Neuromarketing: what it is and why it’s useful

Neuromarketing: what it is and why it’s useful

Sarah Cantavalle Published on 1/6/2023

Neuromarketing: what it is and why it’s useful

Neuromarketing is a discipline that combines aspects of neurology, behavioural economics and cognitive psychology in an attempt to understand what happens in the human brain when a person views a given advertising message. By measuring their neurological and physiological signals, neuromarketing strives to analyse the unconscious decision-making mechanisms and to identify the channels and messages that are most likely to influence purchasing choices.

The term neuromarketing was coined in 2002 by one of the pioneers of this discipline, Dutch marketing professor Ale Smidts. As part of his research into advertising stimuli, Smidts Began applying neuroscientific theories and neuroimaging  techniques to marketing.

He then decided to concentrate on researching methods and tools for analysing the way in which different areas of the brain react to given advertising messages and how they influence the decision-making process. In addition to electroencephalography (EEG), a technique already investigated in marketing in the 70s, Smidts began using positive emission tomography (PET) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to measure brain activity associated with advertising inputs.

Until that point, research into buying behaviour assumed that that consumers made decisions solely based on conscious and rational processes. However, experience in the field had shown that responses to questionnaires and interviews did not always match the choices people actually made; other factors – such as shame, prejudice and the desire to please others – could lead subjects to lie. Neuromarketing therefore represents a departure from traditional methods of analysis: for the first time, researchers and marketers focused on the emotional and cognitive baggage of consumers and on unconscious decision-making mechanisms.

Neuromarketing: why it’s useful
Neuromarketing: why it’s useful. Image by on Freepik

The techniques used

Neuromarketing uses a variety of tools to measure physiological and neural signals and to study neurocognitive responses to advertising messages:

  • Electroencephalography (EEG) records brain activity through electrodes placed on the head.
  • Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) detects changes in blood flow inside the brain and highlights areas where brain activity is strongest.
  • Eye tracking looks at eye movements and pupil dilation to analyse visual attention.
  • Facial expression analysis studies micro movements in facial muscles.
  • Galvanic skin response (GSR) use electrodes to measure skin conductivity and therefore the degree of emotional arousal of the subject.

The data recorded by these tools, together with information gathered through focus groups, questionnaires and interviews, enables the measurement of rational and emotional responses to different stimuli provided by advertisements, brands and products.

Heat map
Eye tracking measures a subject’s visual attention towards a stimuli represents the data gathered as a heat map.

The limitations and risks of neuromarketing

The limitations of neuromarketing lie in the cost and the very nature of what is being studied: the human mind. Until a few years ago, research in this area was pretty expensive, putting it out of reach of small- and medium-sized enterprises. What’s more, while the tools used can precisely measure certain physiological and neural signals, they are not able to explain the memory, emotion or feeling that the person being studied is experiencing. The human brain remains a mystery that’s hard to crack, even with the most advanced machines.

The other problem is ethical: does neuromarketing manipulate people? What would happen, for example, if tobacco companies used these techniques to create advertising campaigns that were dangerous to consumers’ health? According to Martin Lindstrom, one of the leading experts on neuroscience applied to marketing, the tools used in this discipline are “neither good nor bad”: it depends on how they are used and what for. Professor Vincenzo Russo, scientific director for the Neuromarketing Research Centre at the IULM Behaviour and Brain Lab, concurs: “Neuromarketing doesn’t manipulate; it measures what marketing does.”

Of course, institutions and companies that conduct research into this field have a moral duty to consider the aims and risks of a project, and to be transparent and protect the privacy of consumers at all times.

The Microsoft case study

By investigating emotional and cognitive reactions to different inputs, neuromarketing provides valuable insights into the unconscious decision-making mechanisms of customers. This data can be used to plan and optimise marketing strategies, from product development to advertising messages.

Microsoft assessed the efficacy of some of its promotional campaigns on the Xbox platform by monitoring the physiological and neural parameters of volunteers. The goal of the research was to understand which format of ad – out of a 30-second TV advert, a 60-second TV advert and in-game adverts on the Xbox – were able to stimulate human brain the most.


For the test, Microsoft supplied subjects with a special headband to monitor brain activity, breathing rate, head movement, heart rate and skin temperature when they viewed three adverts for the carmaker Kia.

The research revealed that the majority of brain activity took place while the subjects were watching the first half of the advert. However, when viewing the in-game advert on Xbox Live, brain activity peaked when the image of the car was repeated, which enhanced message recall. The results of the experiment were also confirmed by traditional metrics: the in-game advert generated a brand recall rate of 90% compared to 78% for the conventional TV advert.

The growth of specialist neuromarketing firms is making this research methodology, which was once the preserve of big brands, more accessible: increasing numbers of SMEs are using these tools to assess the effectiveness of products, websites and adverts, thus avoiding the costs and risks associated with running marketing campaigns that are ineffective or launching products that flop.

The future of neuromarketing is certainly heading in this direction: it is enabling ever more organisations to test the effectiveness of their new products or advertising messages in advance through a multidisciplinary approach that combines traditional research techniques with cutting-edge technology.