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It’s all in the media, ethics discussions and blogosphere. Neuromarketing is a bad thing. It holds all the promises of using technology to improve marketing efforts, use covert persuasion and stealth marketing. As such, neuromarketing companies are providing the tools for companies to persuade consumers to choose their product.

Just as you can see neuromarketing companies popping up with the same message: we can predict liking, attention, emotion, consciousness, purchase intent…(use your own word), there is an equal share of people voicing their fear and skepticism agains this kind of neuromarketing. Suffice to say, most of those critics take the neuromarketing hype for granted.

Luckily, there are more sober treatments of neuromarketing. Take, for example, a listing of seven sins of neuromarketing. Indeed, the main problem with neuromarketing is that it is still untested! There is still no shared validation of the different methods, tools and analyses. As opposed to tests for the effectiveness of medication, or even the predictive power of neuropsychological tests, there are clear effect measures that one needs to address. If your medication does not work better than a placebo treatment, you’re not allowed to sell it. If your predictive test for Alzheimer’s Disease shows a low positive or negative predictive value, it won’t be used, let alone published.

None of this is yet happening in commercial neuromarketing. This is the real problem with the current debate on neuromarketing: companies claim effective measures, but users are not able to check the validity of such claims. On the other hand, the gross overstatements of neuromarketing tool efficacy, combined with the lack of proper information, leads to criticism, fear and skepticism.

But this is a wholly one-sided approach to neuromarketing. Just because these approaches are the loudest, they need not be the most representative. Here, I provide two alternative accounts of neuromarketing. Indeed, they may seem so different, that even researchers consider changing the name of such approaches to “consumer neuroscience”, “decision neuroscience” and the like. But at it’s core, it is still neuromarketing.

Academic neuromarketing

A different take than the “commercial neuromarketing” industry is stressing the scholarly values that neuromarketing can provide. At its base, marketing itself is often defined as “the activity, set of institutions, and processes for creating, communicating, delivering, and exchanging offerings that have value for customers, clients, partners, and society at large”. Moreover, marketing science is the attempt to understand the processes of such efforts, including how consumers attend to, respond to and are influenced by communication efforts.

For scientists in the cognitive neurosciences, this provides a wonderful model behaviour for research. Since we all make consumer choices each day, it is a behaviour that is easily understood during testing, and tests can be designed in such ways that subjects engage without much training, yet the test remains sufficiently controlled for empirical assessment. This is important when doing neuroimaging research, where the low signal to noise ration most often requires multiple repetitions of the same kind of behaviour.

In this way, neuromarketing is an academic approach to better understand how information leads to changes in attention, emotional responses, preference formation, choices and learning. While most discussions of neuromarketing is unidirectional – neuroscience tools being used to test marketing efforts – this take suggests that neuroscientists should cherish the golden opportunity to use marketing and consumer actions to better understand the human mind.

Debiasing aberrant behaviours

Much of the (neuro)ethics debate on neuromarketing suggests that it can affect consumer decisions significantly, possibly without subjective access to such effects. Prominent neuroethicists such as Judy Illes have debated the effects of “stealth marketing,” and this is indeed a valid concern.

However, much of this debate still seems to miss the major insights made through behavioural economics and neuroeconomics: subjects deviate from rational choices, are affected by information (overt as well as covert), and most decisions can be traced back to unconscious antecedents. Indeed, if our “normal” choices are based on processes in our minds that we are not ourselves privy to, why is “stealth marketing” a problem? This claim raises the bar for which consumer decisions can be considered valid, to a level that no normal decisions can be found. If the bases of your behaviours are not the result of conscious and deliberate processes, how can you expect to make rules and laws prohibiting communication efforts affecting your unconscious?

Put differently: should we ban facial expression, intonation and gestures? Maybe brands should be banned altogether, because the value they signify are not readily available to our awareness, yet affect our behaviour significantly.

Better than focusing on these pointless and anachronistic assumptions, is to use neuromarketing for the sake of improving the life of people. In the study of marketing effects and consumer behaviour, we learn how we are affected by information, how biological mechanisms change our motivations, and how our choices are biased and affected “naturally,” and without our awareness of such effects.

In particular, we also get to know how aberrant consumer decisions occur, ranging from impulse control disorders and behavioural addictions such as “shopaholism” and pathological/problem gambling, to other unhealthy behaviours such as obesity.

In this way, neuromarketing can be a window to new insights into many conditions. It is worth considering two approaches here:

Debiasing decisions – Given the insights provided by behavioural economics and neuroeconomics, we have come to realise that our decisions are not rational or optimal. Our choices are suboptimal and there is much room for improvement. With the knowledge gained from neuromarketing and related disciplines, we can ut this knowledge to use. Consumers can be trained in making better decisions, better at controlling the decision making process and having an improved insights into factors affecting one’s choices. Based on this, debiasing decisions is a means to improve overall wealth for each individual, and to take better control of one’s own mind and behaviour. If is anywhere the famous dictum dictum “know thyself” would make sense, this is it.

Improving health – Better insights into the factors involved in aberrant consumer behaviours will have three main effects, driven by the increased knowledge into its mechanisms, causes and effects:

  1. Improve detection – we will be better at picking up, defining and predicting aberrant behaviours, even before they manifest clinically
  2. Nuanced aetiology – our knowledge of a specific phenomenon will possibly provide sub-categories of a particular disease (e.g., there is a difference between being a pathological gambler playing slot machines, poker or online games)
  3. Better treatment – early detection and intervention and improved understanding leads to increased probability of improved and more specific treatment efforts

In sum, neuromarketing should be treated as a much more heterogenous concept. It does not – at least should not – belong to commercial parties alone. Just as marketing and medicine both host academic and commercial approaches, neuromarketing should have an equal share of both. Only through this realisation we will be able to grab the problem with over-commercialised neuromarketing by the root.


3 Responses to “Dodging the one-sided approach to neuromarketing”

  1. suleyman rasul says:

    im not particularly sure about the equal share of both idea. leaving the good and bad uses aside, neuromarketing will mainly become a commercial tool. the points you have mentioned dont encompass a vast array of topics for neuromarketing, its potential use or its most sought after use will be commercial in the future.

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