To probe the similarities, differences, and patterns that might appear among neuromarketing companies, we searched Google for “neuromarketing.” We examined the maximum number of available hits—1,000 in this case—and identified 16 companies offering neuromarketing services. We included all marketing sites that described any neuro-science methods but excluded Web logs (blogs), media sites, and other noncommercial hits that did not offer such services. Then, using the methodology we have described previously to study how the Web sites of in vitro fertilization clinics present the risks and benefits of preimplantation genetic diagnosis,32
we developed a coding strategy to qualitatively describe these neuromarketing sites. In brief, we each independently read the 16 Web sites, developed categories to code, and worked together to reconcile the three independently developed coding schemes into a single scheme. With that scheme in place, we reviewed all of the Web sites and assigned codes together. The results are presented in the text box on the next page.
Early commentators assumed the term neuromarketing
indicated the use of brain imaging such as fMRI,4
but many companies seem not to use imaging but rely, instead, on a variety of technologies (or on no technology at all). As shown in the text box, of the 16 companies identified, only 5 offered fMRI; 9 offered EEG services; and 12 offered some other neuroscience-related technology, including: magnetoencephalography, “psychophysics,” software services, eye tracking, galvanic skin response, electrocardiography, electromyography, and analysis of pupil dilation, blush, blinking, heartbeat, or breathing. Of note, one company did not offer any technology; instead, it offered only focus groups and other simple marketing strategies, but described these methods using neuroscience terms.
Only four companies listed their clients, and only one listed costs. This relatively limited transparency is relevant to consumer groups' criticisms of Emory University. Those groups alleged that companies could be secretly damaging public health by promoting unhealthy products like junk food or cigarettes, or that they could even threaten individual liberty by designing more effective political propaganda.8
While this line of attack may seem alarmist to some, it is comparable to the criticisms levied against academic medical centers during debates about the divestment of tobacco stock—which were made on the basis of the mission of academic medical centers to protect the public health.33
In terms of the science itself, 13 companies described their methodology, but these descriptions were often insufficient to determine what was being done. For example, one stated that it could “measure almost any form of stimulus material in many different types of environment” via “[t]echniques” involving “[n]eurological responses via EEG eg [sic] the nature and intensity of different mind-state shifts, levels of attention and emotions.”*
In most cases, the companies alluded to techniques or simply listed technologies without describing the actual experimental design. Furthermore, little evidence was provided for their claims. Eleven Web sites did not reference any peer-reviewed articles, either in support of their methods or as reports of their previous work. Six included caveats to their technology, and only one company provided citations for its specific claims.
The examples that we found illustrate the confusion over the precise disciplinary definition of neuromarketing: whether it is essentially an academic field or a marketing application. Five of these companies do employ academicians; five sites reference the academic literature; and one had a university affiliation. The involvement of professionals is comparatively larger, as nine sites had holders of advanced science degrees on staff (more PhDs than MDs).
Seven sites displayed some graphic depiction of the brain on their home pages, and nine had a picture of the brain or of other “data.” Nine also had links to media coverage.
With regard to the claims themselves, the majority (10 of 16) of the neuromarketing companies promised the “truth” or what customers “really” think; for example: “we measure what consumers really think and feel, rather than simply what they state,” or we “unlock what your customer really thinks.” Ten also invoked the workings of the sub- or unconscious mind in relation to their methods (e.g., “These measurements … will reveal mental activity operating below the level of conscious awareness.”). Half explicitly claimed that their methods were an improvement over past technologies, though only one company claimed that it could predict future behavior. In light of the current state of imaging technology, these claims appear questionable at best.
As shown in the text box on the next page, we saw a variety of claims suggesting reductionism, which the Oxford English Dictionary
defines as the practice of describing or explaining a complex phenomenon in terms of relatively simple or fundamental concepts.34
In this case, reductionism was apparent in statements such as “types and levels of emotions” or “what part of the brain is telling” consumers to make decisions. Other examples were less striking but still seemed to suggest a simplistic explanation for complex brain processes (e.g., “quantify and localise brain activity in areas involved in emotion, attention, memory and decision-making”) We did not develop an additional code for this process of oversimplification; it was too difficult and uncertain to specify exactly when an interpretation of neuroscientific findings becomes reductionistic. However, we thought it important to bring these examples to light, as they seem to capitalize on the public fascination with neuroscience. Racine and colleagues35
have described a concept they term neuro-essentialism
: the immediate, uninquisitive equation of identity and agency to the brain and its substructures. Similarly, Vidal36
has proposed the concept of brainhood
: the condition of “being rather than having a brain,” in which humans are “cerebral subjects” whose selfhood is determined by their brains alone. Indeed, these examples seem to go beyond simply overvaluing technology to suggest that all human behavior and thought can be reduced to regional brain activity.
Finally, none of the Web sites mentioned issues of privacy or confidentiality (e.g., who else, if anyone, might have access to data that are collected) and what, if anything, might be done with incidental findings (e.g., evidence of pathology).