More eye-wateringly egregious neuromarketing bullshit from Martin Lindstrom

Martin Lindstrom is a branding consultant, marketing author, and (possibly because that wasn’t quite provoking enough of a violently hateful reaction in people) also apparently on a one-man mission to bring neuroscience into disrepute. He’s the genius behind the article in the New York Times in 2011 (‘You love your iPhone. Literally’) which interpreted activity in the insular cortex (one of the most commonly active areas in a very wide variety of tasks and situations) with genuine ‘love’ for iPhones. This was a stunningly disingenuous and simple-minded example of reverse inference and was universally derided by every serious commentator, and many of the more habitually rigour-phobic ones as well.

Unfortunately, it appears his reputation as a massive bull-shitting neuro-hack hasn’t quite crossed over from the neuroscience community into the mainstream, as I realised this weekend when I settled down to watch The Greatest Movie Ever SoldMorgan Spurlock’s documentary about branding, product placement and the general weirdness of the advertising world is generally excellent, however, it unfortunately makes the mistake of wheeling on Lindstrom for a segment on neuromarketing. You can see his piece from the movie in the video below:

Lindstrom conducts a fMRI scan with Spurlock as the subject, and exposes him to a variety of advertisments in the scanner. Fair enough, so far. Then however, Lindstrom explains the results using a big-screen in his office. The results they discuss were apparently in response to a Coke commercial. According to Lindstrom the activation here shows that he was “highly engaged” with the stimulus, and furthermore was so “emotionally engaged” that the amygdala which is responsible for “fear, and the release of dopamine” responded. Lindstrom then has no problem in making a further logical leap and saying “this is addiction”.

Screen Shot 2013-08-11 at 22.01.26

Needless to say, I have a somewhat different interpretation. Even from the shitty low-res screenshot grabbed from the video and inserted above I can tell a few things; primarily that Lindstrom’s pants are most definitely on fire. Firstly (and least interestingly) Lindstrom uses FSL for his fMRI analysis, but is using the crappy default results display. Learning to use FSLView would look much more impressive Martin! Secondly, from the very extensive activity in the occipital lobe (and elsewhere), I’m able to pretty firmly deduce that this experiment was poorly controlled. fMRI experiments rely on the method of subtraction, meaning that you have two close-but-not-identical stimuli, and you subtract brain activity related to one from the other. As in this case, say that you’re interested in the brain response to a Coca-Cola commercial. An appropriate control stimulus might therefore be, say, a Pepsi commercial, or even better, the Coke commercial digitally manipulated to include a Pepsi bottle rather than a Coke one. Then you subtract the ‘Pepsi’ scan from the ‘Coke’ scan, and what you’re left with is brain activity that is uniquely related to Coke. All the low-level elements of the two stimuli (brightness, colour, whatever) are the same, so subtracting one from the other leaves you with zero. If you just show someone the Coke advert and compare it to a resting baseline (i.e. doing nothing, no stimulus) you’ll get massive blobs of activity in the visual cortex and a lot of other places, but these results will be non-specific and not tell you anything about Coke – the occipital lobe will respond to absolutely any visual stimulus.

By the very widespread activity evident in the brain maps above, it appears that this is exactly what Lindstrom has done here – compared the Coke advert to a resting baseline. This means the results are pretty much meaningless. I can even make a good stab at why he did it this way – because if he’d done it properly, he’d have got no results at all from a single subject. fMRI is statistically noisy, and getting reliable results from a single subject is possible, but not easy. Gaming the experiment by comparing active stimuli to nothing is one way of ensuring that you get lots of impressive-looking activation clusters, that you can then use to spin any interpretation you want.

fMRI is a marvellous, transformative technology and is currently changing the way we view ourselves and the world. Mis-use of it by opportunistic, half-educated jokers like Lindstrom impoverishes us all.

8 responses to “More eye-wateringly egregious neuromarketing bullshit from Martin Lindstrom

  1. I am wondering if there are any good points you think Martin makes in his work, even though I see you feel like the overall evidence supports that he is grossly misrepresenting the field. The one thing that struck me in his work is the coffee maker in the Philippines (if I remember correctly) leveraging prenatal environments for marketing purposes. Having read the scientific research papers that that exploit was based on I thought it was a misuse of legitimate scientific information for nefarious marketing purposes. Thanks for the article and the blog. Skepticism is the best navigator for treacherous waters.

    • Hi,

      I’m not familiar with his work with coffee in the Philippines I’m afraid, or the scientific papers relating to it. I can’t seem to find much reference to it online either – do you have a reference or a link to anything online that describes that work?


      • Here is a link to a book review that mentions his connection between preference and prenatal environments:

        Here are a couple links to relevant studies I am not sure if Lindstrom refers to these specifically, but it was something along these lines

        There are also some tertiary connections between prenatal exposure and lifestyle choices that can affect things such as dietary choices and thereby health, etc.

        Click to access s2.0-S0031938410000442-main.pdf

        The point I was trying to make was there appears to be some evidence that useful information can and does get exploited from time to time for marketing purposes, which is his primary position.Even if Lindstrom might sensationalize, fail to underpin his assertions with valid research or overstep the bounds of what the research says at times, he does make some points about how “inside information” on neuroscience does get used as a lever to exploit the marketplace..I think that is probably valid. He was in the business that attempted to use all means to get an edge by only asking if they could and without asking if they should. Even if his research analytic technique is not totally sound, he does make a point. I also think some people are naturals at doing things such as exploiting emotional underpinnings and insecurities that broil in the context of the human condition for their own gain. I suspect that unspoken parasitic axiom is probably the lions share of the driver of such activity. I hope this helps.

  2. I’m personally a huge fan of Lindstrom’s work – perhaps because I’ve had the chance to observe his work first hand as a client. In contrast to many other marketers he has pushed conventional thinking and for sure caught people’s attention.

    Lindstrom hasn’t conducted any of his work on his own – instead hired external expertise like doctor Gemma Calvert (BSc DPhil CPsychol FRSA) of Oxford and Professor Richard Silverstein (Ph.D. from the University of Melbourne in Neurophysiology), Melbourne to oversee all projects.

    Some of the conclusions from his work (like his work on health warnings on cigarette packs) has resulted in dramatic (global if I may add) changes of how governments now are treating the health warnings on cigarette packs. Lindstrom is behind numerous highly successful TV campaigns against drugs, alcohol, cigarette smoking, texting…etc.) – It is a shame you deliberately forgot this – while writing your rather unfair and one-sided comment.

    Also this very observation was overseen by Ms. Calvert and Mr. Silverstein – and later on confirmed by independent research work conducted in Switzerland, Germany and the UK.

    • Hi,

      First of all, let me say that ‘Ajax Johnson’ is possibly the most awesome name of anyone in the world, so, umm… congrats on that I guess.

      Lindstrom may well be a fantastic, creative, boundary-pushing marketing consultant. Honestly, I wouldn’t know, and don’t much care. What I *do* know is that he’s a piss-poor neuroscientist. The video above (and his previous iPhone piece in the NYT) reveal very clearly that he’s either a) so ignorant of the techniques he’s using that he genuinely believes what he’s saying, or b) knows that he’s distorting the data and making wild interpretations, but just doesn’t care.

      I’m not familiar with Professor Silverstein, but have met Gemma Calvert once or twice, and know her work well. Since she moved into the neuromarketing world her academic work seems to have taken a bit of a backseat, which is a shame, but I’m fairly positive that as a serious scientist she would not wish to be associated with Lindstrom’s type of neuro-bullshit.

      Can you point me towards any serious scientific work that Lindstrom has been involved with? Has any of his work on cigarette packs been published anywhere? If so I’ll happily review it.

      • Sorry to have stumbled across this thread only about three years late, but I still cannot just let this crap slide.

        To the great huge fan of the marketing maven, your hero maintains that “…the amygdala… is responsible for ‘fear, and the release of dopamine’…”

        Wow. I am left nearly speechless. He’s so wrong he’s never been right. Actually, he apparently doesn’t know enough about the brain to be wrong.

        Remember sports fans: you can shit the fans, but you can’t shit the players.

        What a crock.

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