Whatever country I deliver a speech in, the most common question I hear is, “Is neuromarketing ethical?” I suspect most of the audience would answer in the affirmative, but there is always at least one skeptic or, perhaps, someone looking for reassurance.
What is Neuromarketing?
First, I use a broad definition for neuromarketing that encompasses two broad approaches:
- Approaches that use the tools of neuroscience like fMRI and EEG as well as other techniques like biometrics and eye-tracking to measure consumer response to specific advertising, content, packaging, retail environment, experience, etc. Collectively, these approaches have been termed “consumer neuroscience” by some.
- Approaches that use existing cognitive science research – neuroscience, behavioral science, neuroeconomics, decision science, etc. – to guide marketing decisions and formulate hypotheses for testing. Examples could include using social proof (”Over a million happy customers!”) or scarcity (”Only two rooms left!”) to increase sales.
Today, we’ll focus on the first kind – the consumer neuroscience flavor of neuromarketing that involves actively measuring human responses to marketing and related stimuli.
Concerns About Neuromarketing
One of the key ethical concerns surrounding neuromarketing is the potential for manipulation. By understanding how the brain responds to marketing stimuli, critics suggest, companies might be able to manipulate consumers into making decisions that they would not have made otherwise.
Indeed, in the early years of neuromarketing some critics thought that ads could become far more persuasive than they had previously been. A new generation of “super-ads” might evolve.
Are Neuromarketing Studies Accurate and Predictive?
Oddly, the other major criticism of neuromarketing is the polar opposite of the first. Other critics have said that neuromarketing studies don’t reliably predict consumer behavior and are a waste of time and money.
In short, the two major concerns about neuromarketing are:
- Neuromarketing is dangerously effective.
- Neuromarketing is an ineffective waste of money.
The Truth about Neuromarketing
When I began writing about neuromarketing in 2005, neuromarketing fears were rampant. A couple of years earlier, Ralph Nader-founded Commercial Alert stoked fears of unethical persuasion and tried to prevent fMRI machines from being used for non-medical purposes. The term “buy button” in a customer’s brain implied that marketers could use neuromarketing to overcome customer will power.
I felt at the time, and still do, that the entire “super-ad” concept was preposterous. With many decades of advertising before neuromarketing, at least a few of these ads would have already been created by design or luck. That never happened.
While neuromarketing studies may be able to improve ads, no ads have been created that take over customer brains or press a magic buy button.
Neuromarketing is as ethical as marketing in general. One can have truthful ads and ads that are false or misleading. One can have ads that increase awareness of legitimate products and ads that promote dangerous products to children.
It’s not the tool that determines ethics, it’s the way it is used and the intent of the marketer.
Snake Oil For Sale?
While there have been firms that offered neuromarketing services that made unsupported claims, there have been others that use rigorous science to back up their offerings. In 2019, three neuroscientists offered a well-documented counterpoint to the “neurotrash” accusation.
At this point, there’s enough published research to say with confidence that consumer neuroscience techniques can predict behavior, in some cases better than surveys and conventional tools. These predictions, though, are more probabilistic than determinative.
Just as every advertising agency doesn’t provide the same results as every other ad agency, not every neuromarketing service provider provides the same level of technical rigor. Neuromarketing firms and in-house neuromarketing groups vary in capability and focus. The snake oil days are mostly behind us, but it’s up to the buyer of the service to perform due diligence on the providers.
The Real Benefits of Neuromarketing
While most think of neuromarketing as a tool that benefits the brands trying to sell things, there are consumer benefits as well.
People are often unable to articulate what they are looking for in a new product, or what they like or dislike about a product. Hence, surveys and focus groups can produce inaccurate guidance.
By measuring non-conscious responses to products, either real or conceptual, brands can create products that are more satisfying to their customers.
Fewer Bad Ads
One recent study showed a third of advertising expenditures are wasted. A Kellogg study found that 80% of television ad campaigns had negative ROI. These and other statistics indicate a big portion of ad spending is money down the drain.
While the businesses that waste advertising money suffer, so do consumers. They are subjected to intrusive, repetitive, and annoying messaging that serves no good purpose. Ineffective ads are bad for both the brand and the consumer.
Neuromarketing studies may not be able craft ads that push an imaginary buy button, but they can identify ads that annoy viewers or cause them to tune out. This alone could be a major boon to consumers.
Is Neuromarketing Ethical?
We’ve seen that the dangers of neuromarketing studies have been overblown, and that neuromarketing techniques can produce useful results when properly used.
A tool is a tool. A hammer can be used for good (building things) or evil (hitting people). Neuromarketing is simply another tool in the marketer’s toolkit.