Consumer Neuroscience, also commonly referred to as Neuromarketing, is a relatively novel field, which uses neurophysiological techniques, such as brain imaging and electroencephalography, in order to gain insight on the decision-making process of the consumer. Consumer Neuroscience often utilizes not only brain imaging techniques, but also biometrics to gather data related to consumer behavior and decision-making (Ariely & Berns 2010). The data collected is used to gauge cognitive interest, memory activation, and emotional engagement in consumers to advertising stimuli; these data are used to optimize the advertisements and advertisement-related materials (Trabulsi et al. 2015). One way neuroimaging data for consumers is used is to shorten commercial advertisements to the parts that are the most impactful and engaging components to the consumer; this is an approach that saves a lot of money for company advertising campaigns since commercial slots can be costly (Trabulsi et al. 2015).

The field’s reliance on neuroimaging technology, and electroencephalography (EEG) has raised many questions about the validity of the research methodology. Neuromarketing has been the subject of controversy among neuroscientists and ethicists (Murphy et al. 2008). There are concerns about attempting to map a set of specific cognitive processes related to consumer behavior, which has been viewed as commonplace in the field; this concern has led to cases of reverse inference, which is deemed as a weak form of deduction within the scientific community. Reverse Inference is viewed as problematic to neuroscientists in particular because there has been little success in tying higher cognitive functions to specific brain areas that are activated and viewed using current brain imaging (or EEG) technology. There are also ethical concerns regarding privacy and the agency of consumers (to be discussed further below) that are exposed to advertisements that have been optimized by consumer neuroscience (Ulman et al. 2014). Due to the potential ethical ramifications, France has taken a stern approach by banning all commercial applications of neuroimaging (Ulman et al. 2014).

 The Concerns Surrounding Neuromarketing

The ethical issues that are a major concern also include: scientific validity of neuromarketing, the integrity of neuromarketing firms, lack of regulations and protections of consumers against harms like loss of privacy and consumer autonomy (Murphy et al. 2008). Others argue that a consumer’s power of resistance will be left unaffected by consumer neuroscience techniques (Levy 2009).

In my view, the results show a respectable amount of promise. The research methodology behind the field could be likened to the medical field’s use of prescription drugs. There are many prescription drugs that yield positive results for patients, but have poorly understood biological mechanisms. Neuromarketing does appear to “work” for marketers as seen by increased revenue, online buzz  and engagement with media and content related to optimized ad campaigns (Ohme & Matukin 2012). The results driven approach employed by the field may not please scientists, who are asking a different set of questions and have a different set of goals than neuromarketers. Neuromarketing is still in its infancy and must continue to seek to refine its methodology and replicate its results in order to full its potential.

 Gaining Insight from Experts

 In an effort to gain more insight on Consumer Neuroscience and the ethical questions surrounding the discipline, I interviewed two consumer neuroscience experts: Dr. Manuel Garcia-Garcia and Dr. Rebecca Von Der Heide. Dr. Garcia-Garcia is a former director of neuroscience for Nielsen Consumer Neuroscience, a leading consumer neuroscience firm. He is currently a senior vice president in research and innovation at the Advertising Research Foundation and an adjunct professor of consumer neuroscience at New York University. Dr. Rebecca Von Der Heide is currently a director of neuroscience for Nielsen Consumer Neuroscience. Dr. Von Der Heide has a research background in social cognitive and affective processes recently publishing her academic work in peer-reviewed journals such as Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience, Journal of Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, and Brain: A Journal of Neurology.

First, I asked how they define consumer neuroscience and/or neuromarketing since there has been much confusion about the terms being used interchangeably.

Dr. Garcia-Garcia (GG): Consumer Neuroscience is the application of neuroscience knowledge and tools in consumer research. Some people define neuromarketing as the application and the former as the academic field, however I think neuromarketing is just a most pop-culture way of naming the discipline.

Dr. Von Der Heide had a more nuanced view that described the terms differently, but noted that the terms have been used interchangeably by academic and business colleagues.

Our brains respond to advertisements, image

courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Dr. Von Der Heide (VDH): There is a lot of variation in the way these terms are applied. I frequently hear them used interchangeably by academic and business colleagues as well clients – often with little differentiation. From an academic perspective, I have read arguments for potential points of differentiation, but there seems to be no general consensus. One point of differentiation that does seem meaningful is that “neuromarketing” implies the practice of marketing informed by neuroscience, whereas “consumer neuroscience” implies research on consumers using neuroscience methods (rather than practice). In addition, my personal view is that the term consumer neuroscience most explicitly captures the consumer research I am involved in on a daily basis. As a relatively young field of study, the term ‘neuromarketing’ has had a bit of an unfortunate history in that it has not always been associated with a demand for high-quality scientific research. The term “consumer neuroscience”, on the other hand, explicitly emphasizes the fact that my primary responsibility along with the other 19+ Ph.D. and/or M.D. level neuroscientists in my company is to design and implement scientifically grounded neuroscience studies that lead to insightful results. 

As I described, I see a lot of promise in neuromarketing and I wondered how one becomes credentialed to conduct neuromarketing research and how they utilize their neuroscience backgrounds. Both Drs. Garcia-Garcia and Von Der Heide are PhD-level neuroscientists who were able to extrapolate their previous laboratory research to their work in neuromarketing.

VDH: I actively apply my doctoral and postdoctoral training in neuroscience daily in my research activities. One of my primary responsibilities is designing studies that can address scientifically sound hypotheses, isolate key factors that have an impact on consumer response, and provide insights to questions that clients have about their brand or products from the perspective of consumers. Expert training in neuroscience and research design not only allows me to understand how to create studies that help clients understand key factors, but where there are current limitations in testing. In my role, it is also absolutely critical that I understand the limitations on interpretations of the study data in order to provide guidance on how to accurately interpret results. My training also allows me to be able to place the results of the research studies I work on in a broader framework of knowledge and research in the field of neuroscience. 

Following my postdoctoral training, I began searching and applying for faculty positions. During that search, I found an ad for my current position as a director of neuroscience for Nielsen and it piqued my curiosity. I was invited to interview and participated in a lengthy series of discussions with several well-respected members of the neuroscience leadership team (e.g. Robert Knight from UC Berkeley who is an active and influential force in the way we approach the scientific study of consumers in our company). I was thoroughly impressed by how scientifically grounded, innovative, and forward-thinking the position and company that I would be working for would be and it made me re-consider taking a more traditional route in my career. To make my decision more difficult, the same week I was offered my position with Nielsen Consumer Neuroscience, I was also offered a faculty position. It was a difficult choice, but I decided to accept my current position and the rest is history – 2 1/2 years later, I love my job and I know I made the right choice. It is an exciting time to be an expert in a field that is cutting-edge and constantly advancing. I also enjoy working directly with my clients. 

While Dr. Von Der Heide says that she enjoys how deeply scientifically-grounded her job is, I wanted to ask her about how she managed skepticism of the methodologies and concerns related to mind-reading and even mind-control.

VDH: Yes, I am familiar with these concerns. Just as in academic research, leaders and researchers in the field of consumer neuroscience have a responsibility to protect the rights of the consumers that participate in research. One way my company does this is by using procedures that are also used to protect the rights of research participants in academic research. For example, our research procedures, protocols, and consent forms undergo an IRB review by an independent company. We also obtain informed consent from all of our research participants. As a corporate member of the Neuromarketing Science & Business Association (NMBSA), we also agree to conform to their code of ethics, which is modeled after ESOMAR’s (World Association of Opinion and Marketing Research Professionals) code of ethics

Traditional methods used in advertising include focus groups,

image courtesy of Articulos Comundo

The notion that the technology used in consumer neuroscience can “read people’s minds” or “control their thoughts” is a misconception. Brain activity is measured and analyzed to understand how consumers are responding at a level that can’t be captured by traditional methods (surveys, focus groups, etc.) or articulated by consumers when they are asked about it. A primary goal of this approach (as it is also with other traditional research methods) is to get a better understanding of how brands can clearly engage and communicate to consumers and what obstacles might be preventing that connection from being effective. The goal is not to mislead consumers and neither the technology being used or the application of the results from this technology strips consumers of their free will or results in the mind-control. 

Dr. Garcia-Garcia simply states that these experiments allow companies “to infer the levels of certain cognitive or emotional states, such as concentration, arousal, etc. We are not able to read anyone’s thoughts through these techniques.”

I also wanted to know how neuromarketing firms maintain a balance between providing proof of scientific validity and protecting organizational project assets. In other words, I expect that often their work cannot be published in peer-reviewed journals.

GG: Scientific discoveries do not only need to be discovered but also validated and replicated. If one vendor develops its own system and does not share it with anyone that means it has not been replicated and therefore it is not valid or reliable. Most vendors used the same metrics with better or worse optimization, based on scientific discoveries that have been replicated multiple times in the scientific peer-reviewed literature. However, they keep it private because of IP (Intellectual Property) reasons but most people in the field know what they use. 

Dr. Garcia-Garcia believes that only highly replicated based methodologies in peer-reviewed journals are used, but Dr. Von Der Heide describes the challenges of finding that balance.

VDH: It is a difficult balance and for me, it is a big difference from my academic research where I can publish all of the details of my studies. My company would not have long-term clients and repeat business if we couldn’t validate our metrics and also, clearly show the unique value of our data and insights to clients. That being said, most of our work for clients cannot be shared broadly because of contractual restrictions. One way my company has tried to address this limitation is to partner with our clients on studies with results that are able to be shared more broadly (e.g. our 2014 Bilingual Brain Study). Another way is collaborating with academic researchers and organizations on external projects that might be able to demonstrate the validity and unique value of this field. 

 Moving Forward? 

What’s next on the horizon for neuromarketing? Both experts believed that convenience and simplicity would need to be optimized.

GG: I hope to see the introduction of more portable and non-intrusive wearable devices that allow for a research with much higher face validity.

VDH: Mobile technology is constantly advancing and I am looking forward to seeing how that new technology will continue to impact the field of neuroscience (including consumer neuroscience). I think it will be a large contributor to the ability to measure participant response in real-world settings where it once was not feasible. I also think the ability to store and process increasingly large sets of data quickly will continue to improve and just as we have seen over the last several decades, provide new opportunities to rapidly and powerfully analyze and extrapolate learnings from data. 

The Consumer Neuroscience field’s ties to the business world contribute to its results-based approach; this approach seems to be at odds with the scientific community’s goal to understand the mechanisms behind consumer behavior. The difference in approach is what is propelling skepticism from the scientific community. Consumer Neuroscience has many questions to answer before the scientific community and general public might view the field as legitimate or without concern. The field could benefit from a formal regulatory body with stricter guidelines and to ensure that ethical standards are upheld by consumer neuroscience firms. Although the Neuromarketing Science & Business Association (NMBSA) has a code of ethics that firms must follow the regulations and I believe that the guidelines must be more detailed in order to construct and preserve a more uniform standard for consumer neuroscience firms.

These guidelines would be necessary in protecting the autonomy of consumers such as increased privacy protections for data collected through neuromarketing. A transparent regulatory body could alleviate some of the ethical concerns associated with the field and could subsequently provide a superior standard for quality control to protect research subjects as well as consumers of the neuromarketing services. The regulatory body must be proactive in providing guidelines that emphasize future developments in the field since these developments–such as brain imaging techniques that may allow for more detailed collection of cognitive information–might necessitate greater concern. In addition, with the multitude of commercial devices also collecting cognitive behavioral and EEG data for example, in aggregate might one day be able to produce very detailed and personal information about individuals. Firms having access to brain imaging and biometric data along with other detailed personal information could spark a greater concern for privacy. Although there are many questions that are left unanswered, the field is relatively new and many, including myself, feel that there are more promising developments over the horizon.


Ariely, Dan, and Gregory S. Berns. “Neuromarketing: the hope and hype of neuroimaging in business.” Nature Reviews Neuroscience 11.4 (2010): 284-292.

Fisher, Carl Erik, Chin, Lisa, Klitzman MD. 2010. Defining Neuromarketing: Practices and Professional Challenges.Harvard Review of Psychiatry, 18(4), 230-237.

Levy, Neil. 2009. Neuromarketing: Ethical and Political Challenges, Ethics & Politics XI, 2, 10-17.

Murphy, Emily R., Judy Illes, and Peter B. Reiner. “Neuroethics of neuromarketing.” Journal of Consumer Behaviour 7.4-5 (2008): 293-302.

Ohme, Rafal, and Michał Matukin. “A Small Frog That Makes a Big Difference: Brain Wave Testing of TV Advertisements.” Pulse, IEEE 3.3 (2012): 28-33.

Trabulsi, Julia, Manuel
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Ulman, Yesim Isil, Tuna Cakar, and Gokcen Yildiz. “Ethical Issues in Neuromarketing:“I Consume, Therefore I am!”.” Science and engineering ethics (2014): 1-14. 

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Diallo, I.E. (2016). Consumer Neuroscience vs. Skepticism: An Inside Look at the Challenges of a Novel Field. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on , from


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