Neuromarketing from Home? The Evolution and Ethics of Consumer Neuroscience Research

By Alexa Mohsenzadeh

Image via Penn State on Flickr

In 2016, Ibrahima E. Diallo published a piece on this blog discussing the ethical implications of consumer neuroscience. Five years later, the field of neuromarketing has expanded quickly, and the use of neurotechnology for consumer analysis has adapted with it. As research in the field drives ahead, efforts to regulate the collection and use of neurodata are becoming increasingly important to preserve the best interests of consumers, especially given the new challenge of operating remotely as a result of the pandemic.

Recently, I spoke with two consumer neuroscientists, Dr. Sarah Yu and Dr. Matt Johnson, to gain a clearer understanding of the evolution of neuromarketing since 2016 and its impact on consumer autonomy. For seven years, Dr. Yu served as the Neuroscience Director for Nielsen’s Consumer Neuroscience business. She now runs her own consulting practice advising Fortune 500 brand teams. Dr. Johnson is the founder of the consumer behavior blog PopNeuro, and helped pioneer the Neuromarketing Bootcamp, which trains marketers to harness neuroscience in an ethical way.

Why Neuromarketing

Marketing has the power to bring people together. Our shared experiences with brands are a fundamental part of forming a shared social fabric. As Dr. Johnson puts it, “One of the things marketing does amazingly well is storytelling. We anthropomorphize brands and see them through a personalizing lens, so when it’s time to capitalize on marketing, utilizing empathy is a way to do that.” Take Kellogg’s for example. Known for their catchy slogans, Kellogg’s cereal has been a household staple since the early 20th century. Characters like Tony the Tiger increase their product appeal to young audiences and evoke nostalgia for older generations, ensuring continued consumption of their cereals throughout the years. The humanization of brands is a result of strategic marketing, because we are more inclined to purchase products that carry emotional significance (Gerashi & Fakhreddin, 2021).

Image via Mike Mozart on Flickr
Contrary to the classical view of consumers as purely rational actors, pioneering research on moral reasoning demonstrates that cognitive and emotional processes are not mutually exclusive (Greene et al., 2001). Therefore, one can reasonably assume that emotion impacts attention and decision-making, both of which are key processes involved in the act of purchasing. Given this relationship, it makes sense that consumer research methods are quickly evolving to find new ways to track the efficacy of advertisements. In comes neuromarketing, the use of neurotechnology and biometric measurements to better understand consumer preferences (Stasi et al., 2017). Though it’s difficult to quantify emotions for the purpose of mass analysis, Dr. Yu explains that researchers can draw comparisons between biometric info and neurophysiological data to understand how one’s emotional reaction to a product is expressed through “passive measurements, such as eye tracking, facial coding, and skin conductance.”

Furthermore, when asked about the value of using neurophysiological data over traditional focus groups, Dr. Yu says

“Consumers sometimes cannot tell you exactly what it is that they prefer. If your product is a sensitive type of product, people may not actually be honest about what their desires are. Neurobiological data is a lot more powerful and can be very predictive of behavior

1. Brain responses happen before a person can post-rationalize their decisions, so the data we receive is unbiased. It comes straight from the cognitive processes that will drive decision-making.

2. It can provide much richer detail on what a consumer wants. A person’s response to a piece of content is only as rich as the details they play back. You typically can’t go back and replay every second of what they were thinking. With a neurophysiological response, that signal is continuous, it’s second by second. So we, as neuroscientists, have a lot more data to work with.”

One of the primary motivations for neuromarketing relies on the assumption that consumers are unable to deliver an accurate account of their “inner truth” (Brenninkmeijer et al. 2020). In a study published in Science, Technology, & Human Values, company members affiliated with an anonymized neuromarketing consultancy, a.k.a. Neuro-X, were interviewed about their research methods (Brenninkmeijer et al. 2020). Consider this quote by an affiliate member of Neuro-X on the advantages of analyzing neurodata over expressed opinion:

“When you ask 1,000 people about their opinion, you get 999 [different] answers. When you ask 30 brains about their opinion, this says something about all people that are more or less like them. Our brains do not differ so much. (N1)”

Neuromarketing tools, like EEG and fMRI, can offer a more honest view of consumer responses, minimizing the disconnect between what a consumer really thinks and what they’re willing to communicate to others. Not only can the use of these tools improve the validity of market research results, but it also can allow researchers to scale data across a larger set of subjects compared to traditional methods (Brenninkmeijer et al. 2020). Combine the standardization of consumer responses with the improved scalability of data collection that neuromarketing research offers, and you get a favorable method for companies looking to optimize a piece of consumer-directed content.

The Impact of COVID-19 on Neuromarketing Research

How has the pandemic influenced neuromarketing? According to Dr. Yu, lab-based neuromarketing methods are evolving to be more portable. “The pandemic has shown that lab-based research has to change because if people cannot physically come into the lab, then technology has to evolve,” she says.

Image via Wikimedia Commons

“In previous times you could bring participants to a location and get insights on their neural responses. Now it’s more limited, but one solution is mailing EEG headsets and having participants directly interact with software that’s been created. The smaller devices like EEG, eye tracking, and galvanic skin response will proliferate, because you can get most of what brands want just with triangulating data on those devices,” Dr. Johnson adds. Software companies geared towards neuromarketing, like iMotions, now offer online research modules that can collect biometric data from your computer’s webcam. The iMotions value statement highlights the “portability and accessibility” of their eye tracking, facial expression analysis, electrodermal activity, and mobile EEG technologies.

As neurodata collection transitions from the lab to the laptop, it ought to be subject to the same ethical considerations. Online research software may improve the flexibility of neuromarketing, but it also makes regulation and consumer protection more difficult, as data collection is no longer limited to a subset of companies with access to lab-based technologies. Weng Marc Lim, Head of the School of Business at Swinburne University of Technology, frames the ethical concerns with neuromarketing as falling into two categories: the validity of neuroscientific methods and the protection of human subjects (Lim 2018). These concerns are amplified in the business world, where everything is fast-paced and results-driven. “Coming from academic research, the pace of research in the industry is a lot faster, and there are a lot more resources to handle the high output needed for scaling data collection at a global level. The integrity of data is paramount, so when you’re using scientific data to inform business questions, data hygiene is your reputation,” says Dr. Yu.

“The ultimate North Star for science is truth. For business, it’s action. You’re always operating under less than the total amount of information just because the speed of business doesn’t favor as much of a methodical approach that’s expected in science. Blending the two results in a combination of very different worlds, but there is incredible potential for cross-pollination between the two,” Dr. Johnson adds. His work in neuromarketing defines the nature of consumer autonomy as being two-fold—first, that consumers are “aware of the factors that may influence their decision”, and second, that consumers have the “capacity to deliberate over such factors” (Barlow & Johnson).

Image via Wikimedia Commons

The expansion of at-home technology may put consumer autonomy at risk, as more companies have direct access to tools that can disrupt our capacity to make independent purchasing decisions. The ethics of neuromarketing becomes especially relevant for vulnerable individuals, such as children and people suffering from mental illness, who may be more influenced by marketing (Barlow & Johnson). Moreover, if neuromarketing extends to other forms of messaging beyond product consumption, like political campaigns, this can raise concerns about voter agency against targeted advertisements. That being said, is consumer manipulation under neuromarketing really possible? And if it is, is it any worse than marketing practices in the status quo?

As Neil Levy, Director of Research at the Oxford Centre for Neuroethics, argues, “There is no reason to think that because we can point to internal goings-on that autonomy is more threatened than by external goings-on….One payoff might be our coming to see many current advertising practices as a kind of mental pollution, just as threatening to our autonomy as the kind of subliminal advertising widely feared, and just as ripe for political control,” (Levy 2009) The extent to which the expansion of neuromarketing can threaten consumer autonomy is up for debate. It’s possible that information collected from our online behavior is already as invasive as neuromarketing. Look at digital consumer tracking that adjusts the ads presented to an individual based on information gathered from cookies, device IDs, and geolocation. “There is value in autonomous decision making. Trying to influence our capacity for decision-making is worthy of regulatory condemnation,” Dr. Johnson says. If anything, the fear of neuromarketing exposes the perceived power that marketing can have on human behavior in general, and the necessity for regulation and reform of all market research moving forward.


References

  1. Barlow, R., & Johnson, M. (In Press). Modern Mad Men: Marketing Ethics and the Measurement of Consumer Autonomy.
  2. Brenninkmeijer, J., Schneider, T., & Woolgar, S. (2020). Witness and Silence in Neuromarketing: Managing the Gap between Science and Its Application. Science, Technology, & Human Values, 45(1), 62–86. https://doi.org/10.1177/0162243919829222
  3. Diallo, I.E. (2016). Consumer Neuroscience vs. Skepticism: An Inside Look at the Challenges of a Novel Field. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on June 2, 2021, from http://www.theneuroethicsblog.com/2016/01/consumer-neuroscience-vs-skepticism.html
  4. Greene, J.D., Sommerville, R. B., Nystrom, L. E., Darley, J. M., Cohen, J. D. (2001). An fMRI investigation of emotional engagement in moral judgment. Science 293, 2105–2108.
  5. Johnson, M., & Ghuman, P. (2021) How Branding Influences American Culture, Consumerism, and Consumer Experiences. Pop Neuro. www.popneuro.com/neuromarketing-blog/how-branding-influences-american-culture-consumerism-consumer-experiences-social-cohesion?rq=social+cohesion.  
  6. Khademi Gerashi, M. & Fakhreddin, F. (2021). Influence of emotions on purchase loyalty among child consumers: the moderating role of family communication patterns. J Market Anal. https://doi.org/10.1057/s41270-020-00095-3
  7. Levy, N. (2009). Neuromarketing: Ethical and Political Challenges. Ethics & Politics, XI, 10−17.
  8. Lim, W. (2018) Demystifying neuromarketing. Journal of Business Research. 91. 205-220. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jbusres.2018.05.036.
  9. Stasi, A., Songa, G., Mauri, M., Ciceri, A., Diotallevi, F., Nardone, G., Russo, V. (2018). Neuromarketing empirical approaches and food choice: A systematic review. Food Research International. 108. 650-664. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.foodres.2017.11.049


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Alexa Mohsenzadeh is an undergraduate student at Emory University studying Neuroscience and Behavioral Biology and Ethics. Planning to pursue human rights law post-undergrad, she is interested in the application of ethics in policymaking and immigration law. Apart from her studies in neuroscience, Alexa is actively involved in menstrual equity and reproductive justice work where she plans to combine her interests in neuroscience and human rights through neurofeminism research.


Want to cite this post?

Mohsenzadeh, A. (2021). Neuromarketing from Home? The Evolution and Ethics of Consumer Neuroscience Research. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on , from http://www.theneuroethicsblog.com/2021/06/neuromarketing-from-home-evolution-and.html

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