“Yes! I get to go!”, exclaims student Tjeerd enthusiastically when he enters the scanning room. Together with his group, he is in the radiology department of Erasmus MC. The students have been divided into groups, and one person from each group is allowed to have their brain scanned in the fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) machine, a large scanner that records brain activity. They then analyse the results in an essay. “We drew lots to see who would go into the scanner”, says student Britt. She points at Tjeerd. “He’s so happy, he’s acting like he’s the chosen one”, she laughs.

Lecture: Neuromarketing (Tuesday 11 am in Theil building C1-5)

Lecturer: Ale Smidts

Subject: How the brain responds to dogs and well-known people.

Audience: Over 50 enthusiastic Master’s students who are happy to answer the lecturer’s questions.

Reason to follow the lecture: In addition to the opportunity to slide into the fMRI machine in Erasmus MC, the lecture is full of interesting practical knowledge and examples. Student Anna shares a fact from this course: “If you drink alcohol, you’ll have a hangover the next day. This is partly because the fluid around your brain dries out. So that’s why you need to drink a lot of water after a night out.” That might not be useful for your studies, but it will certainly come in handy for the weekend.

Hospital trousers

Together with a colleague, researcher Leo van Brussel is supervising the students. He is preparing Tjeerd for the scanning session. Tjeerd needs to wear hospital trousers and headphones, so he can hear the instructions. Once Tjeerd is lying on the scanner bed, Van Brussel tapes Tjeerd’s head to make sure that it moves as little as possible.

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Image credit: Pauline Wiersema

Tjeerd slides into the scanner. He is shown various photos of famous and unknown people and buildings. He is then shown short advertisements and has to assess them. “Here, we can see the brain activity”, explains Van Brussel. He points to the screen, which shows the scan of Tjeerd’s brain. “Later, this will allow you to analyse what happens in the brain when he sees certain images.”

Tjeerd emerges from the scanner 20 minutes later. “That was so cool!”

EEG cap

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Image credit: Pauline Wiersema

In the lecture hall in the Theil building a few days later, a student is examining the EEG cap on the lecturer’s desk during the break. It looks like a swimming cap and has 64 electrodes, small metal disks that are connected to an amplifier via a wire. “Would you like to try it?”, asks lecturer Ale Smidts. The student’s eyes light up. “Can I?”

While helping the student to put on the cap, Smidts explains how the EEG – short for electro encephalogram – works. “These electrodes record brain waves, so we can track in real time how subjects react to what they are seeing.”

The cap is a bit loose on the student’s head. “It looks funny though!”, she says, then takes a selfie with her mobile phone.

Not just analysis, but also optimisation

The two methods, fMRI and EEG, are used to measure brain activity. EEG is more commonly used in neuromarketing practice because its higher time resolution makes it suitable for analysing dynamic stimuli such as advertisements and is also more affordable than fMRI. “In neuromarketing, we investigate brain activity not only to analyse the brain but above all to optimise our advertising methods”, says Smidts.

He then gives an example of TV ads for an animal shelter in the United States. “Only 30 percent of pets in the U.S. come from an animal shelter because people are afraid to adopt. They often think shelter animals are maladjusted, have trauma or disease,” Smidts explained. “So the goal of this campaign is to convince people that shelter animals are friendly and not depressed or scary.”

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Image credit: Pauline Wiersema

The advertising agency behind the campaign researched the effect of the TV ad. They used EEG in combination with eye movement research. Subjects are shown a commercial featuring Jules the dog: Jules stands in an empty white space, running back and forth and tapping against the camera. The text ‘There’s a shelter pet who wants to meet you’ appears at the end on the screen, together with the animal shelter logo and the call to action: Adopt!

Then they showed the improved version of Jules’ commercial. The new ad looks almost the same, but it is considerably shorter. Also, Jules is no longer on screen when the text appears, and there is a voice-over that reads the text and instructions.

“The new commercial works better because the voice-over makes it clearer what people should do if they want to adopt, which is to check out the animal shelter’s website. Also because Jules is no longer on the screen, then the message comes across better,” Smidts explains. They analysed viewers’ eye movements to see where attention is drawn. “Faces, including animals’, are the first thing people look at, so a text at the same time as the face gets less attention.”

This kind of practical information is exactly why student Loïs finds the lecture useful. She works part-time as a marketer and creates advertisements for electric toothbrushes. “It’s cool that I can apply this fact right away to my work,” she says.

Neurological aspects

Student Talha finds the lecture very interesting. “In marketing, you need to find out what consumers feel and think. Most of the time, we learn the psychological process behind the consumer’s decision, but in this course, we discuss the neurological aspects.”

Student Floor particularly likes the fact that the lecturers explain everything so clearly. “We’re not medical students, so it’s great that the lecture is taught in a language that we can understand”, she says. Student Lisa agrees. “We really didn’t have any prior knowledge about the brain, but now we understand how we can influence it if we want to sell or promote something, for example.”


After the break, Hollywood stars are shown on the screen: J-Lo, Julia Roberts, Brad Pitt and former supermodel Cindy Crawford. “If you’re going to hire a well-known person for your advertising, which characteristic is most important?”, asks Smidts. Answers come flying in from all sides of the room: ‘They have to be attractive’, ‘and reliable’, ‘have a good image’, ‘they must be a good fit for the brand’.

“Those statements are all true”, says Smidts. It turns out that four factors are important when choosing someone to advertise your product, namely visibility, credibility, attraction and power. “But the most important thing is that they must be well known.”

Neuromarketing_collegerubriek_illustratie Pauline Wiersema_3
Image credit: Pauline Wiersema

Familiarity is paramount because a familiar face automatically attracts attention. “The more familiar a face is, the more semantic and episodic memory is stimulated,” Smidts explains. Semantic memory contains meanings, facts and knowledge about the world, while episodic memory stores your own experience. “For example, if you see George Clooney, you immediately remember stories about him in the media or his roles in movies, or that during Clooney’s movie you were making out in the theater with your new lover”, Smidts explains. His fMRI research showed that positive associations with familiar person are linked to the product or brand, which makes you imperceptibly more positive about the product as well.

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Celine Dion

Advertising with celebrities can therefore be effective, but there are also examples of advertisements where it does not work. The car brand Chrysler chose Celine Dion as its model in 2002. The company later regretted this decision, because the advertising did not increase the sales of the car. “Actually, the advertising agency already had reservations and advised the company not to hire Dion, because she was not seen as credible for the car”, says Smidts. But the company didn’t listen to them. “The company’s CEO was a big fan of Celine Dion, so he absolutely wanted the singer to represent his company.”

Student Anna looks satisfied after the lecture. “I really enjoy hearing these kinds of facts. It gives you insights into how the marketing world works.”

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Editor Feba Sukmana and illustrator Pauline Wiersema follow a lecture every month. Together they describe and depict how teaching is done, what happens in the lecture hall and what students think of the lecture.

EM is looking for the best, funniest or most interesting lectures at EUR. Should we visit your lecturer sometime? Tip us at [email protected]