Wednesday, July 15, 2020
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Advertising to the Brain – Is Neuromarketing Ethical?

Have you enjoyed any recent commercials you saw on TV? Was there one that you considered profound, hilarious, moving, or inspiring? Advertisements nowadays are sometimes designed to appeal to you by using an increasingly popular procedure called “neuromarketing.” Neuromarketing is the study and practice of measuring how people’s brains respond to an advertisement, in order to maximize its effectiveness. This is done by monitoring things such as brain activity, eye-tracking, and skin response. But along with the technological advances that allow people to scan brains in order to sell products comes the all-important question: Is neuromarketing ethical?

Neuromarketers scan people to see what kinds of emotions are elicited or what levels of neural arousal may be seen at any given time in a TV commercial, to the second. So if they find that there is a part of the commercial where the viewer is not paying attention, then they will change it accordingly. It’s like giving a comedian the tool to tweak their delivery so that they get the biggest laugh at the punchline. As reported on big think:

Neuromarketing is not of interest to corporations alone. Politicians also compete for attention and the votes and funds it brings. In Wired, Darryl Howard, advisor to two winning Republican campaigns, explains how neuromarketing advertisments [. . .] “bypass the linear-logic brain and register in the emotion-tied-to-decision-making part of the brain,” and thus are most effective at capturing the attention of the viewer.

The rise of neuromarketing is not only a US phenomenon. It is becoming popular globally and was used extensively in the recent [2010] Brazilian elections, for example, to tweak campaign messages. [. . .] Neuromarketing is coming soon to all areas of life including electing politicians, buying consumer products, and choosing blind dates.

It may indeed sound amazing, but it’s not exactly as powerful as it sounds. For example, the main brain-scanning tool for neuromarketers, the fMRI machine, essentially only measures the blood-oxygen level of the brain in real-time. That is, they measure blood-flow to detect what areas are active. It’s not like brain scans can read one’s thoughts. No such technology exists, and perhaps it never will.

So marketers try to make advertisements which make viewers want to consume a product. It’s not always easy to tell if they’re efficacious, but let’s take the question of how effective they are out of the picture for now. After all, we can speculate that such commercials are probably effective, because people who like a certain commercial may pay more attention to it, and therefore also the product being advertised. But many people are wondering if neuromarketing is exploiting us at the most fundamental core of our psychology.

Some people have complained that neuromarketing is an exploitation of useful medical equipment bent solely on the pursuit of profits at the expense of consumers. We should be using these machines, they say, for helping people, not manipulating them. But if companies can afford to use this technology, why should they be denied the opportunity to make a more effective advertisement? I’m sure one person who would have had an opinion on this is the late comedian Bill Hicks, who was not a fan of marketers. In this brief clip, he discusses his distate for the way advertisers always think of everything as a market:

Now let’s be real about neuromarketing for a moment. Commercials are not like fingers flicking an on-off switch in your brain. There is no magic button being pushed when a commercial is viewed. If only the brain were so simple.

In fact, I’ll be so bold as to say “show me any commercial ever made, and I’ll go ahead and not buy that product.” Why am I so confident that I can resist the influence of a commercial? Because there’s often more to a consumption decision than “well, I saw it on TV.” It’s as if people concerned with neuromarketing believe that we will be instantly brainwashed, like hypnotized zombies going out of our way to buy some worthless product. But let’s remember that people can’t be hypnotized to do what they do not already want to do; so there is no cause for concern. Or at least regarding the introduction of neuromarketing – obviously the world of advertisements has a dark side, beyond the scope of this discussion.

No, I’m not ignorant of the consumer’s pitfalls, such as the quite brilliant “impulse-buy” section of stores, putting racks of small and cheap goods between you and the cashiers; and I know about the diabolical sleeper effect that makes some salesmen so effective. But I’m also aware that there’s no advertisement that can get someone to buy something they have absolutely no desire for. This is the fear of many opponents of neuromarketing, but the power of neuromarketing simply isn’t so great. At least, not yet.

An interesting point from GlobalEmotionsForum is that nothing has changed since the time when we had no brain-scanning machines; “only the failure-rate has decreased.” In other words, there were many great and many bad commercials out there, but nowadays there are fewer bad ones, and that’s the only real difference these machines have made.

But here’s the really important part you have to remember: You’re not powerless. Presumably, you don’t have your eyelids peeled back, watching awful commercials of toys, fast food, and insurance. If you’re watching TV, then you have the remote control in your hand, and you can change it or leave at any time.

Personally, I don’t even like watching TV shows on TV anymore. I prefer watching without commercials, such as on YouTube or on DVDs. That’s not because I don’t like being manipulated, but because they just take up so much of my time. Although many DVDs unfortunately have un-skippable previews, and YouTube started adding advertisements to many of their videos… but the point is that you don’t have to watch a commercial.

In fact, you don’t even have to look up at a static billboard. Sure, it might catch your eye, but it’s your decision to keep looking. You can’t blame a commercial for being effective; though forcing people to watch them would be a different discussion entirely. Perhaps the question of “what constitutes forcing someone” deserves further discussion another time, but there are some people who suggest a ban on sexy billboards on the road. According to, they have banned raunchy billboards on the roads in Greece already. But maybe if an advertisement like a billboard is so distracting that you actually get yourself into a traffic accident, then you probably shouldn’t be operating a motor vehicle.

…and if you did crash, hopefully you paid attention to that insurance commercial

More concerning than neuromarketing, in my opinion, is the use of internet-based data mining, such as on social networking sites like Facebook. There’s also information gathered from programs like the RealAge test – which American TV host Dr. Oz is a spokesman for – which asks customers to submit a survey about intimate details of their life such as sexual activity, mental health, and marriage satisfaction. The results determine what type of email RealAge sends the consumers, since the emails are often sponsored by a drug company that conveniently has something to offer.

Or there are the stores which take customer data to determine what people need at certain times, and covertly send coupons for things that they’re likely to buy, despite never being explicitly solicited by that person. The most dramatic case of this was when Target recently sent coupons to a teenage girl regarding pregnancy-related products, well before the girl’s father even knew she was pregnant. Because of the information each consumer gives the store in order to shop there, statistical algorithms can be used to determine when a women will have a baby, within a two-week margine of error. These calculations are based on averages – consumption of certain products by many consumers. In this case, certain produces such as an increase in purchases of unscented soaps and lotions indicated the point at which someone was due for a baby.

The Bottom Line

No one is forcing us to view advertisements, and we have the power to stop paying attention. If you’re tired of unwanted advertisements, like those ads that pop up when you’re trying to watch a YouTube playlist, then you may as well mute the computer until the ad finishes, like I often do. Sometimes, however, you may come across a fantastic ad, such as Cartier’s “L’Odyssée” commercial, which I was glad to see because it’s absolutely beautiful and inspiring. It didn’t make me want to buy a watch though; it just made me want to listen to the great original score and watch the video again.

Using brain-scanning technology is not the golden ticket of marketing, it’s just a more reliable way of gauging people’s arousal and emotions than questionnaires and focus groups, which has been used in previous generations for the same purpose. But if you disagree, and you think that advertisements are everywhere and totally unavoidable, then ask yourself one last question: Would you rather see an advertisement you like or one you don’t?

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