Donate Now

The Ethics of Neuromarketing

Over a six week period in the summer of 1957, some fifty thousand Americans apparently fell victims to mind control. When news broke, the public was outraged and the media hysterical. Yet the ‘experiment’ at the heart of this controversy never took place. During the summer of 1957, a cinema in Fort Lee, New Jersey, was showing Picnic starring William Holden and Kim Novak. What audiences, who packed the theatre’s 2,500 seat auditorium, did not know was that James McDonald Vicary, a 42-year-old market researcher was, or so he would subsequently claim, using them as unwitting lab rats.

A Buy-Button in Your Brain?
At a press conference he had called, Vicary described how he had installed a device in the projection booth which, every five seconds, flashed two advertising messages onto the screen. One read ‘THIRSTY DRINK COCACOLA’ and the other ‘HUNGRY? EAT POPCORN’. Because each appeared for only 3 milliseconds no one in the audience was consciously aware of them. Despite this, Vicary claimed, sales of Coca-Cola had increased by 18.1 % and popcorn by 58%.

“This innocent little technique,” he boasted “is going to sell a hell of a lot of goods.” Perhaps fearful of missing out on the next ‘big thing’, advertising agencies besieged his offices, offering contracts and retainers which, according to some reports, amounted to $4.5 million, or around $22.5 million at today’s value. But even as the ink was drying on the contracts, hostility to subliminal advertising was mounting.

One journalist described subliminal advertising as “…the most alarming and outrageous discovery since Mr. Gatling invented his gun” (1) while Saturday Review editor Norman Cousins ended an article, entitled Smudging the Subconscious, by urging the authorities “to take this invention and everything connected to it and attach it to the centre of the next nuclear explosive scheduled for testing.” (2)

In less than twelve months subliminal advertising was transformed from a technique for selling products to one with the potential to manipulate minds and undermine democracies. Contracts were torn up, the process made illegal and James Vicary disappeared from New York without leaving a forwarding address. In 1963 he resurfaced to admit to an advertising magazine that the ‘experiment’ had never taken place. It was all a PR stunt aimed at saving his near bankrupt business!

I have described this ‘experiment’ and the reactions it provoked in some detail, because the evidence suggests that Vicary’s fantasy of covertly influencing public minds might very soon become a reality. Indeed that reality could even already be here. By using brain imaging techniques to explore the consumers’ subconscious thoughts and emotions, neuromarketing companies are seeking to develop commercial messages fine-tuned to be maximally persuasive. The unanswered question is whether they are also developing ways of influencing the buying decisions of shoppers without their ever being aware of the fact.

The Birth of Neuromarketing
The term Neuromarketing was coined by Professor Al Schmidt of Rotterdam University, in 2002. Shortly after, commercial interest in this new type of market research exploded. Millions of dollars were invested in setting up ‘neuromarketing’ laboratories around the world, major multi-national organisations fell over each other to get involved and new companies sprang up offering ‘brain-based’ insights about consumer preferences.

These were, they claimed, far superior to all other market research techniques because, by directly peering into a consumer’s brain they could far more precisely predict buying behaviour. Neuromarketing, therefore, purports to provide ostensibly superior information to that obtained by traditional means, such as surveys and focus groups, about consumer preferences.

Initially such claims were treated with scepticism by neuroscientists who alleged that much of what was being claimed was mere hype. A 2004 editorial in Nature Neuroscience, for example, described neuromarketing as ‘little more than a new fad, exploited by scientists and marketing consultants to blind corporate clients with science.’ (3) It was alleged those companies were offering little more than snake oil to clients who didn’t properly understand what they were buying. “They operate on the greater fool principle”, a neuroscience colleague told me in 2003. “They assume their customers to be greater fools than they are.” If this were still the case there would be no grounds for concern. However, recent advances in our understanding of brain function and the ways in which it can be imaged now cause many in the neuroscience community to revise their

The Technology of Neuromarketing
Although other techniques for exploring the unconscious mind have been developed and while, in my view, the mining of Big Data poses a greater threat to personal privacy and freedom of choice, it is the two most frequently used forms of technology EEG and fMRI which still arouse the greatest concerns.

EEG involves attaching electrodes to the scalp of volunteers and recording changes in the brain’s electrical activity while that person is, for example, watching TV advertisements, studying packaging designs or shopping in supermarkets. By analysing the patterns it is possible to learn a great deal about the attention paid to each scene, how memorable they are and whether they generated positive or negative emotional valance.

During an fMRI scan the blood flow in the brain is detected. Since regions working the hardest require additional supplies of oxygen and therefore an increase in blood supply, this provides insights into cerebral function. If, for example, more blood is sent to the region responsible for consolidating short-term memory (the hippocampus) it suggests the product or commercial being viewed is likely to stick in the mind.

The Ethics of Brain Imaging
Both EEG and fMRI raise ethical issues which fall into two main categories:

(1) The protection of those who may be harmed or exploited by the research, marketing, and deployment of neuromarketing.
(2) The protection of consumer autonomy.

When it comes to protecting those involved in neuromarketing studies, one cause for concern are so-called ‘incidental’ findings, which can affect up to 6% of participants. Suppose, for example, that while scanning the brain of a subject taking part in market research the operator notices an anomaly. Could it be a tumour? Unless he or she is a medical doctor or a qualified radiologist – which in my experience they seldom are – what should the company do? Does it have a responsibility to inform the subject, possibly scaring the life out of him or her for what may well be a false positive (i.e. no pathology exists), or to remain silent?

Stealth Neuromarketing
Because neuromarketing companies and their clients, perhaps unsurprisingly, shroud their findings in commercial confidentiality it is impossible to know whether or not brain imaging has resulted in any new and uniquely powerful methods for influencing the buying public. Have they, in short, discovered what might be called a ‘buy button’ in the brain? My guess is that, at least at the time of writing, they have not. It would, however, be overly complacent to believe this situation will continue. Especially since recent studies have demonstrated Vicary’s dream of subliminally influencing choices was no fantasy.

In a study (4) conducted by Johan C. Karremans and his colleagues at the Department of Social Psychology at Radboud University, Nijmegen, participants watched a string of capital letters moving rapidly across a computer screen. Occasionally a lower-case letter appeared and their task was to notice this change. The task finished, they were asked to suck a salty sweet called a dropje. Finally, each was offered a choice of Lipton Ice tea or a mineral water to quench their thirst. Unbeknown to them, while watching the strings of letters, the words Lipton Ice had been flashed onto the screen for 23 milliseconds. Too rapid to be consciously perceived, this brief exposure proved sufficient to cause a majority of those exposed to the message to choose the tea over the water.

Will Voluntary Regulation be Effective?
In the past few years many neuromarketing companies, recognising these concerns, have formed an association and established regulations to address such ethical worries. While welcome, only time will tell whether a voluntary code will prove any more effective in controlling neuromarketing than it did with newspapers.

“We have lots of choices or do we?” asks Erika Rosenberg, in Mindfulness and Consumerism. “What and how much we consume stems more from unconscious choices than from mindful deliberation. Advertising capitalises on this automaticity to exploit the insatiable need for fulfilment that burdens many modern humans in industrialised countries.” (5)

But, as I explain in my book, perhaps the most effective form of defence for consumers is to follow the ancient maxim Caveat emptor. Not so much as ‘let the buyer beware’ as ‘let the buyer be aware.’ For it is only through a recognition of the power and reach of the persuasion industry that customers will be able to recognise and resist the myriad neuroscience techniques that now confront them in the brave new world of the ultimate brain sell.

Read more about how we use Cookies in our Privacy Policy.


We need your help!

We host talks, concerts, performances, community and social events. However, we are an independent charity and receive no funding from the government. Everything we do is dependent upon our commercial activity and the generosity of supporters like you.

Donate Now