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Neuroethics: Some principles

September 5, 2013 0 Comments

(Since the Murphy et al. article was published in 2008, further academic work on ethical principles for neuromarketing has been sparse. We provide an updated discussion of all five of these principles in Neuromarketing for Dummies.)

ethicsWe’re finally starting to see some serious examination of ethical issues in neuromarketing.  A recent issue of the Journal of Consumer Behaviour (July-Oct 2008) was devoted to neuromarketing, and the best article in the bunch was on the topic of neuroethics.

Murphy, E., Illes, J., & Reiner, P. (2008). Neuroethics of neuromarketing Journal of Consumer Behaviour, 7 (4-5), 293-302 DOI: 10.1002/cb.252. The abstract:

Neuromarketing is upon us. Companies are springing up to offer their clients brain-based information about consumer preferences, purporting to bypass focus groups and other marketing research techniques on the premise that directly peering into a consumer’s brain while viewing products or brands is a much better predictor of consumer behavior. These technologies raise a range of ethical issues, which fall into two major categories: (1) protection of various parties who may be harmed or exploited by the research, marketing, and deployment of neuromarketing and (2) protection of consumer autonomy if neuromarketing reaches a critical level of effectiveness. The former is straightforward. The latter may or may not be problematic depending upon whether the technology can be considered to so effectively manipulate consumer behavior such that consumers are not able to be aware of the subversion. We call this phenomenon stealth neuromarketing. Academics and companies using neuromarketing techniques should adopt a code of ethics, which we propose here, to ensure beneficent and non-harmful use of the technology in consideration of both categories of ethics concerns.

The code of ethics recommended by Murphy, Illes, and Reiner is a good start for the industry, and we have adopted it as part of our own approach to ethical practices.  Here are the key paragraphs:

We conclude with a preliminary version of a code of ethics that we recommend be adopted by the neuromarketing industry. The overarching goal of this code of ethics is to promote research and development, entrepreneurship, and profitable enterprise alongside beneficent and non-harmful use of neuroimaging technology at all stages of development, deployment, and dissemination. These codes should be discussed within the neuromarketing community with the advice of independent academic researchers working in the area of neural correlates of decision-making, social behavior, and consumer preferences, as well as neuroethicists and professionals in marketing industry ethics. Proactive development of such guidelines within the professional community will provide credibility and garner greater acceptance than those that may be imposed upon the field by regulatory bodies, especially if they arise in response to adverse events (Illes et al., 2003). Timeliness in this effort is critical given the rapid pace of advancements in the field.

Protection of research subjects. Policies for responsibly managing clinical findings, including provision of sufficient subject protections, procedures for informed consent, and explicit protocols for dealing with incidental findings (Illes et al., 2006a) are a requirement for any entity involved in brain research. Furthermore, private companies offering financial incentives for participation in research studies significantly greater than those offered in academic settings should be cautious of undue influence of such incentives, which may cross over into indirect coercion. While most technologies used by neuromarketing may be considered minimal risk, subjects should be advised and reminded of their right to withdraw from any study for any reason, including minor discomfort.

Protection of vulnerable niche populations from marketing exploitation. Policies for research subjects’ protection should include additional ethics review for research done on protected or potentially vulnerable subject populations. In addition, neuromarketing-influenced advertising targeted at specific protected consumer groups should aim to beneficently serve the special needs of the population without marginalizing, maligning, or otherwise causing harm, whether psychosocial or financial in nature.

Full disclosure of goals, risks, and benefits. Disclosure can be achieved through the publication of ethics principles that have been adopted to protect the privacy and autonomy of human subjects and consumers. Publication infers all aspects of the process from consent documents to reporting and advertising and applies to both written and verbal communication.

Accurate media and marketing representation. Neuromarketing companies bear the burden of accurately representing their wares in media and business-to-business marketing materials. At a minimum, this standard encompasses full disclosure of scientific methods and measures of validity in mass media formats such as invited opinions, editorials, and news reports. Adherence to a code of responsible communication and truth-in-advertising will help maintain a positive and trusting public perception of brain science research as well as promote development of effective technologies.

Internal and external validity. Eaton and Illes (2007) have outlined the challenges in initial and sustained product validity in the commercialization of any neurotechnology. We extend their recommendations here to any marketing product influenced by neuromarketing research with particular attention to the point that the validity questions ‘‘arise most acutely for neurotechnology that can be deployed without a regulatory gatekeeper, such as the FDA” (Eaton and Illes, 2007). At a minimum, internal validity checks should ensure a sufficiently comprehensive research database to provide meaningful and effective results to neuromarketing consumers. External and sustained validity will require neuromarketers to align their product with changing technologies and expanding neuroscience knowledge. Maintenance of safety and efficacy verification in any research, development, and deployment of neuromarketing is absolutely required.

Reposted, with minor updates, from my previous blog. Originally posted on November 30, 2008.

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About the Author:

Steve is a writer, speaker, researcher, and marketing consultant. He is author of Intuitive Marketing (2019), a study of persuasion and influence in marketing theory and practice, and co-author of Neuromarketing for Dummies (2013), a comprehensive overview of neuromarketing science, applications, methodologies, and ethics. He is Managing Partner at Intuitive Consumer Insights, where he focuses on marketing education and consulting.

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