How can neuroscience be used in advertising field? Are there any ethical concerns related to the same?
Answered by: Malosree Maitra, PhD Student, Integrated Program in Neuroscience
The field of “neuromarketing” utilizes technologies from neuroscience to gain insights into consumer behavior. Along with the closely related field of “consumer neuroscience”, neuromarketing seeks to harness the power of brain imaging methods such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and electroencephalography (EEG) to understand the brain activity underlying consumer response to products, pricing, advertising, etc. While consumer neuroscience is a more academic discipline focused on research, neuromarketing is a more applied field with many companies providing neuromarketing as a commercial service. The goal of neuromarketing is to supplement the information obtained from more traditional marketing methods such as surveys and focus groups. The motivating idea is that there are subconscious brain processes which contribute to consumer decision-making which cannot be studied with traditional methods alone.
fMRI can measure which brain regions are active during a specific task. EEG can measure the electrical activity of neurons firing in different parts of the brain by placing electrodes on the scalp. These non-invasive methods allow researchers to interrogate brain function. Different parts of the brain are associated with different functions and based on this the brain activity can be interpreted as positive “rewarding” emotions or negative “aversive” emotions. Moreover, other methods such as measuring pupil dilation or heart rate can also provide information about the involuntary “autonomic” nervous system responses.
These techniques can be applied to study consumer responses to advertisements, product designs, or pricing. The range of applications is quite diverse –from tasting different beverages or looking at movie trailers to exploring a new architectural design via virtual reality during an fMRI scan. Furthermore, there is growing interest in combining neuromarketing techniques with machine learning approaches to further elucidate the relationship between brain activity patterns and consumer behaviors.
One ethical concern around neuromarketing is that commercial enterprises will find a “buy button” in the brain and manipulate consumer behavior. For example, if by using information from brain scans a company designs a food that is highly rewarding and addictive to consumers it could result in overconsumption and obesity. On the other hand, neuromarketing could be used to better design social awareness campaigns such as anti-smoking campaigns. Another concern is that since neuromarketing research is often carried out by commercial enterprises for profit and not academic institutions, the rigors of review by ethics boards and informed consent procedures may not be strictly followed. Thus, there is concern amongst the public and media for the potential of abuse and invasion of consumers’ privacy through the improper use of neuromarketing. There are however organizations such as the Neuromarketing Science and Business Association and the European Society for Opinion and Marketing Research which provide guidelines for best practices to prevent exploitation of vulnerable groups and promote ethical practices in neuromarketing. Neuromarketing can influence society positively or negatively based on whether it is used responsibly, but given the current trends, neuromarketing research is here to stay for the foreseeable future.
Neuromarketing Science and Business Association (https://www.nmsba.com/)
European Society for Opinion and Marketing Research (https://www.esomar.org/)
Ariely D, Berns GS. Neuromarketing: the hope and hype of neuroimaging in business. Nat Rev Neurosci. 2010;11(4):284-292. doi:10.1038/nrn2795 (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2875927/)
Cherubino P, Martinez-Levy AC, Caratù M, et al. Consumer Behaviourthrough the Eyes of Neurophysiological Measures: State-of-the-Art and Future Trends. Comput Intell Neurosci. 2019;2019:1976847. Published 2019 Sep 18. doi:10.1155/2019/1976847 (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6766676/)
Rawnaque FS, Rahman KM, Anwar SF, et al. Technological advancements and opportunities in Neuromarketing: a systematic review. Brain Inform. 2020;7(1):10. Published 2020 Sep 21. doi:10.1186/s40708-020-00109-x (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7505913/)