The Strange Rise of Neuromarketing

By Neuroskeptic | April 9, 2016 10:05 am

On Twitter, someone linked me to this: the Neuromarketing World Forum (NWF) 2016, which has just taken place in Dubai (which the conference organizers call “the Neuromarketing Capital of the World”). It was a three-day event dedicated to the application of neuroscience in the world of marketing and business. Attendees were taught about how brain science could help them understand what consumers want and how to sell to them more effectively.


But where, in all this, were the neuroscientists?

I didn’t attend the NWF. Nonetheless, the website contains the full agenda. It features speakers such as

  • The Founder & President of ‘Marketing Brainology’
  • The author of Neuromarketing for Dummies
  • The author of Brainfluence
  • A Senior Research Scientist at ‘Neurensics’
  • People from major companies including Google, Heineken, The Hershey Company, Ipsos and Nielsen Consumer Neuroscience.

But as far as I can see, there were no academic neuroscientists speaking. The only academics present at the NWF were from the field of management and marketing studies. No speakers are listed as being affiliated with a university neuroscience or psychology department. (Edit: although a reader pointed out that Ale Smidts, one of the management professors, has collaborated with neuroscientists and published in Neuron.)

So a large international ‘neuroscience’ event has taken place, without the help of any neuroscientists. This is remarkable.

I don’t mean that as a criticism of the NWF. I’m just surprised that this is now the world we live in. Ten or even five years ago, I don’t think it would have happened. Indeed the first NWF meeting was in 2012; and back then the speakers list was headed by neuroscientists.

How should neuroscientists react to neuromarketers? It’s easy for us to mock people who use words such as ‘brainology’, and it’s easy for us to decry them when their work doesn’t match up to academic standards. But are we, neuroscientists, responsible for creating this monster, or at least for feeding it up on a diet of neuro-hype?

Could neuromarketing actually represent an opportunity for doing better and more rigorous research? One of the limitations of academic neuroscience is its distance from real-world behaviour. Notoriously, most neuroscience experiments are run on college students – not a very diverse bunch. Could the neuromarketing scene serve as a bridge by which neuroscientists could find more realistic populations (e.g. employees at large organizations, user databases) in which to test our theories?

  • Uncle Al

    more realistic populations” now enjoy an average 85 IQ given testing of the 700,000 student Los Angeles Unified School District. Given reportage by race, assume No Child Left Behind Caucasians have a traditional 100 IQ to normalize other test scores. They do not.

    To effectively market to the masses, Youtube v=hL1-340ODCM

  • Roger Dooley

    Good points. I do think that the fields of neuromarketing and conversion optimization (which often references behavior science) can help academia by offering tests with massive scale and either diverse or targeted groups of real-world subjects. (Was it Ariely that called MIT undergrads the “lab rats of behavior science” or similar?)

    There’s not much of a reproducibility crisis in the CRO space – sample size is generally large, and tests that improve business outcomes are rolled out at full scale where deviations from the expected result will be spotted quickly.

    There are neuroscientists who do neuromarketing (Nielsen alone claims to employ 17), but it’s worth noting that the umbrella of neuromarketing includes not just fMRI and EEG, but also biometrics, eye tracking, implicit testing, facial coding, applied behavior science, and more.

    Keep up the good work!

  • OWilson

    I had a similar surprise when I looked up the list of speakers at the recent Paris Climate Conference.

    No scientists on the main agenda but 25,000 government delegates mostly from the Third World, making their pitch for Western Wealth Transfers (Money!).

    But isn’t “neuromarketing” identical to brainwashing?

    Say hello to “New Improved Tide”, or on the darker side, “Long live our Dear Leader Kim ill Sung, our rising and setting sun”

  • Uncle Al

    The blog owner censored my post about LAUSD tested IQ versus neuromarketing targeting. How Progressive.

    • Neuroskeptic

      It was deleted for not being relevant to neuromarketing.

      • Uncle Al

        Exploiting errant stupidity is the basis of marketing, prostitution to religion to breakfast cereal.

        • OWilson

          Read about how surplus pork created a market for breakfast bacon and eggs, at the turn of the 20th century. And the genius who figured it out.

          How the “Most important meal of the day” really got its name :)

    • OWilson

      Mine was deleted because I dared compare “neuromarketing”, an apparently new PC word, to “brainwashing” :)

      Perhaps you and I need some time at a progressive re-education camp :)

      • Uncle Al

        I Progressively believe education is founded upon motivation not intelligence – Great Britain’s public schools to navy, USSR’s gulags, US Social Justice. If a subject does not have a brain, I will install one, Youtube v=NA9B6-s6r7Y. That’s Central Services’ neuromarketing! I will be their Harry Tuttle against the commodious inefficiencies of Spoor and Dowser.

  • Sandra Pickering

    I have an academic background in neuroscience, have worked in business since graduating and I attended the conference for 3 reasons:
    1. To evaluate potential suppliers for a marketing project
    2. To get an overview of how well neuroscience is being applied to real-world behaviour
    3. To learn anything new or interesting.
    My overall impression was of a field in its early stages that hasn’t yet cohered or found a clear direction but it will find its way.
    Yes, there was some superficial content but there were also some powerful ideas – including published peer-reviewed research – that I will now be exploring.
    There were also academics in the audience if not on the platform.
    Neuroskeptic makes a good point about this type of forum being an opportunity to connect with diverse research populations and it is also an opportunity to test the usefulness and applicability of ideas from neuroscience to real-life problems.

  • George Baily

    It is a perfect fit for the marketing industry really, I mean a “neurobollocks” specialism in a profession that is 95% bullshit anyway.

  • Michelle Murphy Niedziela

    I’m a PhD neuroscientist that has been working in consumer research for nearly for over 5 years now. Mostly for larger CPG (consumer product groups), but most recently for a market research company. I attended the NMSBA a couple of years ago and was appalled at what I experienced. There definitely is some very bad science being done. And definitely some snake oil sales going on. And I wasn’t the only one that thought so, as I sat next to another neuro PhD who was just as shocked. That year Antonio Damasio spoke, and I’m not certain he was so sure what he’d gotten himself into.

    • Neuroskeptic

      How interesting, thanks very much!

  • Michelle Murphy Niedziela

    After an offline contact from Sandra and NMSBA, I’d like to agree that there are some very good scientists involved in NM (such as Steve Genco – author of Neuromarketing for Dummies). Steve, for example, does push to educate people about neuroscience and the different methodologies. And NMSBA does make sure to include his introductory to neuro talk to newcomers and potential clients so they can get a grounding in neuro.
    That being said, I’ve always been critical of NM in my own blog and throughout my career. Not because it shouldn’t be used, but because it needs to meet the standards of other sciences, which means it needs to criticized by fellow scientists.
    Which is why I have to mention that I have repeatedly been attacked by people in NM for voicing my criticisms of questionable methodologies.

    First, my personal thoughts do not represent the company I work for (after posting my comment, I received complaints to my work email). But I was writing as a neuroscientist and science advocate. As a scientist that actively participates in STEM promotion, student mentoring and science fair judging, I believe it is my duty to not shy away from promoting good science and condemning bad.

    As I said earlier, there are some very good scientists involved in NM, but no one speaks out against the bad science which gives us all a bad name.

    By allowing bad science to be presented, it acts as an endorsement. And I personally do not believe that is conducive to creating a valid and flourishing field. It has been my impression that most of the people were more out to make money and sell products than promote science. As well as keeping their own interests over the interests of the science. For example, when I asked a question at the NYC meeting, I was given glares and my questions about validity were not answered.

    In more academic meetings criticism is vital to further the science. If I were to get up and speak about EEG, I should expect that an EEG expert should be in the audience and ready to question my methods and results and tear me apart. This is how bad science is prevented from getting or going too far. And it’s how it keeps scientists on their toes to make sure they really know what they are doing.

    My hope was that future meetings would be more critical. But that has not been my impression (not just of the NMSBA, but all NM organizations). The additional meeting I had mentioned in my comment was from a different NM group, where they did question methodologies, but even there, most of the people were there to attract clients and sell product. I’ve participated in other NM panels and meetings where I was criticized and attacked for being critical of methodologies.

    I do not believe this is how to move the field forward. Neuroskeptic and other bloggers, scientists and journalists have also been critical (and rightly so) of NM. In order to become a legitimate science I believe it is important for us all to embrace this criticism and make ourselves better.

    • Neuroskeptic

      Thanks for this most interesting perspective. I agree with you, the mark of a bona fide science is not that no-one makes mistakes, but that people correct their mistakes.

  • Joe Devlin

    Last year John Hogan and I started running workshops designed to help bring the neuroscience back into neuromarketing ( We started from the premise that what we were seeing in the neuromarketing realm was exactly what has been described here, but a slightly deeper look revealed that there is also some work that combines excellent neuroscience with excellent marketing (e.g.
    Personally, I think that as neuroscientists we have an obligation to do more than shake our heads at bad applied neuroscience, be it neuromarketing, educational neuroscience, or whatever. We should actively engage with the people who want to use the science we produce and help them to do it well. This not only benefits their efforts, but real-world applications often lead to different ways of asking basic consumer neuroscience questions and novel opportunities for us to test our lab science in the real world. In my (admittedly limited) experience in this area, I’ve become increasingly excited about how many people in marketing, advertising, and communications are interested in genuine neuroscience and sad at how little access they have to accessible science/scientists. I get a real charge out of our workshops because I feel like each time we run one, I not only get to share some of the excitement around good science but I also meet fantastic, smart people and I learn from them each time.

    • Neuroskeptic

      Sounds like you’re doing great work there!

    • Sandra Pickering

      Thanks for this, Joe. I hadn’t come across the Venkatraman article before.
      Will have a look at your Workshops too.

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  • Darren K

    Wew lad the comment section here sure smells of money. Perhaps Neuro- found a new income source to account for the loss of -skeptic.

    • Neuroskeptic

      Unfortunately I don’t make any money from silly comments, otherwise I’d be rich

      • Darren K

        Eh, I’m sure the money from the “neuromarketers” (lol) in these comments suffices. Aren’t academics supposed to be less materialistic anyway?

        • Neuroskeptic

          The neuromarketers like anyone else are free to leave a comment if it’s relevant.



No brain. No gain.

About Neuroskeptic

Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.


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