Thursday, August 25, 2011

Ethical Dimensions of Neuromarketing

Subliminal messaging has always been a fascinating topic: Can we (should we) manipulate people's thoughts, choices, and subsequent behaviors by tapping into their private subconscious space, below the threshold of conscious perception? Subliminal messaging via wearing headphones to listening to recordings meant to induce weight loss or confidence-building has been deemed as the relatively innocuous self-help realm. Subliminal messaging used for marketing purposes has been greeted with a bit more judgment and suspicion. We know that current marketing techniques utilize interviews with focus groups to sell a variety of products. These interview data are then correlated with behavioral (purchasing decision) data. But why not cut out the middle (wo)man--namely you, the consumer--and go straight to your brain?

This is precisely what several companies have begun to do. "Don't just advertise. Neurotise" is the slogan of the the new Houston neuromarketing firm Neurotise. Another company, EmSense touts "A Window into the Mind of the Consumer." Mindsign boasts, "Don’t rely on focus groups and consumers' ability to express their opinions about your product, let their minds speak for themselves." A list of neuromarketing companies has been compiled by a one neuromarketing blogger here. A video from the Discovery Science Channel featuring Mindsign can be viewed below.

What makes neuromarketing such an exciting tool? The idea of mind reading is the kind of lore we want to believe, and that "we" includes the marketers and consumers alike. Companies like Yahoo, Microsoft, Frito-Lay, Hyundai, Paypal, and Chevron have all been cited as utilizing neuromarketing. What exactly are the ethical issues of using neurotechnologies that measure brain activity for non-medical purposes like marketing. Is neuromarketing really worse than low-tech methods that are also used to meet the goal of making more money? An extensive list exploring the ethical issues of neuromarketing have been discussed by Ariely and Berns in Nature Reviews Neuroscience. I have summarized just a few of them below 1. Mind Reading and Privacy of thoughts: Will data collected about an individual's preference's regarding, say, potato chips be used to understand preferences outside of potato chip preference, like one's morality or sexual orientation? At this time this is not the case. Specific areas of the brain do not have exclusive rights to specific thoughts. This is beyond the capability of neurotechnology. Neuroscience data, such as colorized brain images often make non-neuroscientist readers assume they understand more than they do. We must always keep in mind that functional brain imaging technology is purely correlation and is best used as a non-invasive way to explore human behavior and generate data-based hypotheses about about neural mechanisms of human cognition. While these brain images give information about the individual's behavior while in the scanner, images cannot predict future behavior or necessarily retroactively explain behavior. 2. Regulation: Related to privacy and consumer protection, how will neuromarketing be regulated? Currently MRI scans for non-clinial purposes such as neuromarketing are not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), nor regulated by Institutional Review Boards (IRB) that work to approve, monitor, and approve research with human subjects to protect the rights and welfare of the individuals subjected to study. One related concern is how to handle abnormal findings detected in brain scans. According to Illes et al, 2006, approximately 1% of the population will have abnormal scans. Some may be false positives; others may warrant a medical referral. There is no standard protocol or regulation on how to handle these situations. 3. Consumer vs. company goals: What if the company doesn't have the consumers' best interests in mind when using neuromarketing? Companies ultimately design products that consumers want to buy. However, a maximization of profit may come to the the consumer detriment. In this sense, the utilization of neuromarketing is not different than current marketing methods. Ultimately, the solution will be to make sure proper regulations are in place to protect those participating in neuromarketing research. Subjects must be made aware of what the purpose of the market research is and how the results will be used. In this way, subjects can decide to agree on how their individual brains scans are utilized before participating in neuromarketing research. In addition, neuroscientists must be involved in conversations on how neuroimaging data can or cannot be correlated with social behavior and deeper brain mechanisms. In sum, we must exercise "neuro-caution," while appreciating the exciting discoveries we are making about human behavior using neurotechnologies.

Want to cite this post?
Rommelfanger, K. (2011). Ethical Dimensions of Neuromarketing. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on , from

Recommended Watching and Reading:
60 minutes:"How Technology May Some Day Read Your Mind" Aired June 2009 (Featuring Paul Root Wolpe, PhD, Director of the Center for Ethics at Emory University)

Title: Neuromarketing: the hope and hype of neuroimaging in business Authors: Dan Ariely & Gregory S. Berns (Co-authored by Distinguished Professor of Neuroeconomics at Emory University, Greg Berns MD, PhD) Publisher: Nature Reviews Neuroscience 11, 284-292 (2010)

Title: Ethical use of Neuroscience Authors: Karen S. Rommelfanger & Paul Boshears (Co-authored by Emory Neuroethics Program Assistant Director, Karen Rommelfanger, PhD) Publisher: American Journal of Bioethics Neuroscience 2, 19-21 (2011)


Cate Powell said...

In regards to "neuro-caution" I'm still unclear as to whether neuro-imaging is an effective marketing tool. Have their been studies done on success rates? Or perhaps it is impossible to judge what truly motivates consumers.

The Neuroethics Program @ Emory University said...

Great point, Cate. This is a legitimate concern and there is little published peer-reviewed data on the methods that most neuromarketing firms use. In addition, analyses are primarily run by private neuromarketing industries who have a vested interest in their data being favorable (and little interested in sharing proprietary information with competitors).

A great blog post at addresses these issues: