Marketing experts may be able to test a product's appeal while it is still being designed thanks to advanced tools used to see the human brain at work, according to researchers from Duke and Emory Universities.

So-called "neuromarketing" takes tools like the functional MRI and applies them to the somewhat abstract likes and dislikes of customer decision-making.

Though this raises the specter of marketers being able to read people's minds, neuromarketing may prove to be an affordable way for marketers to gather information that was previously unobtainable, or that consumers themselves may not even be fully aware of, says Dan Ariely, a professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University.

 Writing in Nature Reviews Neuroscience, the research team offer tips on what to look for when hiring a neuromarketing firm, and what ethical considerations there might be for the new field. They also point to some words of caution in interpreting such data to form marketing decisions.

Neuromarketing may never be cheap enough to replace focus groups and other methods used to assess existing products and advertising, but it could have real promise in gauging the conscious and unconscious reactions of consumers in the design phase of such varied products as "food, entertainment, buildings and political candidates," Ariely concludes.

Citation: Dan Ariely, Gregory S. Berns, 'Neuromarketing: the hope and hype of neuroimaging in business', Nature Reviews Neuroscience, March 2010; doi:10.1038/nrn2795