Sydney-based author Martin Lindstrom’s Buy-ology might have made a brief appearance on the New York Times bestseller list in November buoyed by some good reviews, but by my standards and those professional marketers, strategists and critics of neuroscience around the world, its a mishmash of spectacularly insubstantial claims drawn from a single set of research experiments backed by cribbed online references and enthusiastic, anecdotal and sometimes annoying marketing evangelism.
The whole premise of Buy-ology is that brand and purchase decisions are not made on any rational basis but by stimulation to certain sections of the brain. Lindstrom’s neuromarketing experiments use two types of brain-scan technology - functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and SST, an advanced form of electroencephalography (EEG) - to test how various marketing stimuli can affect the subconscious. While the book quotes a number of well known research studies and runs to over two hundred pages, less than a quarter is actually devoted to detailing and recording the results of its four experiments, its the entire basis for his argument.
So here’s the four earth shattering results Lindstrom claims may set off “the biggest branding revolution in 50 years”. It will save you buying this book.
The first experiment, using SST-ECG measured the impact of product placement in television programming and finds that “ we have no memory of the brands that don’t play an integral part of the storyline of a program”. The second, using fMRI on cigarette smokers, tested the effects of “overt, direct and visually stimulating images” and its relationship with subliminal advertising, finding that its iconography and images themselves not logos that actually stimulate purchase behaviour. The third experiment using fMRI tested whether “sports, and sports heroes activate the same areas of the brand as religions did” showed “the emotions we experience when we are exposed to strong brands” is similar if not “almost identical” to the emotions generated by religious symbols. Finally, his fourth experiment, using fMRI on an unknown number of subjects (Lindstrom forgets to tell us how many participated in half these experiements) was designed to “determine whether a signature sound – like the Nokia ring tone – makes a brand more less attractive”. The shocking result: most brands do well when “sound and vision are combined in a congruent way”. Unless you’re Nokia because after a decade or so of use, its ringtone now has a strong aural disassociation. Lindstrom found this result so disturbing he had to give the company a call and tell them!
Lindstrom claims all these “controversial” and “spectacular” findings come from a three-year, $7 million experiment testing 2081 volunteers in the US and Europe (he says they were also from Japan and China but I can’t find these in the results). Buy-ology doesn’t substantiate either the costs or the length of the study period. For example, the commercial cost of fMRI can be around US$525 per hour with standard scans taking around an hour. New fMRI scanners cost anywhere between US$1m and $2.3m and portable scanners around US$2m, so perhaps he had to buy a scanner or two but I seriously doubt this. The point is that he only conducted three fMRI experiments on at least 65 people. Also the standard cost of an ECG scan in the US can range from U$100 to more than $500, depending on the purpose and type of test i.e., asleep or awake, invasive vs non-invasive electrode implantation. Lindstrom’s was non-invasive and his 400 subjects were awake. You do the math.
Untested is Lindstrom's discussion of mirror neurons, behavioural priming and somatic markers, which he tries to draw a line from his own experiments via some scholarly studies he found online. But Lindstrom’s experiments do attract an even bigger question about neuroscience and marketing – whether this kind of research is actually a useful predictor of behaviour. Lindstrom might be fairly certain of this science but most critics of the use of such limited research insist it's too early in the field of neuromarketing to draw these kinds of absolute conclusions. According to Sheffield University School of Psychology Professor Lawrence Parsons, “we don't really know what we are seeing when we watch the brain work. Is it the thing itself - the thought, the flash of insight - or just an aspect of it, the bark rather than the dog?”
It’s clear to me Lindstrom’s claims require substantial research to draw any probable link between the outcomes of these experiments and predictors of future purchase behaviour. Right now his results just show a degree of correlation between stimulation and behaviour, they don’t prove a single basis of causation.
Last year I read a New Yorker article on the roots of psychopathy, describing how researchers have being using a portable fMRI scanner to scan the brains of US prison inmates to uncover the basis of psychopathy. It suggests that if a “biological basis for psychopathy could be established” then pharmacological treatments could be developed. Might not similar treatments be developed for behaviours such as impulse buying and mall rage? These experiments have been conducted for years and have drawn the kinds of accusations which put them in the same category as nineteenth century phrenology. Yet, unlike Lindstrom, none of these researchers dare draw any final conclusions. The field, like neuromarketing is so new, researchers believe they will need more to spend the next ten years and maybe another 10000 scans linked to prisoner DNA, biographical data and case histories before anyone thinks the data makes sense.
In one interview last year Lindstrom said, “If I wrote a serious, heavy book, no consumers would read it” and a trawl through Amazon reader reviews on Buy-ology will confirm that. A Some advertising agency planners might like this book and a few business and industry people might be gobsmacked, but you won’t read anything here you don’t already know already or can’t find online. But if you like this kind of marketing sooth saying the globetrotting Lindstrom will be in New York and San Francisco in March presenting his exclusive Buy-ology symposiums, digging “wider and deeper than it was possible in the book alone, into the research findings and their implications for marketers and advertisers”. I can’t wait.
This review was also published in Marketing Magazine Australia blog on 19 January .