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Psychology and Advertising: How Neuromarketers Abuse Science

Several years ago Patrick Renvoisé found himself in a moral dilemma. As he was walking into a restaurant in San Francisco, a homeless man approached asking for some cash – “Homeless, PLEASE HELP,” his sign read. On one hand Renvoisé felt a sense of guilt and obligation but on the other he didn’t want to see his dollars go towards booze and drugs. To resolve his predicament, he made a deal. In exchange for two dollars, the homeless man allowed Renvoisé to change his sign for the next two hours – Renvoisé even promised an additional five dollars if he hung around the restaurant until the end of dinner.


Renvoisé is a marketer, and what he saw in the homeless man was a classic case of poor brand management. Think about it. San Francisco is home to thousands of homeless people who are all asking for help. But because they are all doing it in the same way with the same messages none of them are standing out. It would be like trying to sell bottled water with a label that just said, “Water”.

When Renvoisé finished his meal, he walked out of the restaurant to hand over his promised five dollars. To his surprise, though, the homeless man refused, and insisted on giving him ten because while Renvoisé was dining he took in a killing – sixty dollars, much more than his average two to ten dollars an hour. So what did Renvoisé write on his sign?

“What if YOU were hungry?”

The genius of Renvoisé’s sign is that it puts us in the shoes of the homeless man, at least long enough for us to feel what it would be like to not know when the next meal will be. That is not to say anyone who saw the sign suddenly understood what it’s like to be homeless, but it is to suggest that it evoked an altruistic sentiment strong enough to influence more people to give. However, to really understand why Renvoisé’s version was so successful we would have to dive deep into the moral and evolutionary psychology literature, talk to the PhDs and run some studies of our own.

Renvoisé’s genius is marred by the fact that he hasn’t done these things. He knows that wording matters but he doesn’t know why it matters. You see, Renvoisé is one of those many ‘neuromarketers’ with a ‘neuromarketing’ book. Unfortunately, they all (the people and books) do a poor job of understanding and reporting the science behind consumer behavior. There are two problems. First, the bibliographies are thin, sometimes completely absent, and the chapters are filled with shallow and unsubstantiated remarks like “a study found…”. Second, they make many well-established findings seem novel. Throughout Renvoisé’s book, for example, he and co-author Christophe Morin point out that the “latest brain science” shows that we decide with our emotional brain and justify with our rational brain. Fair enough, but this certainly isn’t news. Behavioral psychologists have known about “system 1” and “system 2” thinking, confirmation bias, motivated reasoning and the like since the 1960s starting with Kahneman and Tversky.

Renvoisé is nothing compared to Martin Lindstrom. Lindstrom is one of those marketing “gurus” who travels around the world lecturing about marketing tricks and strategies. A former adviser to companies like McDonald’s and Microsoft, he is also the author of several books including his latest, Brandwashed, which mocks behavioral psychology by relying on anecdotal studies and advertising them as groundbreaking. As one customer on explains, it is…

filled with common-sense observations inflated with infomercial style prose, it’s a shadow of the scientific study it claims to be. Each chapter pounds you with juvenile “imagine this!” scenarios, while providing little scientific backing for the author’s conclusions. After each disappointing narrative, he promises the next chapter has “groundbreaking new science!” Clearly, he has mastered the art of hype, for that’s mostly what this book is.

I suppose this makes sense. As someone who is self-described as “a global branding expert,” Lindstrom is just deploying the very tricks he uses to sell Big Macs to sell his book. But there is a serious problem with his strategies: they don’t respect science. He cherry picks the data, doesn’t write truthfully, and is only in it for the sales if you ask me. The reality of consumer behavior is that while it has trends and correlations, it is too complicated for someone to write about it as if they understood it.

Why did Renvoisé sign really work? To be honest, it is difficult to say beyond a few moral psychological principles. But at least I am willing to admit that and not pretend like I get why people buy what they buy.

  • If anyone has ever worked with EEG or eye trackers and wants to vomit, check this video of Martin on the Today Show.
  • After publishing this post I realized that the NYTimes “You Love Your iPhone” article, and the subsequent uproar it created with the academic community, was written by Lindstrom. This guy is a joke.
9 Comments Post a comment
  1. First off, we are “evil” marketers since we force people to buy stuff they really don’t want to vis mind control. Yes, people really don’t’ want hot wings, big screen TV, cruises, SUV’s, celebrity gossip, family trips, etc.

    As minions of satan, let us do a little reality check:
    – Neuromarketing is nothing more than marketing hype right now.

    Brain research is very good and very real and very new. Applying brain research to marketing may take decades — or longer. Now people selling neuromarketing stuff are lying and saying ti works — it doesn’t. But you know that. For example, we’have known a lot about the heart and heart disease for 50 yrs+ but are no closer to effective treatments.

    We have very little idea of what drives rat behaviors in clicking a handle let alone people buying stuff.

    – Marketers and sales people, evil or otherwise, can only sell people what they already want to buy, by definition.

    If a blogger entry talks about ideas people don’t already believe and are seeking out what happens — nothing.

    October 11, 2011
    • sammcnerney #

      Great comment. Thanks for your thoughts. Except I am a little confused as to what you are trying to say in your last sentence.

      October 12, 2011
  2. The evidence, primary research in brain and psychological/social sciences, is that our minds literally cannot comprehend ideas (words) that conflict with existing beliefs and notions.

    So communicating anything to anyone must speak to existing beliefs and the status quo. In fact, popularity is based on more closely adhering and supporting the status quo. So communications that communicate non-status quo ideas literally cannot be comprehended.

    So a blog post that doesn’t reference status quo ideas will get no, or very little, readership.

    This is based, not on a media, moral ideological or even conscious choice by anyone, it’s just the way our brains take in, or don’t take in, stimuli — in this case ideas. Seems to be true in other animals as well.

    October 12, 2011
    • sammcnerney #

      The idea that we cannot comprehend ideas, words, or beliefs that conflict with existing beliefs or the status quo is absurd – if that is what you are really saying. All great science and art, for example, is the story of breaking the status quo to introduce a new idea, and people accepting it over time. It’s Newton overturning backward dark age pseudo science, it’s Einstein overturning Newton, it’s modern psychology overturning Freudian and Skinnerian psychology. On the artistic side, it’s Dylan going electric, the Beatles introducing the four piece band, it’s Stravinsky performing the Rite of Spring.

      It certainly helps to speak to existing beliefs and the status quo – this is why Fox News and MSNBC exist – but in terms of science (and academic subject really) and art breaking the status quo and introducing something new is an essential step for progress. That is why all the people I listed have gone down in history.

      Maybe I am reading you incorrectly, but it just isn’t true to say that “minds cannot comprehend ideas that conflict with existing beliefs”

      October 12, 2011
      • Nope, the evidence says otherwise. Don’t confuse pop trends with brain science.

        October 12, 2011
        • sammcnerney #

          I don’t know if you are trolling or not but your claims are ridiculous.

          October 12, 2011
          • See. Proves the point. Upsetting isn’t it. Defensive, fear-based reactions pop up instinctively.

            October 12, 2011

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