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A Corner on the Neuromarket

By Sol Lee

This post was written as part of a class assignment from students who took a neuroethics course with Dr. Rommelfanger in Paris of Summer 2016.

Sol Lee studies Neuroscience and Behavioral Biology at Emory University. As a pre-med student, he is enthusiastic about primary care and global health concerns. Sol is currently doing research on glutamate receptors in Parkinson’s Disease in the Smith Lab.

Ever since its inception in 2002 [1], neuromarketing has been a rapidly developing and highly controversial field. Neuromarketing employs neuroscience research in order to advertise products and services and is primarily utilized by companies to better understand the brain’s responses to marketing stimuli and advertising [2]. Methods include analysis of galvanic skin response, which can be used to measure stress, and eye tracking, which measures eye location and movement. Common medical research techniques such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which measures brain activity by detecting changes in cerebral blood flow, and electroencephalography (EEG), which measures electrical activity in the brain, are also utilized [3]. With these techniques, neuromarketing promises to create advertising methods that are more impactful and enticing. Although neuromarketing holds much potential in this regard, there are concerns about the ethical implications of this emerging field. Concerns about neuromarketing include the potential for deceptive consumer coercion, infringement of consumer privacy rights, complicating legal ramifications, and inappropriate weighting of private versus public interests. This paper will attempt to address concerns about neuromarketing and propose guidelines for a proper course of action.

Neuroscience technologies used in neuromarketing are relatively new [5]. As neuromarketing techniques advance and become more effective, there is a growing concern that consumers might be deceived into buying a product that they do not want or need. While this may seem no different than typical marketing strategies of the past, a new ethical concern arises with neuromarketing due to its potential to apprehend the research participant’s information beyond their conscious awareness and circumvent consumers’ rational thought processes. A study in 2004 [6] gained widespread attention when its results highlighted this possibility. In this study, fMRIs revealed higher levels of activation in brain regions associated with reward when participants drank Pepsi as opposed to Coke. However, when participants were told that they were drinking Coke, fMRIs revealed activation in brain regions associated with memory and emotional processing. This phenomenon was not observed when participants were told they were drinking Pepsi. This study provides evidence against the common belief that consumer preferences directly align with the physical properties of the product. Rather, past experiences and exposure to marketing might affect our preferences and decisions in a top-down manner.

Image courtesy Wikicommons.

The government grants freedoms such as free speech and free market, but even those freedoms must be monitored to ensure the rights of citizens. For instance, it is illegal for a person to shout “fire” in the middle of a crowd when there is no fire because that person’s right to free speech will interfere with other people’s rights to general public safety [7]. In a similar manner, within the existence of a ‘free’ market, in order to make informed, rational decisions, consumers have the right to be given adequate and accurate information when purchasing products or services. The FTC regulates laws that protect consumers on a national level, and many states have adopted legislation such as the Uniform Deceptive Trade Practices Act [8], which protects consumers’ rights to accurate product information.

Another ethical issue regards the privacy of consumers. The aim of neuromarketing is to understand not only articulable thoughts, but also subconscious ones that cannot be so readily expressed [3]. As neuromarketers collect large amounts of data and attempt to find the mystical “buy” button in the brain, personal thoughts that belong to individuals may not be so private anymore. Although neuroscience techniques such as fMRI used in neuromarketing are relatively safe and non-intrusive [5], damage done to individuals because of privacy infringements can be just as harmful. Freedom of religion and freedom of expression are widely known and accepted. Freedom of thought, although less acknowledged, is just as important. Freedom of thought is the right of an individual to have a distinct opinion or viewpoint. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations in 1948, guarantees this right to all individuals [9]. Although it may be unintentional, neuromarketing has the potential to infringe on the freedom of individuals to withhold (which is the largest difference between neuromarketing and older marketing strategies) and maintain private thoughts.

One of the key steps in addressing the ethical concerns of neuromarketing is realizing the need for transparency. Although extensive research on human behavior and decision-making has been done at research institutes, the applications of this research are primarily being explored in the private industry. Conflict of interest due to competition suggests that there is minimal sharing of neuromarketing techniques and knowledge between companies that conduct neuromarketing research [10]. Searching the term “neuromarketing” on PubMed gives a mere 38 hits (compare this to over 85,000 hits given by “Parkinson’s Disease”). Neuromarketing is an issue that has the potential to affect almost every American on a daily basis, and because of the possible ethical issues detailed above, it is important that these research methods and neuromarketing knowledge are monitored to ensure appropriate development of research methods and treatment of research participants.

Image courtesy of Ajtel

The need for transparency and the ethical implications of neuromarketing necessitate regulations and monitoring. Just as in the food industry [11], the field of neuromarketing can utilize self-regulation initiatives to protect consumer rights while pursuing their own agenda; this will also reduce the need for large, stringent government oversight. However, because of the serious implications of neuromarketing, it is prudent to monitor neuromarketing not only within companies, but also on a broader scope through governmental means. The Federal Trade Commission plays a role in overseeing laws regarding marketing and advertising [12]. The United States Department of Health and Human Services is responsible for protecting the health of all Americans [13]. The task of regulating neuromarketing requires knowledge about current neuroscience technologies as well as the ways in which businesses operate. Therefore, a new government agency that is supported by both of these larger agencies should be formed to ensure the proper ethical development of neuromarketing.

This new agency should create standardized regulations that emphasize the potential ethical implications of neuromarketing. Because of the specialized nature of neuromarketing, comprehensive training that outlines the importance and implications of neuromarketing should be required for those working directly with neuromarketing methods. Training modules should be developed by both neuroscientists and businesspersons, and the rights and interests of both consumers and companies should be considered. Although there is a fine line between fair encouragement and illegal deception, it is also important to consider the rights of companies as well. Within the context of a free market, businesses have a right to develop and sell products. Regulating neuromarketing within the private sector must balance the rights of private companies alongside the rights of the consumers. Research that is being conducted should also be monitored by this agency, which would act as a nonpartisan party between companies and consumers. Research regarding ethical questions such as “to what extent can neuromarketing affect and circumvent the ability to make reasonable and logical decisions?” and “what people groups are susceptible to neuromarketing, and how can we protect them?” should be carefully monitored and later integrated in order to continually regulate and reform this field.

Neuromarketing is limited, to a certain extent, by technology. At this time, explicit reading of minds is impossible because current neuroscience techniques like fMRI and EEG only allow for more general analysis of the brain and its functions. However, just as the rudimentary cell phone evolved into the sophisticated smartphone after a mere 20 years [14], the field of neuromarketing may also develop at a shocking rate. And if it does, it is important that regulations and measures are put into place before there are any serious consequences. One grim thought to consider is this: if neuromarketing finds a way to bypass rational thought, then will issues such as gambling, obesity, and alcoholism, (into which companies may indirectly invest billions of dollars [15]) become even more rampant?

Although neuromarketing has promising potential, the field may face opposition because of the belief that the main purpose of neuromarketing is to hijack the mind [16]. This may be the reason why neuromarketing research is banned in France [17]. However, current technology suggests that this ominous outcome is unlikely because the aggregate brain is highly complex, and external factors only play a partial role in influencing behavior. Additionally, just as a person can be influenced to make a poor judgment in purchasing a good, that person can also be influenced to make a healthy, beneficial decision. An agency that oversees neuromarketing research and self-regulation methods can flexibly prepare for the variable future of neuromarketing and work toward the best interests of companies and consumers. By properly regulating and monitoring neuromarketing to secure the rights of consumers without enforcing guidelines that are too strict on the free market, progress towards proper development of neuromarketing can be ensured.


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17. Oullier O. (2012). Clear up this fuzzy thinking on brain scans. Nature. Retrieved from

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Lee, S. (2016). A Corner on the Neuromarket. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on , from


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