August 30, 2023

By Asa Hiken

As advertisers continue to wrap their heads around artificial intelligence, neuroscience has emerged as another avenue for applying the technology, offering brands the ability to fuel campaign strategies with more comprehensive data.

GlassView, a marketing firm with a penchant for neuroscience, uses high-tech headbands to measure the brain activity of consenting individuals. For a January campaign for Travel Texas, GlassView fed this data into an AI model, which detected patterns in how people were emotionally responding to ads. The media strategy was adapted accordingly, leading to a 97% increase in tourists to the state, the firm reported.

Music technology company Endel, which creates personalized soundscapes based on fitness and brain data, uses generative AI to connect the information to build a kind of map. The approach is facilitated by a “neuroscientific framework,” said Oleg Stavitsky, co-founder and chief executive of Endel.

Marketing strategies fueled by neuroscience, sometimes called “neuromarketing,” are not a new phenomenon. The phrase was first coined by Dutch marketing professor Ale Smidts in 2002. But the applications of neuroscience in the ad industry have improved with the development of AI tools, which can expedite data analysis and subsequent campaign optimization.

Neuroscientific measurement thrives at the granular level, assessing individuals’ brains to determine second-by-second emotional responses to stimuli. AI brings coarse-level advantages, such as rapidly analyzing data and finding patterns. Together, the two approaches can provide a data-rich resource for launching and improving ad campaigns.

“If you allow machine learning to identify patterns in real-time that are unobservable to the human eye, and point that technology to neuroscientific data, the opportunities are infinite,” said J. Brooks, founder and chief executive of marketing firm GlassView.

Yet for all its positive potential, the neuro-AI approach could be complicated for an industry already navigating tense digital privacy backlash. One possible concern is that leveraging such granular and personal information—information that consumers themselves aren’t fully conscious of—could come at the expense of consumers’ mental health.

Marketing with neuroscience

AI isn’t the only technology that has improved in recent years. Electroencephalograms (EEGs), electrode-powered caps that measure brain activity, are now geared for commercial use, capable of being used in a home setting. Owing to their scalability and relative ease in configuring, EEGs are the marketing industry’s go-to neuroscience tools.

Bases, the product innovation unit of consumer intelligence company NIQ, has conducted over 10,000 EEG tests to measure how people respond to advertising. In one recent study for a major retailer, Bases found that consumers had stronger emotional responses to simpler and less crowded retail signage. The EEGs’ findings contradict conventional marketing wisdom that including more information on packages is better for shoppers, according to NIQ.

Such brain scans allow marketers an under-the-hood peak at consumers and the way they develop their preferences.

“A lot of our decision-making is non-conscious,” said Megan Belden, global lead of Bases’ advertising arm, which offers several neuroscience-powered ad tools.

This granular view goes deeper than traditional consumer insight tactics such as surveys. For example, whereas surveys will often deliver information on how a consumer responded to an ad in its entirety, EEG scans illustrate how emotions fluctuate on a second-by-second basis. This is important because even if a consumer enjoys one moment of an ad, they may not enjoy the next.

An EEG test can also measure implicit perceptions and responses that not only a consumer may be blind to, but also may never show up in a survey due to biases that a respondent could intentionally or unintentionally leverage.

These biases are often reflected in purchasing behavior, however, which makes a combination of neurological measurement and survey data the most thorough assessment, Belden said.

The power of AI

If neuroscience looks at individual trees, AI takes in the entirety of the forest, rapidly analyzing large datasets and identifying patterns. The two approaches, when taken together, can cut the costs of a campaign and drive efficiency.

GlassView specializes in neuromarketing and uses a machine learning tool to inspect the performance of ads against neurological metrics previously collected using EEG-like headbands. For a campaign in April to increase sign-ups for a credit card company, GlassView’s AI model identified consumer brain wave patterns that correlated with higher ad performance; that is, ad experiences more likely to result in site traffic and sign-ups. The AI then directed more media spend to audience segments reflecting those patterns, resulting in a 70% reduction in cost-per-page-landing.

The combination of neuroscience and AI “allows you to not just optimize toward the buy, but to understand the why behind the buy,” said Brooks.

The typical route of audience segmentation is to leverage mostly static demographics—such as age, gender and income—to inform the design of a campaign. Less detailed data going into the effort usually translates to less detailed data coming out of the effort.

Neurological data, however, is very detailed, making an AI-powered analysis of consumer response potentially more comprehensive. The patterns derived from these second-by-second findings are key information for re-designing a campaign to maximize resonance for different audiences—almost like having the answers to a test before taking it.

Generative AI, which has become marketers’ latest must-have tool, is beginning to see applications in the neuromarketing space.

Endel, the music technology company that creates personalized soundscapes, combines generative AI with health and fitness data, including neurological information. With permission from the users, the firm accesses health and fitness apps on mobile devices, then uses AI to map cognitive states from that data. Finally, Endel’s proprietary model curates sounds to guide those states toward a specific purpose, such as tranquility, focus or sleep.

“Neuroscience informs the AI,” said Stavitsky. Neuroscientific studies have also been conducted on Endel’s application, which, in turn, have informed how the firm develops its technology.

Endel’s product functions as a content marketing strategy, Stavitsky said. Last month, the firm teamed with musician 6lack to turn his latest album into two distinct soundscapes—one for sleep, one for focus. The goal is to expose the album to audiences that may not otherwise listen to it.

GlassView’s Brooks, though, is less convinced of the immediate impact that generative AI will have on neuromarketing, due to the many problems the technology still has to work through. These issues, framed by a lack of regulation, range from copyright infringement to data insecurity and the spreading of biased information.

Until brands are confident in its ability to protect data and prevent outputting harmful material, generative AI will see limited interplay with neuroscientific data on consumers, Brooks said.

Invasive or innovative?

That generative AI does not always act with purity is a reminder of the pitfall of feeding people’s neurological data into AI models for the purpose of better advertising. The marketing industry, after all, wants to sell products, and sometimes leans on less transparent methods for doing so, such as fingerprinting.

“Marketers can exploit your psycho-emotional state to just offer you more stuff to buy,” said Stavitsky. For example, studies show that impulse buyers reflect low self-esteem and high levels of depression and anxiety. Advertising, especially on social media, can often exacerbate these feelings, leading to more impulse purchasing.

Whether acting knowingly or unknowingly, marketers could leverage comprehensive neurological data in a way that drives sales at the expense of consumers’ mental health. AI technology, moreover, will only amplify the effects of an underlying action. If these actions pose negative externalities, the result could deeply undermine industry efforts to prioritize consumer privacy and safety.

Brands appear to be cognizant of an optics issue. NIQ has worked with a handful of the top 25 advertisers as measured by U.S. ad spending, yet some have been hesitant to promote their neuromarketing efforts, said Bases’ Belden.

Despite neuromarketing’s challenges, there’s an opportunity for positive change. Using neuroscience, marketers can test—far more thoroughly than through surveys—how their advertising is affecting consumers, from triggering isolation to creating fulfillment, said GlassView’s Brooks. Negative patterns can be detected by AI, and then turned on their head to develop healthier practices, to adjust messaging and material that would otherwise make consumers feel worse.

Research has been conducted on using neuroimaging to create more effective PSA campaigns for public health and safety issues susch as AIDS prevention, smoking cessation and drug rehabilitation. A similar process can be applied to commercial advertising, but for the pursuit of an expanded definition of “effective,” one that embraces consumer health and not merely sales.

“We can reverse some of the ill effects that technology has created,” Brooks said.