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. See video of event, below.

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. Continue reading

From the Archives: Neuromarketing

Marketers have tried most everything to get people to buy more, including scanning their brains. But what have they learned that way?

It’s hard to know, reported writer Ann Parson in our Briefing Paper from December 2011, “Neuromarketing: Prove Thyself & Protect Consumers,” because much of the research is done by private firms that don’t release their data and, well, we don’t know that much about how the brain works.

As researcher Annie Lang put it: “My career has been spent scientifically assessing whether we can make reliable inferences about what people are thinking and feeling while interacting with media, based on real-time measures, and it’s a pretty hard thing to do. These days, anyone can collect the data. How they interpret those data is another story, and, in many cases, we can’t assess their claims, because they’re based on in-house proprietary data.”

Continue reading

Neuromarketing appeals to your senses

There really is no limit to how far companies are willing to
go to get inside the heads of consumers—literally. At least, that’s the
take-home message I got from a new article
in Time about “neuroadvertising,” the
business of using new neuroscientific understanding to, well, generate more business.

Among the strategies outlined in the article: better use of
the full range of our senses. For years marketing professionals have relied on
imagery and colors to sell their products while largely ignoring the impact of
sounds, neuromarketing researcher and business consultant Martin Lindstrom says.  “Eighty-three percent of all forms of
advertising principally engage only one of our senses: sight.”

But familiar sounds can trigger equally powerful responses,
he points out. To find some of the best candidates, he has studied emotional
responses to various sounds, by monitoring brain activity, pupil dilation,
sweat responses and facial twitches.  The
noise with the biggest response? A baby’s laugh.

I’ve noticed in my own life that, while most advertisements
focus on jingles and slogans, familiar sounds can elicit a stronger reaction. I
have added several songs to my iPod after I heard them in commercials—but,
honestly, I end up forgetting the origins of the songs. The sizzling steak in
the Outback Steakhouse commercial on the other hand: Not only does it make my
mouth water—it always calls to mind the restaurant.

(This idea of consumer sensory manipulation, by the way
reminds me of the previous attempts—although possibly on the path to revival—of
smell-o-vision.  Used in movie theaters
in the 1950s, smells were released during certain sections of the movie to give
a more authentic experience. They didn’t work very well—perhaps because no
neuromarketers were on hand to guide their development.)

In the article, Read Montague, a
neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine, explains why certain sensory
experiences can have such strong effects. “Cultural messages that get into your
nervous system are very common and make you behave certain ways,” he says. In
commercials that go wrong, he adds, advertisers miscue these messages. Abstract
music paired with a visually enticing picture can confuse the brain, for
instance, causing the insula and orbital frontal cortex regions to frantically
try to make sense of the stimulation.

The fuel for neuromarketing doesn’t just come from dedicated
researchers. General studies, such as those looking at the effect of competitive
and product
on consumer decision-making, also provide fodder.

As the article notes, switching off your TV is no escape; brick-and-mortar
retailers are also catching on to the trend. 
A department store in Japan has incorporated individualized soundtracks
for each department (I can only wonder what the lingerie department sounds

It seems that none of our senses are safe from marketing
efforts, so hold onto your wallet and get ready for a very stimulating future.

-Ann Whitman

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