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“There is no buy button in the brain,” argues Nielsen’s chief neuroscientist

Consumer neuroscience, simply put is the measurement of subconscious reactions and how it relates to buying behaviour. In a world where there is more competition for attention, and attention spans are growing shorter, advertising has to work harder and go further.

“To go there you can measure both conscious and non-conscious responses,” said Carl Marci, chief neuroscientist for Nielsen Consumer Neuroscience. Marketing met with Marci to discuss the state of consumer neuroscience and what marketers can be doing.

Marci added that current limitations are due to a lack of knowledge, which can lead to scepticism and hesitation.

“At the end of the day the brain is a complex organism. There is a certain degree of education and educating that still needs to take place and that takes time,” he said.

Nielsen, which is a global research and intelligence firm, has had its own success in a recent study aimed at digital natives and digital immigrants in the home and comparing how they consume media and their emotional responses. Marci pointed out that accurately measuring mobile behaviour is the next phase.

“The data suggests that the age-old concept that ‘media acts as a mood regulator’ rings true. But one of the aspects we are working actively and need to do better in is studying mobile,” he said, adding:

TV is easier to measure and small phones offer new challenges and we are yet to roll that out on a major scale.

Perception issue

The term “neuroscience” often brings connotations of mind manipulation and ethical implications but the reality is, said Marci, that there is no risk or harm.

The perception is that we’re reading people’s minds but there is no buy button in the brain, we’re not manipulating people.

He noted that studies are based on 100% of participants signing a clear one page consent form stating they will monitor behaviour as the participants consume media, there is zero risk and they will pay them for it.

“Is there a point in the next 10 to 50 years when we could potentially read and manipulate minds? Well at that point there is a conversation but for now there is no risk and there are actually greater ethical considerations with digital tracking and the collection of data online,” he added

The techniques

So how is it actually done? There are a several key tools that Nielsen and consumer neuroscience providers can offer to measure non-conscious responses in real time and the most effective include:

  • EEG – a test that monitors brain activity involving 32 sensors which can collect data 500 times a minute from all areas of the brain.
  • Facial Coding – a tool that Nielsen will release in 2017 which digitally records discrete facially expressed emotions including joy, sadness, surprise and confusion.
  • Eye tracking – software that can pinpoint the areas of visual attention to content and which are the most and least viewed sections.

But these technologies function best when in a combination and linked to conversions and sales targets.


Cost is the next major factor but it is becoming much more accessible and Marci argued that it needs to be part of research strategies regardless of the company size or budget.

He cited an early neuroscience firm that no longer exists who attempted to charge half a million dollars to study a 30 second television advertisement and stressed the industry has come a long way.

“When we first started in 2006 it took 100 hours to analyse a 30 second ad, now we can do that in minutes.”

SMEs need to make a commitment to research, whether it’s consumer neuroscience or not. You either care about research or you don’t and if you do, this has to be in your consideration set.

Marci also shared that the Nielsen Singapore Neuroscience Lab will be launched this year with the aim of increasing speed and strengthening competency and connections with clients in Singapore.

“There is no question, the bar is higher than ever and in order to clear that bar it’s important to cover the conscious and the non-conscious.”

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