With so many varying definitions from different sources, it can be hard to understand exactly what neuromarketing is. But to simply put, it is a form of decision science, applying the ideas of neuroscience into the field of marketing. As Dictionary.com states, neuromarketing involves 

the process of researching the brain patterns of consumers to reveal their responses to particular advertisements and products before developing new advertising campaigns and branding technique.” 

Neuromarketing: How Brands Use Our Brains to Sell

As a multidisciplinary field, people who studied or worked in neuromarketing know that the reason its intrigue is that it brings science and business together. Just as the name implies, neuromarketing borrows primarily from neuroscience and marketing but can be seen to be influenced by the following,

  • Marketing – The study of creating optimal relationships with customers, with the primary component of business management. The major role of marketing involves taking a product or service and delivering it to the consumer as effectively as possible using elements of advertising and psychology. 
  • Neuroscience – The scientific study of the nervous system that borrows from biology, physiology, anatomy, and psychology as a way to better understand the neural circuits. 
  • Cognitive Neuroscience – The scientific study of the biological processes that define cognition. As a subsection of neuroscience, it focuses primarily on the neural connection of the brain involved in mental processes. 
  • Neuroanatomy – The study of the anatomy of the nervous system. It serves as a branch of neuroscience, understanding the structure and organization of the human brain. 
  • Neurology – The study of medicine involving the nervous system. It focuses on dealing with the treatment of conditions and diseases at the core of our brain.

Understanding the Brief History of Neuromarketing

Although the field of neuromarketing is fairly new, the desire to look into the minds of people has long existed for decades. If we trace the field of neuroscience as far back, we can see that there has been scientific research on the brain since the ancient Egyptians. 

Businessmen will eventually realize that customers are merely bundles of mental states and that the mind is a mechanism that we can affect with the same exactitude with which we control a machine in a factory.”

—Hugo Münsterberg (1913)

Hug Munsterberg, the father of organizational psychology was known as one of the first people to go on record of showing great interest in this field, as far back as 1913. However, it wasn’t until the 90s, where we began to see biomedical imaging technology eventually progressing to a point where we could gain real insight from the neural activity of the human brain.

While the term ‘neuromarketing’ was believed to be introduced by Dutch marketing professor Ale Smidts in 2002, just roughly 17 years ago, hard research and experimentation in the field were established in the 1990s. US Marketing professor Professor Gerald Zaltman was two of the pioneers in this, filing a patent four years before the term ‘neuromarketing’ was even coined. 

This patent focused on using the Zaltman metaphor elicitation technique (ZMET), a research tool for marketing that involved the exploration of people’s conscious and unconscious thoughts. He did this by using specially selected sets of images which would then elicit positive emotional responses, and in turn, stimulate a potential purchase. 

A lot goes on in our minds that we’re not aware of. Most of what influences what we say and do occur below the level of awareness. That’s why we need new techniques: to get at hidden knowledge-to get at what people don’t know they know.”

— Gerald Zaltman

The Difference Between Neuromarketing vs Neuroeconomics

While the two have been used interchangeably, a lot of us have scratched our heads at the difference between neuromarketing and neuroeconomics. In an article by TIME called Brain Sells, they determined that neuromarketing served to be a subgenre of neuroeconomics. Even though some avid neuro-marketers may believe it to be a completely separate field of its own, this belief isn’t too far-off, considering neuroeconomics involves the general study of neuroscience in decision-making. 

The First Neuromarketing Experiment

What is believed to be one of the first recorded neuromarketing experiments was done in Baylor College of Medicine in 2003, by the Professor of Neuroscience Read Montague. The study was an extension off of a 1975 challenge experiment that had participants take a blind taste test between Pepsi and Coca-Cola. 

pepsi vs coca-cola

Even though the results showed to be Pepsi was the winner, it did not translate properly to sales, as Coca-Cola continued to beat out its rival time and time again. Curious, Montague repeated the experiment, yet this time hooking up participants to an fMRI scan to track brain activity. The study was able to reveal that the different parts of the brain lit up depending on whether the subjects were aware or not about what brand they were consuming. 

Interestingly, the results suggested that Coca-Cola elicited responses from our medial prefrontal cortex, the part of our brain associated with higher thinking and short-term memory. People apparently stated they preferred Coke over Pepsi when knowing they were drinking Coke, and yet when oblivious to the brand, they reported preferring Pepsi instead. In this case, the part of the brain that lit up was an area called the ventral putamen, a function for decision-making and reward perception.

Looking at the Criticism

In its few decades of being around, it comes as no surprise that a field that focuses on understanding the brain to help sell to the consumer better would be met with a lot of criticism. Over the years, since the field emerged, there have been plenty of people that have questioned the ethical standing of what it does, as well as its overall effectiveness. 

About ethical violations

In 2004, the journal of Natural Neuroscience released an article entitled “Brain Scam,” which looked at the ethics behind neuromarketing. raising the question of ethics behind neuromarketing studies. The main issue brought up in the article was one of worry of the morality of the neuro-marketers as a whole. 

ethical violation

This sentiment was similarly expressed in the well-known Lancet Neurology journal, where the editor-in-chief of Science Donald Kennedy commented on his concern for how the technology/research would be used. He questioned whether brain imaging would be used to infringe on personal privacy to a “totally unacceptable degree.” 

The main point of contention seems to revolve around the protection of subjects and people as a whole. With the field of marketing already being largely focused on ‘manipulating’ the public to make purchases they may not even want, this becomes even more problematic when information about the brain is involved. 

About effectiveness

Another major hurdle that neuromarketing has faced over the years is whether or not it remains to be as effective as it claims. Oftentimes, the people doing the experiments are companies, which lack the personnel or machines to carry out the experiments in well-controlled, refined settings. 

Even when accurate results or data do come out from the experiments, the problem that often derives from this is that the people who are using the data do not know how to sufficiently use it. In many cases, companies that do neuromarketing research use EEG (Electroencephalography), which measures the electrical activity of the brain through a device that is placed on the subject’s head. 


The problem with depending solely on this is that the signals are sensitive to interference from other electrical devices. Also, subjects often need to be very still, as any sudden movements can affect the results. This is different from EEG research done in labs, as the experiments were done in these environments are heavily shielded, and are repeated several times for accuracy. Yet, in the case of this research done for marketing purposes, companies don’t have all the time in the world to invest in a single experiment. 

The Future and Beyond

Fast-forward to today, the current landscape of marketing looks a whole lot different than even 10 years ago. Influencers – whether big or small – shape what we buy and consumers hold a lot more power since the advent of social media. Bad reviews can do quite a lot of harm to a brand, which is why many companies need to be wary of how they represent themselves. 

We do not live in a world where marketers have free rein to bombard consumers with everything they got. With tightening privacy regulations and conscious consumers, marketers need to tread lightly, as too much blatant advertising can lead to distrust.

Decades of market research and human psychology have shown that we respond to two main things: pain and pleasure. Storytelling also plays a large part in those two emotions and governs whether we feel invested in the brand or not. The generation of today and possibly even more so of the future will care more about being part of a larger cause than buying a product that lacks a ‘story.’ 

Understanding behavior is the key to the future of marketing and to gain a better grasp of what dictates our behavior, it stands that fields like neuromarketing will inevitably become needed, regardless of the criticism.

While there are plenty of things to consider when using or applying neuromarketing tactics, the fact that it is still just in its early stages shows that there is hope for it to be shaped and used in a positive way. As technology continues to become more democratized every year, the major issue that the field needs to face is the ethical one, and whether it can overcome this, only time can tell.