While it is clear that experiments testing advertising effectiveness with neuroscientific methods have already yielded important insights (1, 2) , many scholars still consider the hype for neuromarketing to originate from the public’s fascination for cognitive neuroscience (4, 7). McCabe and Castel (3) argue that the public is attracted by brain images because they provide a physical basis for grasping the nature of complex cognitive and affective responses. But according to Tovino (5, 6), there is a troubling similarity between the rapid adoption gained by neuroscience (and by association neuromarketing) and the rise of phrenology at the end of the 17th century.

Phrenology was a pseudoscience introduced by Joseph Gall, an Austrian anatomist and physiologist who observed that some of his students who had good memories also had prominent foreheads. Based on that and his own knowledge, he developed a comprehensive theory linking physical features of the head to psychological characteristics. His work was later commercialized by one of his students Johann Gaspar Spurzheim and eventually became widely popular among the public. The approach was even adopted by some employers and lawyers in the United States during the mid-1800s until it was eventually ridiculed and abandoned by the beginning of the 20th century.

Based on the current state of research produced using neuromarketing techniques, it is difficult to predict whether or not the field will endure lasting fame and success or follow the same fate as phrenology.
Undeniably though, the use of neurotechnology by marketers who lack the right credentials and expertise to interpret the data is problematic and risky for neuromarketing to evolve. The controversy around Martin Lindstrom’s posting in the New York Times Op-Ed section is sadly enough an illustration of this concern (8). 


1. Fugate, D. L. (2007). Neuromarketing: a layman's look at neuroscience and its potential application to marketing practice. Journal of Consumer Marketing, 24(7), 385-394.

2. Kenning, P., Plassmann, H., Ahlert, D. (2007). Applications of functional magnetic resonance imaging for
market research. Qualitative Market Research, 2, 135-152.

3. McCabe, D. P., & Castel, A. D. (2008). Seeing is believing: the effect of brain images on judgments of scientific reasoning. Cognition(107), 343-352.

4. Racine, E., Bar-Ilan, O., & Illes, J. (2005). fMRI in the public eye. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 6, 159-164.

5. Tovino, S. A. (2006). The visible brain: privacy issues. Doctor of Philosophy, The University of Texas, Galveston.   (UNI 3218005)

6. Tovino, S. A. (2007). Imaging body structure and mapping brain funcction: A historical
approach. Journal of Law and Medicine, 23, 193-228.

7. Weisberg, D. S., Keil, F. C., Goodstein, J., Rawson, E., & Gray, J. R. (2008). The
Seductive Allure of Neuroscience Explanations. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 20(3), 470-477.

8. Replies to Martin Lindstrom Op-Ed posting in the NYT




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Comment by Naomi Sparks on October 2, 2011 at 11:41am
Always good to be critical of our own work, but I think we're far beyond phrenology! Hopefully neuromarketing companies will continue to hire academic researchers who have experience in related fields & help legitimize the work.

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