Is neuromarketing ethical? Consumers say yes. Consumers say no.

Author:Flores, Jason


Neuromarketing is a technology based and nascent field of marketing research aimed at observing consumers' reaction to stimuli. Measuring consumers' reaction to stimuli is a common practice and, according to Wang and Minor (2008), these measures include: (1) behavioral measures, (2) verbal measures, and (3) psychophysiological measures. Neuromarketing differs from these traditional methods of measuring reactions to stimuli because it requires the application of neuroscientific based methods for the purpose of analyzing behavior in relation to markets and marketing exchanges (Lee, Broderick, and Chamberlain, 2007). Thus, neuroscience allows marketing researchers to observe uncontrollable brain function responses that result in specific physiological responses when individuals are exposed to specific stimuli. Neuroscientific methods include fMRI (Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging), SST (Steady State Topography), EEG (Electroencephalography), Eye Tracking, and Galvanic Skin Response (Randall 2009). Examples of companies that use neuromarketing include: Microsoft, Yahoo, Hyundai, and others listed in Table 1.

Ethical concerns are considered one of the three most important aspects related to neuromarketing among marketing academics, neurologists, and marketing professionals (Eser, Isin, and Tolon, 2011). Among the ethical critiques of neuromarketing is the concern that neuromarketing will allow an unprecedented level of manipulation by companies through their marketing activities (McDowell and Dick, 2013). This critique is based on the idea that consumers may be unjustly influenced through the use of specific stimuli that lead to specific physiological responses which can be uncovered only through neuromarketing based research.

Though Lindstrom (in Sullivan, 2009) posits that neuromarketing research can reveal only what is occurring in the brain, but cannot explain why it occurs, and Graham (2012) argues that the potential of neuromarketing effectiveness is limited because "we are not zombies when we shop, mindlessly and unknowingly putting brands in our baskets and stumbling to the checkout in a fog" (p. 288), these positions do not negate the possibility that behavior manipulation may be possible in ways previously thought not plausible.

Consumers may not be as enthusiastic about neuromarketing as companies who use neuromarketing and their agreeableness may vary depending on consumers' understanding of how and why companies use neuromarketing. Consumers may feel manipulated and consequently may have a negative reaction towards the company using this technique. This plausible reaction appears to be similar to the one that subliminal advertising provoked after James Vicary proposed it to be effective in the 1950's (Sutherland, 2004). However, according to Synodions (1988) the controversy over whether subliminal stimulation is effective remains and is now joined by a new controversy created by neuromarketing. The relevance of this topic is further illustrated by the Marketing Science Institute's 2012-2014 research priorities inclusion of how the judgment of actions taken by organizations impact trust building (MSI 2012).

The potential of using neuroscience for the aforementioned marketing purposes has created multiple ethical concerns for academics, practitioners, and consumers (Wilson, Gaines, and Hill, 2008). Additionally, the effects of these concerns pose potential issues for nonprofit (NPO) and for-profit organizations. These issues may differ depending on the ethical perceptions of consumers in relation to how and why those organizations use neuromarketing-research-derived marketing practices. Considering the necessity of NPOs to depend on public good will to acquire the resources to operate, any perception of impropriety can have a detrimental effect on NPO funding (Kildow, 2005). It is plausible that understanding the implications of the use of marketing practices such as neuromarketing may be more critical for NPOs than for profit organizations though the implications for both are significant.

The distinction between what is considered ethical and unethical by consumers, the subjects of neuromarketing's potential influence, must be better understood and may have the potential to guide the use of neuromarketing in the future. Understanding the implications of the use of neuromarketing has the potential to do the same. Therefore, we propose the following research questions: (1) what are consumers' perceptions of the ethicalness of the use of neuromarketing by profit and nonprofit organizations, and (2) What are the implications of the use of neuromarketing for profit and nonprofit organizations on purchase intentions, word-of-mouth, and attitudes towards neuromarketing?



Scanning human brains to investigate how certain parts of the brain respond to specific stimuli is not a new phenomenon. The use of such imaging technology in the field of neuroscience has occurred for several years (Barkin, 2013). However, these techniques were commonly used only for medical purposes. The "fusion" of neuropsychological methods and marketing science traces back to the beginning of the 21st century when neuroscience and economic perspectives were combined to form what is referred to as neuroeconomics (Garza and Saad, 2008).

In 2003 a group of researchers, intrigued by the Coke versus Pepsi challenge campaign in the 1970's, decided to conduct a similar study using a different research method. The researchers did this because they were perplexed by the Coke versus Pepsi phenomenon where, when blind tested, participants preferred the taste of Pepsi yet still bought Coke instead. Thus, the scientists wanted to explore why people bought products that were not necessarily those they preferred on the basis of taste (McClure, Tomlin, Cypert, Montague, and Montague, 2004). In order to address this research question the researchers studied brain responses in an experimental environment. To do this they used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to observe the brain activity while participants were exposed to two different conditions: one in which participants did not know which brand of soda they consumed and another in which they were aware of the brand. The fMRI machine tracked brain blood flow while people performed these tasks. When performing these tasks in response to certain stimuli specific regions of the brain 'light up'. The results of the McClure et al. (2004) study suggested that when not knowing what brand of soda they were drinking half of the participants preferred Pepsi. Once participants knew what they were drinking almost three-quarters of the participants preferred Coke. Though similar to the findings pertaining to the original Coke versus Pepsi challenge, the intriguing aspect of the new study was being able to observe brain activity while consumers participated in the study.

As a part of their study McClure et al. (2004) found that two different systems cause the generation of preference. When participants did not know what they were drinking (sensory information only) the activity in the part of the brain called vetromedical prefrontal cortex predicted their preferences. However, when participants knew what they were drinking many of them altered their decisions. During this part of the study the brain activity that was more prominent occurred in the hippocampus, dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, and the midbrain. According to McClure et al. (2004) these areas of the brain have been found to be connected to emotion and affect (McClure et al., 2004), which suggests that previous brand knowledge affects decision making even when the taste may not be the one consumers actually prefer in blind tests.

Ethical Concerns in Neuromarketing

The study by McClure et al. (2004) helped to make neuromarketing a new field of research while also raising significant concerns related to, amongst other aspects, the ethical implications of such technology use for research. Some researchers and practitioners gladly accepted the new field (Garcia and Saad, 2008; Perrachione and Perrachione, 2008; Lindstrom, 2009), but others, including the general media, criticized the phenomenon (Thompson, 2003; Blakeslee, 2004; Arussy, 2009). Commercial Alert, a nonprofit agency formed by Ralph Nader, proclaimed that neuromarketing was unethical and requested that the U.S. senate investigate the phenomenon (Sutherland, 2004).

Specifically for neuromarketing, two major ethical concerns are the invasion of privacy and, relatedly, the potential for mind control (Thompson, 2003; Lindstrom, 2009). The issue of the invasion of privacy in marketing was discussed during the debate on the effectiveness of subliminal advertising. Many authors were concerned about whether the effects of subliminal advertising...

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