Using Neuromarketing Ethically

AI is the current leading-edge marketing tool, but there is another one that is gaining some promise. Neuromarketing is the intersection between neuroscience and marketing. It studies the effects of marketing on the human brain to see which kinds of marketing work best for different people.

Reactions to this kind of technology have ranged all over the place. Some fear that this science will let advertisers force us to buy without our consent. Others believe that neuromarketing is snake oil or that it won’t tell us anything that marketers haven’t already figured out after decades of trial and error.

The tools needed to run neuromarketing studies are well out of the reach of most companies, though a few are available to some through third-party companies and the startup space is hot. As more studies have come out about this kind of research, and more neuroscientists move from academia into industry, it’s prudent to think about how marketers could use it ethically.

All About Manipulation

First, to allay any fears, nothing suggests that neuromarketing can force us to buy things. People have worried about this level of manipulation from the first advertisements and none of it has come true. But neuromarketing just might let marketers create ads that create a stronger persuasive response than otherwise. Is this ethical?

We think the ethics hinges on the reason for using the tool. Marketers learn as part of their training about the difference between ethical and unethical advertisements. There are laws against deceptive ads, or ads that promote addictive products to children, for instance.

We also believe that most marketers, though admittedly not all, are interested in promoting products and services that are useful to the audience. They don’t want to make false claims or to leave a client with a bad experience. That’s bad for the brand and bad for their reputation. That is to say, the pursuit of profit is not the point of the ad. Profit is a side effect of informing the right people about something that will bring them pleasure without harm and persuading them to take it.

If neuromarketing is used for those ends, then it can be a force for good. Calling all neuromarketing unethical is like judging all advertising as unethical because bait-and-switch ads exist.

Could It Make Ads Better?

One thing that excites us about it is that it may identify ad techniques that don’t work. This is one of the dirty secrets of marketing. Only a small percentage of marketing materials move the needle significantly.

Put more bluntly, what if neuromarketing could make advertising suck less? Would a rise in the quality level of advertising, based on neuroscience discoveries, make people look forward to ads rather than seeing them as a necessary annoyance?

That’s what we hope will happen. Marketers don’t want to write ads that people hate or fall with a wet thud, so anything that helps us avoid that would be helpful. The ability to tweak ad techniques based on the emotional state of the viewer would be incredibly useful for some industries, like say the funeral industry, which is sometimes accused of excessive manipulation to up sell funeral equipment.

Neuromarketing is still a young science. Much remains to be discovered. But as long as we keep our goal of helping others with their problems as our guiding star rather than pure profit, we can use this tool for good.