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How dangerous is neuromarketing?

September 7, 2014 1 Comment

How strong are arguments about the dangers of neuromarketing?

In a series of posts excerpted from Neuromarketing for Dummies, I’m going to summarize some of the main complaints about neuromarketing, and how realistic they are. I accompany this piece with the de rigueur illustration for all critical assessments of neuromarketing, the image of Malcolm McDowell getting “deprogrammed” in A Clockwork Orange (1971). If this doesn’t scare you, what will?

clockwork-orangeAs far back as 1957, when Vance Packard published his best seller, The Hidden Persuaders, critics expressed concerns that marketers were using psychological and subliminal tactics that were a threat to the public. Their warnings were based on the assumption that marketers were unscrupulous manipulators who would use any means at their disposal to get consumers to buy the brands and products under their care.

This view of marketers is more than a bit unfair. Yes, marketers want to encourage consumers to buy their products, but the marketplace itself is an unforgiving competitive arena in which brands and products that don’t deliver real value are quickly displaced by competitors that do. Success and failure are highly visible and marketers can rapidly learn from each other which strategies and executions are working and which aren’t. This creates a generally level playing field in which manipulating the consumer or making false claims is much more likely to backfire than lead to success, no matter what persuasive tactics are employed.

Sometimes the newness of neuromarketing has been overplayed by critics. Practices that are attributed to the influence of neuromarketing often have long histories of discovery and dissemination that started well before neuromarketing arrived on the scene. In many cases, neuromarketing can now confirm why some of these practices work (or don’t work), but the practices themselves can’t be attributed to neuromarketing. For example:

  • Marketers used food stylists long before neuromarketing confirmed that attractive images of food can attract attention, activate goals, and increase the chances of a purchase.
  • Marketers segmented the market of chocolate eaters into cravers and non-cravers long before neuromarketing confirmed that these segments do show quite different brain activation patterns.
  • Marketers have long known that many decisions are made by the nonconscious mind and that exposure to messages can have an impact even if consumers can’t recall the exposure.
  • Marketers have used celebrities to endorse brands prior to neuromarketing, confirming that such an endorsement can positively impact the consumer’s decision to buy.

Sometimes discomfort with marketing in general is transferred to neuromarketing. Many critics just don’t like the idea of marketing. They don’t like being bombarded with ads everywhere they turn. They don’t like it when all their clothes shout out their brand affiliations. They don’t like the fact that their beloved baseball park is now called Spaghetti Express Stadium. These are legitimate concerns. But these excesses of marketing can’t be attributed to neuromarketing. Nor would they be less of a problem if neuromarketing didn’t exist.

In fact, we believe that neuromarketing has the potential to finally show marketers just how damaging these overreaches can be to their brands and their corporate reputations. In Chapter 7 (“New Understandings of Consumer Goals and Motivations”), we discuss how consumers have developed both conscious and nonconscious defenses against persuasive messaging. By helping marketers understand where they’re throwing away money and alienating consumers in their efforts to rise above the clutter of competing products and claims, we believe neuromarketing can benefit both marketers and consumers, helping the former spend their marketing dollars more wisely, and helping the latter live in a world with a little less marketing noise and irrelevant marketing clutter.

In the next three posts in this series, we’ll take a closer look at three complaints that are commonly leveled against neuromarketing:

N4D-cover -120pxThis post is excerpted, with minor edits, from Neuromarketing for Dummies, Chapter 4, “Why Neuromarketing Matters.”

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About the Author:

Steve is a pioneer in the field of neuromarketing. He founded one of the first neuromarketing research firms in 2006 and published the first comprehensive overview of the field, Neuromarketing for Dummies, in 2013. He established Intuitive Consumer Insights in 2012 to help clients, vendors, and industry associations navigate the opportunities and challenges neuromarketing presents to the marketing and market research communities.

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  1. Neuromarketing: What is it & How is it Used? | April 24, 2015

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