Neuroethics

Consumer Manipulation and Neuromarketing

Sampath Rapuri


Abstract

In recent years, neuromarketing, a field of marketing using neuropsychological approaches to study consumers’ behavior, has come under increasing scrutiny. Neuromarketing, also known as consumer neuroscience, gives companies new tools to better understand consumers’ purchasing behaviors. These tools include cutting-edge neuroimaging technologies like fMRI, which measures changes in the brain’s blood flow to visualize brain activity, and MEG (magnetoencephalography), which maps brain activity by recording the brain’s magnetic fields. However, user data is arguably the most effective and potent tool in neuromarketing. According to Wired  Silicon Valley giants like Google and Facebook are rushing to monopolize this new field; thus, with the help of the latest advances in neuroscience, neuromarketing can influence and possibly manipulate consumer behavior on a massive scale [1].

 

What Makes Neuromarketing Different?

Some may argue that traditional marketing has always been and continues to be the most potent way of influencing consumers. Traditional marketing employs consumer surveys, focus groups, and external observation to gather data about what people think, feel, and believe. Companies can use that data to appeal to consumers’ decision-making processes [3]. This is, however, a flawed view. Neuromarketing, unlike traditional marketing, tries to gain insight into the decision-making processes happening at an unconscious level. Moreover, neuromarketing eliminates bias by not using any self-report 

methodologies. If only the conscious processes were looked at, as is the case in traditional marketing, a marketing campaign may fail. That was the case when the Coca-Cola Company altered their recipe for Coca-Cola in 1985. When they conducted taste tests, focus groups, and surveys, as is typical of traditional marketing, they received an overwhelmingly positive response; however, they failed to look at consumers’ automatic emotional reactions to the change, which was overwhelmingly negative. Thus, the Coca-Cola Company could not anticipate consumers’ unconscious behaviors, and their marketing campaign was an utter disaster [4]. 

 

A Threat to Society

Neuromarketing, a powerful tool, allows companies to effectively influence consumers’ unconscious behavior. However, companies could extend this influence over consumers and attempt to manipulate them.

Notably, the 2016 U.S. presidential election provided an insight into the dangers that neuromarketing can pose to society. One of the most controversial players in the election, Cambridge Analytica, a prominent data analytics firm, was found to have sold the data from 50 million Facebook profiles to the Donald Trump and Ted Cruz campaigns to convince American “political consumers” to give their votes to them; concerningly,  Cambridge Analytica and Facebook didn’t bother acknowledging any privacy concerns [5].

Ultimately, services provided by companies like Cambridge Analytica that use neuromarketing for political purposes may undermine the quality of democracy. For a country firmly established on the ideals of democracy, allowing such interference in the democratic process would risk losing principles of democracy like political freedom and slipping into the grasp of tyranny.

Moreover, neuromarketing is fueling the obesity epidemic. According to a report by the World Health Organization, snack companies use neuromarketing to gather information and target children’s vulnerabilities. Now, obesity rates among U.S. teenagers have quadrupled over the past four decades, with one out of three teens being either overweight or obese [6]. Neuromarketing presents a grave threat to public health.

 

What’s Next?

Accordingly, neuromarketing has the potential to infringe on consumers’ freedom to withhold private thoughts; thus, it presents a unique threat to the right of freedom of thought stated in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience” [7]. Governments are expected to tackle the issue of neuromarketing and maintain mental sovereignty for all their people. Presumably, governments could either consider an absolute ban on any commercial uses of neuroimaging, which pertains mostly to neuromarketing, or they could regulate and impose rules about the benefits of neuromarketing.

Consider the option of an outright ban on the commercial uses of neuroimaging. France has already made the commercial use of neuroimaging illegal through its bioethics laws: “Brain-imaging methods can be used only for medical or scientific research purposes or in the context of court expertise” [8]. However, this was a controversial move and would not be supported in every country. For example, in the United States, under a landmark Supreme Court decision, “the general rule is that the speaker and the audience, not the government, assess the value of the information presented. Thus, even a communication that does no more than propose a commercial transaction is entitled to the coverage of the First Amendment” [9]. The ban on neuromarketing would also eliminate anti-smoking campaigns and charity programs, which rely on neuromarketing techniques to acquire donations. While an outright ban on neuromarketing may effectively curb its infringement on individual freedoms, it also eliminates many of its positive and ethical uses. However, if neuromarketing infringes on people’s right to private thoughts, is it ethical to use it, even if it is for a useful purpose?

In contrast, regulating neuromarketing would benefit both companies seeking to use neuromarketing and charity programs. Regulation of neuromarketing arises from the need for transparency. By adequately monitoring neuromarketing to secure consumers’ rights without enforcing excessively strict guidelines on the free market, progress and advancement of neuromarketing can be ensured. However, because of the grave ramifications of neuromarketing, it’s prudent to monitor neuromarketing not only within corporations but also through governmental means, which would allow for the creation of standardized regulations that can control the potential ethical implications of neuromarketing [10].

 

Conclusion

Neuromarketing will continue to grow in popularity with the ultimate goal of finding the mystical “buy” button in consumers’ brains. According to 360 Market Updates, a market intelligence and advisory firm, it is expected to grow by 15.6 % by 2025 [11]. It’s clear that as the field develops, the gravity of the potential problems of neuromarketing will increase. Thus, the question of how governments will adequately deal with neuromarketing in a way that doesn’t infringe upon any rights remains.


References


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Sampath Rapuri

Sampath Rapuri


I'm Sampath Rapuri, a current junior, interested in all things related to biology. Neuroscience has always been something that's fascinated me, so I continue to pursue it whenever I can.