Neuromarketing Is the Latest Sales Strategy Businesses Are Using — But Is It Ethical?

EEG used in market research

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Laura Berlinsky-Schine
Laura Berlinsky-Schine2.3k

What drives consumer attitudes and behaviors? The field of neuromarketing emerged to answer this question. While traditional marketing methods relied on consumers’ conscious preferences, neuromarketing delve deep into the brain to see what they really think and feel.  

In 2002, the Brighthouse Institute for Thought Science was established as the first company dedicated to neuromarketing. The company was the first entity to use the term, although the concept evolved in the 1990s. Today, major brands, from Facebook to Frito-Lay, continue to rely on it as a tool to drive their marketing and advertising strategies.

What is neuromarketing?

Neuromarketing relies on functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), electroencephalography and related medical technologies to examine and map consumers’ brains to track changes in activity as it relates to their preferences and decisions. Using these tools, they are able to expose subjects to stimuli, such as an advertisement, and analyze how they respond to them. They might, for instance, use them to see how customers react to a specific font on a package. 

How is it useful in marketing research?

Marketing is dedicated to finding what drives consumers to buy the products they do and create and target a brand and its products accordingly. Neuromarketing is a science-based method of actually mapping and pinpointing how people feel about something, whether it’s a jingle, a color or a picture. By observing the reactions and emotions something solicits, organizations can use the data to adjust, refine or even create new marketing campaigns and products. After all, understanding the feelings people have toward something will offer insight as to whether they might then buy the product in question.

Ultimately, marketers should think of this information as fuel for their campaigns, giving them data to increase and improve their strategies.

Why is neuromarketing important?

Focus groups, surveys and other traditional market research methods can provide ample data about consumer preferences. But neuromarketing focuses on genuine emotions. Verbal or written responses may not always reflect the genuine, honest reactions subjects have. In fact, they may not even know if they’re not be fully truthful — their conscious minds may tell them something different from their subconscious minds.

When researchers look at the brain, however, they see the real sentiments and responses. Not only does using this information mean marketers don’t have to rely on the consumers’ say-so, but it also helps them guage the gut reactions that are taking place, and they can adjust their efforts accordingly. These responses, after all, are tied to what consumers will actually do, not just what they say they will do or even think they will do in the moment.

Once marketers know how a campaign will affect consumers, they can focus on building their brands and even adjusting their products to create better affinity with and loyalty to them. Neuromarketing can also help them see what’s not working or soliciting negative emotions.

Is neuromarketing ethical?

There is some argument as to whether neuromarketing is actually ethical. A study entitled “Is Neuromarketing Ethical? Consumers Say Yes. Consumers Say No” published in the Journal of Legal, Ethical and Regulatory Issues in 2014 found that many consumers believe neuromarketing to be manipulative. However, the study revealed that consumers generally only found neuromarketing to be unethical when it was used by for-profit organizations but found the same tactic ethical when used by nonprofits.

In an interview with the American Marketing Association, Roger Dooley, author of Brainfluence: 100 Ways to Persuade and Convince Consumers with Neuromarketing, notes that neuromarketing companies generally aim to operate by ethical means, avoiding promoting deceptive products and engaging in dishonest marketing tactics. Moreover, he says, they can’t actually take over consumers’ brains and force them to make decisions. Rather, it taps into people’s emotions, and this makes sense, giving that brand loyalty and buying decisions are about feelings. 

What companies use neuromarketing?

From color to sound to shapes to font, consumers have strong preferences when it comes to their products and brands. Major companies and organizations around the world are tapping into the power of neuromarketing to pinpoint what drives their consumers and prospective customers. Below are just a few of the most famous cases.

• Yahoo!

Yahoo! had consumers don EEG caps to analyze their reactions to a 60-second TV commercial, part of a $100 million ad campaign.

• Frito-Lay

When focus groups had a negative reaction to a Cheetos ad that featured a prank scenario, the snack company conducted EEG tests and found that secretly, participants enjoyed it. The company has also used neuromarketing to test packaging and products. For example, it found that featuring pictures of potatoes and other natural ingredients on the packaging are less likely to stimulate the anterior cingulate cortex, which houses guilt.

• Facebook

Facebook partnered with Neurofocus to use neuromarketing to study consumer emotions related to its ad system. Among other insights, it found that consumers have different reactions to “premium websites” that focus on different topics, including networking. 

• Nabisco

Nabisco used neuromarketing to evaluate consumers’ reactions to Chips Ahoy packaging. According to the research, consumers had negative responses, prompting the company to make adjustments and refinements.

• Hyundai

In one study, subjects were told to stare at different parts of a 2011 Hyundai model. Their responses to the stimuli were recorded by EEG caps, heling the car manufacturer understand their preferences.

• PayPal

Speed of its services is key, Ebay found when conducting neuromarketing research on PayPal. This was more appealing to consumers than features like security.

• Microsoft

Partnering with EmSense, Microsoft set out to study viewer advertising preferences across different platforms, such as Xbox LIVE and TV ads. They found higher levels of engagement and emotional responses with the Xbox LIVE version.

These are just a few of the many cases of organizations and brands — large and small, nonprofit and for-profit, startup and established — turning to neuromarketing to help them guide their marketing and advertising efforts. The concept is still growing in use and popularity. In fact, you’ve probably already experienced its effects without even realizing it.

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