Are we afraid of neuromarketing?
Conspiracy theories, brain picking, mind-reading and other unicorns
The magic happens once you get out of your comfort zone. I know that most of you have heard this a thousand times (at least) because it is a must-have line in every modern motivational speech. However, I am not here to talk how much you can achieve in life- I am sure most of you have already known that. The reason why I have started my story with this sentence is that we can easily adapt it to the other spheres of life, e.g. marketing. Now the title of the article makes more sense, right? Things we are afraid of are mostly those that we are not familiar with, does not mean that they are scary. The same happens in marketing. Public, companies, academia or ordinary people are afraid of neuromarketing because it is not known to them. It is out of the marketing comfort zone. And what do you do then? You criticize, you judge, and you label it with all the negative names you can think of, just to validate your fear.
After intentionally attacking everyone and everything that is against neuromarketing in the first paragraph, I will try to cool off now and act as a decent researcher, with all the references and citations. As I have written those lines, I can use some parts of articles previously published here. For those who read about neuromarketing for the first time, I must note that even though the promotion and communication tools have been used and effective for decades, there has been still a “black box” in customers’ heads where scholars and marketers needed to tap in. Finally, they have found a Holy Grail. It has been more than 10 years already passed since the term “neuromarketing” hit the boardroom, a perfect blending of marketing and neuroscience. The time has come to trigger those individual minds and place product and services to be just the way consumers want.
“Companies may be making premature claims about the power of neuroscience to predict consumer behavior.”
At the first glance, you may think that if there is a potential for better understanding of consumers, why is there such a dust around neuromarketing? I would agree, but you need to think as Sherlock Holmes now. Let’s travel back in time a bit. 15 years back. A BrightHouse Institute for Thought Sciences news release issued June 22, 2002, explains that it uses fMRI to identify patterns of brain activity that reveal how consumers evaluate a product, object or advertisement. This information is used to measure consumer preference, and thus help marketers to better create products and services and design more effective marketing campaigns. The neuromarketing experiments were conducted in the neuroscience wing of the Emory University Hospital. Commercial Alert and prominent psychology experts got angry. Later that year they sent a letter to Emory University President, requesting the immediate termination of neuromarketing experiments and labeling them as unethical because they would likely be used to promote disease and human suffering. The letter can be read here.
“This new field is called neuromarketing. It seeks, to find a buy button inside the skull. It sounds like something that could have happened in the former Soviet Union, for the purposes of behavior control. Yet it is happening right here in America, at a major university- your university.” (A fragment of the letter to Emory University )
So far, many have tried to define neuromarketing and those definitions are very often in conflict. Suspicious, right? Moreover, no clear and overall accepted definition has been given and little is known about the actual practices of companies, physicians, and scientists involved in its practice (Fisher, Chin & Klitzman). Now it sounds like the X Files case to solve.
Good show, though, but not gonna happen this time. More the science, less the fiction. If we forget about the aliens, the real concerns that neuromarketing practitioners and researchers face are ethics-related. Namely, ethicists rightly express concern over ownership and use of private medical data gained through neuromarketing techniques. In the same article by The Conversation, the author talks about methodological concerns, setting industrial and measure standards and overall practice policy.
Can brain really reveal profitable truths? And who profits?
In June 2015, The Guardian published a controversial article named The marketing industry has started using neuroscience, but the results are more glitter than gold. The author roughly criticizes research predictions that neuromarketing can reveal which ads will lead to most sales before they’ve been released. He uses the words “bad science”, “bullshit” and “hope”- all in one sentence. As almost everything is commercialized, neuromarketing may go sideways too, especially if it is placed in the wrong hands. However, we cannot deny that in the past 20 years, the marketplace has learned to reward things that make sense and reject those that do not.
Some marketing experts that have dealt with neuromarketing explain that the main problems neuromarketing faces are not much different than problems with marketing in general. For instance, Steve Genco stresses out two main problems with neuromarketing: lack of methodological transparency and failure to connect to behaviors and real business outcomes. But the firms are becoming more transparent and the science is publishing more.
So, should we be afraid of it, after all?
If you ask me- not at all. And as a conclusion, I am going to cite Mr. Genco (who, by the way, wrote Neuromarketing for Dummies– yes, I did read it and yes, I do recommend it as an easy-to-read introduction to NM).
Nobody can predict human behavior with 100% certainty, but there are lots of intriguing findings out there that make a pretty strong case that brain and body responses can predict behaviors better than subjective self-reports. Neuromarketing is an applied science, and it will go where it needs to go to get answers people are willing to pay for. Most in the field acknowledge its scope beyond neuroscience (e.g., encompassing social psych and behavioral economics). We should not get hung up on the name, most people even in the science hate it anyway, for just this reason.
My personal advice is to read about it, ask about it, get out of your comfort zone and you’ll realize that interesting studies are mushrooming if you are open to looking for them. And they have nothing to do with the mind- reading.
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