'Buy buttons', reptilian brains, brain reading… Science fiction or reality? Manipulation or exaggeration? Is there a limit to the direct influence of brands on consumer behaviour and purchase decisions? Is neuromarketing ethical?
Neuromarketing is in the spotlight. There are articles being published by the press, blogs, talks, videos… But at the time of hearing or reading something about this new discipline, it is normal to have questions. The general public has some reservations towards marketing, associating it with manipulation and misleading to sell more. And this is even more pronounced if the word neuro is added before marketing: Neuromarketing.
Sure enough, it does not help that some lecturers talk about “pressing the buy button in the consumer’s brain”, “the reptilian brain that does not think, only acts”, and that “we think as crocodiles” or “emotions decide for us”. And unfortunately, some neuromarketing companies do not stay behind and promise potential clients that their neuromarketing techniques are capable of, literally, use brain scans to read the minds of consumers. Therefore, the idea is that if these services are hired, consumers will go crazy and buy all the products advertised.
However, when working with neuroscience (or deepening knowledge of neuromarketing) things are not that simple. Regrettably, not everyone has the time to study and read scientific studies or take a neuromarketing course, and it is natural that people are unsure about what is true about the entire subject and if neuromarketing is ethical or unethical. The answer we usually give is: “If that was true, don’t you think people would have used that to become millionaires? However, these lecturers/companies that sell magic formulas are not capable of employing it on themselves. Isn’t that suspicious?”.
Is neuromarketing ethical or unethical?
On one hand, neuromarketing provides a theoretical framework to better understand decision making, establishing that we are not as 100% rational as we like to think, that emotions influence (positively) in decision making, and that heuristics and cognitive biases also push us away from rational decisions. All this knowledge help us to better understand ourselves as people and consumers, but it’s far (very far!) from predicting how we behave in a specific situation. In the end, another thing that neuromarketing teaches us is that there is an infinity of variables that condition our behavior and it is impossible to control all of them. Therefore, neuromarketing cannot predict what we will do next or not. Neuromarketing cannot give us guidelines on how the consumer is going to behave. We cannot change products, communication, or the web page until we find a configuration that leads to 100% sales. Therefore, the information provided by neuromarketing cannot manipulate the consumer behaviour.
On the other hand, neuromarketing can be used for market research. In other words, if a company wishes to evaluate which type of packaging is preferred, which advertisement better connects with the consumer, if one product fits better than the other. What happens in this case? Is this manipulation? No. In this case, companies obtain information on the true desires of the consumer and then adapt to satisfy (this is very important to keep in mind). This does not ensure sales (again, there are too many variables) but obviously, if you are capable of better transmitting what you sell, if you are capable of offering products that are more likable, if you are capable of better connecting with your consumer and capable of providing more value than your competitors, then it is more probable that you sell more.
Ethical implications for market research and business practice
In the end, applied neuromarketing is the same as traditional market research. We don’t believe that asking the consumer what products he/she prefers and provide them is manipulation. And in any case, it wouldn’t be manipulation by neuromarketing or market investigation manipulation. The companies and professionals that use this information to deceive are the manipulators. Even then, we can ensure that they can mislead one time only and, thanks to new digital techniques that give the consumer a voice, misleading is surely not a good strategy for a company nowadays.
Definitively, let’s forget about oversimplifying and underestimating our brain. Our decision power is, in principle, free of manipulation, although unfortunately there are always scam experts that try to fool us. Let us utilize neuromarketing to better understand us as persons and let us keep being critical. Unscrupulous people and our lack of criticism are the real culprits for manipulations, not neuromarketing professionals.
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