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Ethics of neuromarketing

Ethics of neuromarketing

In this long-read, you will read about the ethics of neuromarketing practices and learn how it can improve –instead of ruin– your reputation.

During the summer of 1957, social psychologist James Vicary shook the world with a controversial experiment. He secretly flashed messages about Coca-Cola and popcorn on the big screen. These messages were so short (3 milliseconds), that viewers were not aware of them. Vicary claimed that sales increased without a doubt: Coca-Cola by 58% and popcorn by 18%. He got the media and the world hysterical.

His subliminal advertising got the reputation of manipulating people’s minds. Vicary later denied the experiment ever took place and distanced himself from all the fuss. Subliminal advertising is still a technique that marketers use to convince someone of the benefits of their product. However, why does this work? How can it be that we respond to something we can’t even see?

Research from a new exciting field can give you the answers: it’s called neuromarketing. This new branch of marketing uses brain research to get a better understanding of consumer behaviour. In particular, it can provide insights into processes we are not aware of consciously. Some questions we are often asked are: “Is this ethical? How far can we go using this for marketing? Moreover, what practices are there that don’t impact my reputation in a bad way?” We will discuss them all in this article, so you will fully understand what’s right, and what’s not.

Combine brains with marketing

Before getting to the ethical side of the story, let us give you a brief history lesson in marketing. You can pretty much say that marketing was invented alongside money. Before the digital era, shop owners already displayed their products as appealing as possible to increase sales. In the 80’s TV and radio commercials appeared. Later on, researchers started conducting marketing research and developed important theories and models. During the 90’s, the first interest in the brain for marketing purposes arose. Ten years later, neuromarketing was born. The first research on how the consumer’s brain works were presented. The term was officially coined in 2002 by Professor Smidts of Rotterdam University. Slightly patriotic side note: this explains why many of the leading neuromarketing experts and companies are Dutch!

Neuromarketing vs marketing

Let’s compare neuromarketing with traditional marketing for your understanding. Neuromarketing gives us information about the strengths and weaknesses of marketing strategies. By measuring brain activity, you can determine the power of advertisements, websites, commercials, flyers and everything else related to your business. We are not aware of these processes and call them subconscious. A simple example is that you can predict if someone likes a certain colour or not while looking at his or her brain. That gives a lot more objective insights about consumer behaviour.

Traditional tools, like a survey, will not always provide a complete answer. People are not always honest, and sometimes they will provide answers they think the questioner wants to hear and sometimes it can be hard to express how you feel accurately. Over time, we will only get closer to making more accurate predictions of consumer behaviour with neuromarketing. Where traditional marketing focuses on what works and what does not, neuromarketing focuses on the why and how. It brings the field of marketing, neuroscience and psychology together. This gives us new, interesting insights into the consumer’s mind. You can apply neuromarketing to a broad spectrum of tools. E-mail flow, website design, video or communication are a few examples of how to improve your business.

A picture of a famous softdrink to illustrate an unethical case of applying neuromarketing to sell more softdrinks
A famous soft drink

How they practically differ

Let’s go back to Coca-Cola to show you how brain imaging can be useful for marketing. A well-known experiment by McClure et al. is perfect for demonstration. They gave their participants samples of both Pepsi and Coca-Cola. Afterwards, they looked at the preference they indicated and their measured brain activity. They noticed that there was a difference in brand preference when the participants were or were not aware of which brand they were drinking.

Interestingly, they also found a difference in brain activity. When participants were unaware of the brand they were drinking, they favoured the taste of Pepsi. Also, the brain was active in areas involved in reward. When participants were aware of the brand, they favoured the taste of coke. The brain now showed activity in areas associated with memory and emotion. The researchers concluded that the preference for Coca-Cola is influenced stronger by brand image than taste. It is a perfect example of the insights neuromarketing can provide regarding what works best for your product and marketing. Using traditional surveys and interviews it would never have come to light. Why do you like a certain colour or song? It’s hard to say. Modern brain imaging techniques can give us insights into preference, liking and satisfaction.

The ethics of neuromarketing

The main goal of marketing is to match a product with a person that shows interest in this product. It means marketing shapes the design and presentation in a specific way. As a result, products are more compatible with the consumer’s preferences. Now, the question is whether the information neuromarketing gives us is ethical. In the end, these insights tell us something about processes we are not aware of consciously. This means we can’t control them either. Questions that consumers will start to ask themselves are: “if marketers have access to this information, can they discover the ‘buy button’ in my brain? Will they try to tempt us to see their sales rise?” It is not surprising consumers will ask these questions. In the end, science and technology will get to a level where they will play a huge role in our lives. They are already doing this: Facebook is violating our privacy by selling our information to other companies, and Google knows where you are 24/7.

The important thing for you as a marketer is to know how to react to your consumer’s questions. How can you explain to someone that neuromarketing is ethical? Also, why it is a very interesting source of information.

Why neuromarketing is not necessarily wrong

Simply put, every form of marketing is—to a certain extent—a way of subconscious influencing. If you own a business, without doubt, you are influencing your consumers in various ways. One example is priming. Priming enables us to recognise information that we have previously been exposed to subconsciously. This means that exposure to one stimulus influences a response to another stimulus. It is a result of the way our memory stores information and creates associations that are automatically activated when we see, hear or smell.

A simple example is the packaging of a healthy product. Whenever this package is green, the consumer is primed with more healthy feelings and associations. Priming is present in an enormous amount of information around us, and you too will be influenced by it! Even the smallest detail can influence how we feel, think or act. This is a good example of why neuromarketing is not necessarily wrong. Why? Neuromarketing explains how an effect like priming works. Long before neuromarketing even existed, priming was already used by marketers. Think back to Vicary and his subliminal messages in the cinema. Alternatively, the smiling faces appearing on television ads in the 80’s.

Every argument against neuromarketing is thus an argument against marketing in general. It’s not about what neuromarketing does, but what people – researchers, marketers, politicians – do with the information it gives us. Another argument is that marketing is the matchmaker between a product and someone that already has an interest in this product. You are not forcing anyone out of the blue to buy your product. Marketing and neuromarketing only make products more compatible with your consumer’s preferences. They were already looking for it or thinking about buying the product. With the information neuromarketing gives us, connecting consumers to products or services becomes easier.

We will give you a hypothetical example with research based on drinking bottles. People with a high BMI prefer a thin-shaped bottle, even if this drink is higher in price. This would imply that soda manufacturers could sell more when offering their drinks in thin-shaped bottles. Is this ethically acceptable? You are not forcing anyone to buy your product. However, you are influencing people –who already have an unhealthy BMI– in the direction of consuming even more unhealthy products. This is an example of where some ethical questions may arise. How far should you go with influencing vulnerable people in an unhealthy direction? What if your influence is bad for the environment? Or if you make people unhappy?

At the same time, this information could be used to support healthy behaviour. By offering healthy drinks in thinly shaped bottles, you could increase the sale to people with an unhealthy BMI. Again, it’s not what neuromarketing tells us, but what people do with this information. Let us further explain with two unethical and two ethical cases.

Unethical cases

Never apply neuromarketing to a political campaign
It is not ethical to apply neuromarketing to political campaigns

Political campaigns

There’s a big chance neuromarketing is used to shape the campaigns of politicians. Like products, politicians will present themselves in the most favourable way to get votes. During the US election of 2004, one study looked at brain activity and political judgment. More recent research focuses on the appearance of political candidates. If people look at a losing candidate, they show more activity in the insula (a specific brain area associated with pain). The researchers concluded that negative attributions play a critical role in the elections. Furthermore, considerable neuroimaging work is done on the perception of human faces. Researchers investigated facial symmetry, skin colour and attractiveness related to brain activity. Even though this research might seem innocent now, it could have a major impact on the future. What if important, corrupt politicians know what kind of picture will lead to the most votes? Or how to shape a speech that will prime voters so strong they will win the election no matter what? This is an example of a case where neuromarketing might lead to unethical consequences.

Obese people

Research shows that people with a high BMI are prone to be more vulnerable to visual aspects of a product. Because they make impulsive decisions, labels or text will influence them more effectively. Due to the existence of fast food, sugars and processed food, the group of overweights is growing. According to the World Health Organisation, 39% of the adults worldwide are obese. This means a huge amount of people is easily being influenced in the supermarket. A 2011 study shows that brains from obese people respond differently to nutrition labels. When given an identical milkshake, they show more brain activity in reward areas if the label reads ‘regular’ compared to ‘low-fat’. This evidence shows that consumers will behave differently depending on the label or design of a product. Will obese people also respond differently to colour? An image, or touch? If marketers gain insight into these findings, they might design and offer their unhealthy products in such a way, that the vulnerable obese group will be more likely persuaded to buy them.

Ethical cases

Anti-smoking messages

If you have travelled the world, you may have noticed the difference in messages on cigarette or tobacco packaging. Here in the Netherlands, we see shocking images of physical damage caused by smoking. In Australia, a personal story about a man named Bryan is described. Bryan died six weeks after starting smoking. Indonesia’s messages are almost comical: a smoking man with a careless attitude and some skulls on the background is shown. Although there are big differences, the goal of these messages is the same. They need to inform smokers of the effect of smoking and support quitting. The fact that there is so much variety in communication shows that we do not agree on which message is the most effective.

Despite the variety, there is a large group of countries that use scary images and see a positive effect on changing behaviour. This effect is especially present whenever the fear that the images create is taken away. Cialdini describes that this happens because people often deny they will encounter the dangers of smoking. However, when you give them step-by-step information on how to change their bad habit, they face their fear and take action.

Knowing this, neuromarketing could add important insights about the brain to improve campaigns even more. Neuroscience has already been active in anti-smoking campaigns. In 2011, a study by Berkman and colleagues looked at brain scans to predict what message would most likely get people to call a quit-smoking line. They concluded that when looking at brain activity, they could make better predictions about the effects of anti-smoke messages compared to traditional surveys. This shows that people often give answers to surveys that are not completely ‘true’ or reliable. Neuromarketing can reveal this important information and complement existing marketing tools. This can help in restricting unhealthy behaviour like smoking.

Charity donations

Applying neuromarketing to charity
Applying neuromarketing to charity is considered ethical

Another ethical practice of neuromarketing is to use it for charities. We often see charity advertisements on television showing ill and starving children in Africa that should persuade us to donate. However, does this make us donate (more)? A recent study by Schlosser & Levy (2016) shows that we are more willing to donate whenever we view ourselves as being better off than someone else. This phenomenon is called downward comparison and is most effective whenever a charity highlights the benefits of the donations for others. This means that an advertisement that shows happy children who are—due to the donation—able to go to school will be more effective in raising donations. When looking at the brain, neuroscientists found that the striatum is activated while donating and experiencing feelings of reward. This means that donating or being kind to others results in more happiness for the donator too. A win-win situation if you ask us!

Is neuromarketing interesting for you?

Neuromarketing is interesting for every marketer who is curious about how their consumers’ brains work. Do you want to know more about the emotional aspect of your products? Dig deeper into the question of why people would or would not choose to use your product? Or are you curious as to why people visit your webshop but leave the funnel before buying your product? In all these cases, neuromarketing might be the answer. Big companies like Google, Walt Disney and XBOX (Microsoft) use neuromarketing to see how engaged their consumers are. Of course, there are differences in the budget for every business. Brain imaging is not the cheapest option, but more simple and usable tools are becoming available. With neuromarketing becoming more popular, the number of experts is also growing. Furthermore, new research done on the consumer’s brain is published frequently. The brain is hot and will be even better understood in the future. The brain is involved in everything we do and therefore plays a huge role in your business. Be smart and anticipate before the rest of the marketing world does.

Keep your reputation with trust

With all this excitement neuromarketing gives us comes a threat. Consumers might start to believe the knowledge about their brain violates their privacy. They might feel manipulated towards something they don’t consciously support. Consumers perceive the use of neuromarketing as less ethical if a company uses it for purely profit-driven motives. When used by companies that add value or are non-profit organisations (NPOs) they perceive it as a good thing.

Why do consumers make this distinction? NPOs are, in general, viewed as more trustworthy. A stronger feeling of trust towards the NPOs results in the acceptation that they use neuromarketing for their business. This also is related to the thought that with neuromarketing, NPOs will reach their goals that will add value to public goods. If an organisation has a primarily profit-driven motive, neuromarketing is viewed as less ethical. What does this mean for your own company? If you publicly use neuromarketing, make sure you build trust with your customers. Give your customers reasons to believe your product or service can help or add value to the public. For eCommerce, there are various ways to do this. For example, you can add trust badges, testimonials or a chatbot. Read more on how to create trust

Code of ethics

The reason why people perceive neuromarketing as being either good or bad supports the ethical and unethical cases we described. Is a company that produces unhealthy soda drinks using it to increase sales to obese people? Bad. There is no added value, they don’t help others (they  support unhealthy behaviour), and their goal is purely profit driven. Is a company using information about the brain to increase a charity campaign? Good! This helps others, so it adds value to society. Again, it’s not about what neuromarketing does, but what others do with the information it provides. Various researchers, therefore, plead for a strict code of ethics. This aims to protect groups (like the obese) that could be harmed by neuromarketing. A good example is the NMSBA Code of Ethics. They created this code to make sure that the highest ethical standards for the neuromarketing industry will be maintained. For a smaller online business, make sure that your customers trust you. If this trust is not present, they might view neuromarketing as a manipulative tool. High levels of trust and low levels of perceived risk are the keys to success.

The pros and cons of neuromarketing

We’ve covered a large part of the ethics of neuromarketing showing some of the advantages and disadvantages it can entail. Here is a final pros and cons overview.

Pros

  • Provides fresh, innovative insights; neuromarketing is innovative because it gives new information that traditional marketing is not capable of. It provides us with knowledge about the brain that is not visible with the naked eye;
  • Neuromarketing can add value to consumers and society; If it’s used for products and services that help others, support healthy behaviour or makes the connection between consumers and products easier;
  • Able to investigate subconscious responses; with its techniques, we can look at brain activity and reactions to marketing tools (like an advertisement) that consumers are not aware of;
  • Gives more objective measurements; especially when you ask consumers about preference or taste, their answers are often very subjective. Neuromarketing gives more objective results;
  • Measures emotional responses; emotion plays a huge role in our decision making, but it’s often difficult to measure. With techniques like facial coding, it’s possible to measure emotions related to a package, website or colour.

Cons

  • Findings from techniques like fMRI are hard to generalise; because samples are often relatively small (around 15 people) it’s difficult to draw conclusions that relate to every consumer;
  • Brain imaging has its limitations and is still relatively new; a big disadvantage of fMRI is that it doesn’t give you ‘live’ images. Researchers can not see how the brain reacts to an advertisement or photo in real time;
  • The brain is still a big mystery for researchers; we usually don’t know anything 100% for sure. There is no one-to-one map available of the brain. Different functions will always show overlap with different brain areas.

Despite the disadvantages, neuromarketing has, it still can provide some useful tools. Especially when looking at the future, some of the cons might disappear when new developments are made. Techniques will become more advanced but also more affordable. It is already possible to buy your eye-tracking glasses!

Practical takeaways

We hope this article gave you insights into the ethical and unethical sides of neuromarketing. As a marketer, the techniques and tools you choose can either make or break your product. Think smart and keep the needs of your customer in mind. Both traditional marketing and neuromarketing have their advantages and strengths. They tell us something about how consumers (or people in general) make decisions, conscious or subconscious. If we made you curious about neuromarketing, contact us so we can help you with integrating it into your business. Any questions? Get in touch! Or learn more about neuromarketing with these 20 neuromarketing books you must read!


Milou Odekerken

A passion for writing combined with fascination for the brain to give you the best neuromarketing content!

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