Neuro-Cola: Policy implications (Part 2)

Based on Dr. McClure’s research, several companies have started to apply neuroscience techniques to marketing (neuromarketing). One such company, Imagilys, which conducts fMRI experiments on people as they watch advertisements, cites Dr. McClure’s experiment as the founding article for neuromarketing. These companies promise to tap into the unconscious decision-making process of consumers so advertisers can optimize their trademarks and make their marketing more effective. Their goal is to get as close to the brain’s “buy button” as they can.

If commercial applications of this research make you worry, you are not alone. Gary Ruskin at Commercial Alert believes that neuromarketing will lead to an increased incidence of marketing-related diseases, more effective political propaganda, and more effective promotion of degraded values. Mr. Ruskin’s concerns may be the reason one neuromarketing company, BrightHouse, was already shut down.

Perhaps the most disturbing part of this work is how early branding affects our decisions. Researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine and Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital found that children as young as 3 years old prefer food in McDonald’s wrappers over the same food in an identical wrapper without the McDonald’s logo. Neuromarketing might produce advertisements that have an even stronger influence on children. There are ways, however, to restrict the uses of neuromarketing. For example, as Emily Murphy suggests, neuromarketing companies could allay concerns about brain-washing if they conform to a code of professional ethics that protects vulnerable groups.

On the other hand, there may be positive applications for this information. We discussed two such applications during the question and answer portion of Dr. McClure’s talk. (1) Neuromarketing might increase healthy behavior by developing a powerful brand for healthy food like organic or locally-grown produce. Health food groups, however, may be at a financial disadvantage in a neuromaketing war. (2) Dr. McClure proposed that this research could also be used to advocate for protecting vulnerable groups (for example, young children whose brains are still developing) from being targets of advertising campaigns. So far, the research does not seem to have been cited for this purpose.

Ultimately, these neuromarketing companies may not add much to advertising beyond what advertisers already know from focus groups and surveys, but we don’t know that. We don’t know what they are doing or for whom they are working; we know just enough to make us worry.

– Kelly Lowenberg