The Neuroethics of Advertising

When you hear the term “neuromarketing,” do you envision corporate mind control directing you to purchase products? You are not alone. The good news is, no mind-controlling “buy button” exists. The bad news is, as neuroscience areas such as decision-making and reward processing advance, and our personal data accumulates online, there’s no guarantee it will never exist in the future. But this is exactly why it’s important to discuss topics such as this now in an ethical context.

High interest during INS annual meeting public lecture.

At the International Neuroethics Society (INS) annual meeting public program in San Diego Thursday night, neuroscientists employed by the marketplace and academia spoke about neuromarketing, or consumer neuroscience, as it stands, how it may evolve, and the ethical implications that need to be considered alongside this emerging field.

Panelist Carl Marci, chief neuroscientist of Nielsen Consumer Neuroscience at Nielsen Company, the largest market research company in the world, quickly dismissed the notion that market research can override free will through manipulation. What it does do, he said, is offer tools to help companies better understand how to engage consumers with marketing that emotionally affects them and sticks in their memory.

The key measurement tools in Nielson’s arsenal are: EEG (measure of brain activity), biometrics (measure of emotional engagement), facial coding, eye tracking, and self-reports. The majority of testing is done in a physical environment (usually asking people to watch media or advertising), he said, and a combination of tools yields the best results for predicting sales. (Though on its own, EEG rates highest in prediction success with 62 percent.)

But even with the best marketing practices, how do companies attract the attention of consumers in this age of technological distraction? It’s not easy, Marci said. “Consumers have far too much choice and are too savvy,” he said.

While media consumption increased from 48 hours in 2002 to 75 hours in 2017, people are not focusing on one platform, he said. Looking at the digital multitasking behaviors of digital natives (ages 21-27) and digital immigrants (ages 31-55), researchers found that natives average 27 switches per non-working hour, while the immigrants average 17, he said.

So what’s the marketing workaround? “Engage, message, brand,” said Marci. Great creative pieces grab people’s attention, engage emotions, and activate memory centers. The top advertisements elicit greater brain activity in areas related to personal relevance, he said.

Anyone familiar with marketing knows the importance of the brand and cultivating brand loyalty. Using popular brands Coke and Pepsi, panelist Read Montague, director of the Human Neuroimaging Laboratory at Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute, imaged brain responses to brand rivals Pepsi and Coke using fMRI in 2004. His results found that blind taste tests of subjects’ preferred drink lit up a different area of the brain than when they knowingly consumed that same drink (Coke was far and away more popular).

A secondary result of the study was that Montague’s work unleashed criticism about neuromarketing, with people expressing fear that it offered a path for corporations to influence our behavioral choices subconsciously. While recognizing the concern, Montague noted the benefit of neuroscientists studying and publishing about how the brain works in the consumer market, as opposed to a private company manipulating people for years without them knowing.

That distinction between academic research and private research is an important one to note, and one that panelist Uma Karmarkar, assistant professor of marketing/ITO at the Rady School of Management at UCSD, emphasized. While acknowledging that Nielson operates at a refreshing level of transparency, corporate research isn’t necessarily held to the same rigorous, peer-reviewed standard as that in academia. “The research doesn’t have to be right for clients,” she said, “it has to be effective.” She also raised the question of informed consent standards for research subjects within the different arenas.

Looking to the future of the field, how good will personal targeting get and how will it be regulated? asked neuroscientist Steven Hyman, event moderator, former INS president, and current Dana Foundation Board and Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives member.

Studies will become “faster, smaller, and cheaper, because clients want the information quickly,” responded Marci. But consumer neuroscience won’t be without competition: It could be eclipsed by big data–the “digital cookie crumbs” so many of us leave behind as we use technology.

Regulation of data is and will continue to be difficult as technology develops faster than governments are able to pass or enact laws. To combat fears, he said, tech company leaders have formed the Neuromarketing Science and Business Association and adopted a code of ethics.

In this intersection of neuroscience and society where even those in regulatory roles are playing catch-up, we’ll have to wait and see. But it’s clear that we, as the public, should continue to be vigilant and ask questions to ensure consent remains a priority.

–Ann L. Whitman

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