Neuromarketing Tools for (Neuro) Public Health

Brain scans provide unique information to improve society’s health

General Public

Brain imaging techniques applied to commercial uses are not allowed in France, and may carry unsavory associations elsewhere, too. And yet these tools can provide uniquely relevant information about what guides our behavior. The principles of neuromarketing could be applied to designing better public health measures, for instance, and are worth a second look.


This article also exists in French ("Des techniques de neuromarketing au service de la santé publique"), translated by Timothée Froelich.


In July 2011, France became the first country in the world to include in its national bioethics code a paragraph devoted to neuroscience. Specifically, it states that brain-imaging techniques may only be used for medical or scientific research purposes, or in the context of judicial expertise. The implicit meaning is that commercial applications of these techniques are not permitted, amounting to a ban on neuromarketing.

Olivier Oullier, professor of behavioral and brain sciences at Aix-Marseille University, spoke recently in Paris about the nature of such neuromarketing studies to better understand consumer behavior. “The market is flourishing. There are over 150 companies around the world dedicated to neuromarketing, involving tens of millions of dollars.” Nielsen, the consumer behavior analysts, for example, recently acquired the neuromarketing firm NeuroFocus—and clearly not for philanthropic reasons.

“There’s a sort of snobbery in academics that says if you use brain imaging for a laudable goal—like understanding pathologies, how we read or calculate—it works. If you use it for marketing, it doesn’t!” But, according to Oullier, it does work—within certain limits. “These new tools that let us better image the brain, will they let us better understand people’s behavior? They can only help, but the question is, what can we expect from them?” 

Just as René Magritte’s famous pipe was not, in fact, a pipe, Oullier makes it clear that the results of MRIs and other scans do not amount to all that is a brain. They are measurements of some kind of output of the brain, as it exchanges with its environment, which can give us an idea of what’s going on within.

A 2007 study conducted at Stanford, for instance, was able to draw some very general conclusions about shopping and brain activity. Participants underwent fMRI scans while performing a task similar to shopping on Amazon. What the researchers found was that when activity in two brain regions—the nucleus accumbens and the mesial prefrontal cortex—went up, and activity in the insula, went down, the person made a purchase. “So, it’s not mindreading, and it’s not very practical,” Olivier Oullier concedes. “Nevertheless, across multiple individuals, we are able to predict whether they buy the product or not.”

(Flickr / killermonkeys)

Neuromarketing for public health?


 “I always have a hard time with people who are specifically against neuromarketing,” he says. “Against marketing in general, I can see, but just against neuromarketing? Seriously?” For those still touchy about commercial applications of brain imaging, it might be interesting to know that the conclusions drawn from such studies could also lead to improvements in public health, for instance. Considerable budgets are allotted to anti-obesity campaigns and, in France, all advertising for snack foods must include a line of text at the bottom reminding the consumer to limit his or her intake of foods high in fat, sugar, or salt. Only when a private company commissioned an eye-tracking study was it revealed that viewers don’t even let their gaze fall on this well-intentioned message. Might there be a better way, then, to help prevent overeating?

Olivier Oullier points out that the judgment our brains make about a product—for example, the taste of wine—is often linked to an external value, like its price. Along the same lines, if you put subjects in an MRI scanner and give them vegetable broth to eat, they’ll like it just fine. But if you tell them in glowing terms that it was prepared by a Michelin-starred chef, their brains show they like it a whole lot more. Knowing this, Dr. Oullier asks, wouldn’t healthy eating campaigns benefit more from requiring the use of neutral terminology in ads for junk food, rather than a written admonishment that we now know is ignored?

Another public health challenge that might be better met through the use of neuromarketing principles from the private sector concerns anti-smoking advertising. Olivier Oullier describes a study in the US that compared the effectiveness of two different styles of TV spot:  a dramatic and shocking approach (e.g. disturbing images related to the effects of tobacco use) or a pedagogical one. The results showed that the materials intended to frighten people out of smoking activated mainly parts of the brain linked to visual attention, while the pedagogical messages stimulated areas related to memory. “If you want people’s behavior to change, maybe it’s better to activate their memories than to scare them for a few minutes,” Olivier Oullier proposes.

Brain imaging, along with psychology, cognitive science, sociology, history, and anthropology, are complementary tools that can help reveal the motivations of our behavior—and perhaps suggest new ways to help reduce the harmful ones. “It’s also a question of personal responsibility, because it’s relatively easy to villainize marketing. But in order for people to resist the marketing and eat better diets, and so on, maybe we first need to develop educational policies.”



Find out more:


Which ads are winners? Your brain knows better than you do

Olivier Oullier on his personal blog and on twitter: @emorationality

Improving public health prevention with behavioural cognitive and neuroscience by Olivier Oullier and Sarah Sauneron 



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