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Friday Commentary: A Crossroads for Marketing – The Ethics of Neuromarketing

Welcome to the second instalment of our Friday Commentary. In this series every Friday experts will shine a light on the digital industry. Where are we heading, what is going on and how should we approach this as decision makers? This Friday it’s the turn of Barry Adams, founder of Polemic Digital.

Friday Commentary: A Crossroads for Marketing - The Ethics of NeuromarketingThe marketing and advertising profession has always been one to embrace change. However, I feel the marketing industry is approaching an existential crossroads, where the path the industry chooses to follow will have profound implications for our society.

This crossroads is the result of the ever-growing body of research findings emerging from one of the most controversial, and most impactful, of scientific disciplines: neuroscience.

Neuroscience is an incredibly exciting field of study, where new discoveries are made regularly about the nature of the human brain and the processes that govern our thoughts and actions. As a result we’re learning more and more about how humans think and act, and how we make decisions in our daily lives.

One of the more uncomfortable conclusions that emerge from neuroscience is the potency of our subconscious mind and the fairly limited impact our conscious thoughts are deemed to have on our actions.

Summarised, neuroscientific discoveries increasingly point towards a model of the human brain where nearly all decisions we make are governed by the subconscious aspects of our mind, which take up the bulk of our brain’s processes, with the conscious mind playing only a very small part in the grand sceme of things.

Neuroscientist Ap Dijksterhuis descibes the totality of the human mind as an iceberg, with the vast subconscious mass hidden beneath the surface and only a tiny conscious part visible. Similarly, Jonathan Haidt uses the elephant and rider metaphor, where the elephant embodies our subconscious mind and the rider, our conscious mind, is only able to influence the elephant’s general direction in small ways.

As neuroscience progresses its discovery of exactly how the human brain works – and, especially, how the subconscious parts of our mind can be influenced, manipulated, and coerced in ways our conscious mind is unaware of – increasingly we see the marketing industry embrace this research and utilise it towards more effective marketing and advertising.

Take for example the concept of ‘priming‘ – influencing your customers’ behaviour by exposing them to specific triggers designed to encourage a desirable course of action. One example is how many fast food restaurants are designed [PDF] to have uncomfortable seats, bright lighting and abundant noise, so that fast food customers are encouraged to consume their meals quickly and vacate their seats for the next customers.

Another well-known example is how supermarkets use the smell of freshly baked bread to encourage more bread sales, pricing strategies to make shoppers think they’re getting a bargain, and how flowers are positioned near the supermarket’s entrance to prime shoppers to think about freshness.

These sorts of practical applications of neuroscience have been common in retail for decades, and increasingly we see similar techniques applied to digital marketing. There is a field of study devoted to practical application of neuroscience to the consumer marketplace, and it’s called neuromarketing  (part of the wider behavioural economics discipline). Everything from conversion-encouraging colour schemes to the placement and size of ‘buy now’ buttons, to headlines that encourage clicks and shares and banner images that prime us for a specific mode of thought, these are all neuromarketing in action.

However, as our familiarity with and skill in neuromarketing grows, we are also beginning to discover certain ethical issues we as an industry will have to come to grips with. Imagine being able to prime consumers wearing Google Glass with specific visual triggers to get them in to the right buying mood for your products, or using precisely the right phrasings in your website’s header image to prime the site’s visitors for what you want them to do next. For some advertisers, this sounds like a commercial utopia. I hope that for others it raises some concerns.

For centuries economists have hidden behind the concept of a ‘rational consumer‘, an idealistic view of consumers making rational decisions about their spending patterns. With the rational consumer as the foundation of economic theory, the capitalist free market is undoubtedly the most effective way to organise economies and ensure the best products from the best companies survive and thrive.

However, neuroscience and behavioural economics is proving this idealistic model to be entirely false. We as consumers are not rational, we do not buy the best products from the best companies, and we generally spend our money when we are triggered to do so – nearly always subconsciously – by marketing and advertising messages.

And when you think about that, about how we as marketers are becoming increasingly adept at influencing our customers’ subconscious mind in order to manipulate them in to buying our stuff, it leads us in to genuinely uncomfortable territory. We as marketers have a decision to make about how comfortable we are with influencing our target audience without that audience’s conscious knowledge or awareness.

The easy choice is to do what marketers on the whole have done for decades: ignore any and all ethical implications, and just use whatever works to sell more stuff. I hope, however, that many marketers will not be entirely comfortable with that self-imposed ignorance, and will instead – by virtue of being consumers themselves – conduct some soul-searching to decide where they want to draw the line.

Wholesale spontaneous acquisition of a conscience is, unfortunately, an exceptionally unlikely event in the marketing and advertising industry. Just as governments have had to impose strict regulation on false and misleading statements in advertising, so too do I expect the need for similar regulation for the application of neuroscience in marketing and advertising.

The real challenge of course is whether or not there exists political will to regulate neuromarketing in such a fashion. These same neuroscientific ideas that can make the people buy more stuff can, after all, also easily be employed to make people vote in a certain way and keep society’s behaviour within the constraints of what the political elite deem to be ‘acceptable’.

And contrary to the ease with which false and misleading advertising can be uncovered, subconscious priming is something the general public will be nearly entirely unaware of, which makes the risk of a public backlash entirely manageable.

So that puts the burden of ethical considerations squarely back on us, the marketing professionals who will be rolling out these new tactics. All of us have a decision to make for ourselves about what kind of industry we want to work in, and how we want to apply our skills and expertise. It’s something each of us will have to come to grips with.

I have no answers to give, only questions to ask. What you as a neuroscientifically empowered marketer choose to do is entirely up to you. Or, at least, you’ll think it is. 😉

Further Reading:



Barry Adams is one of the chief editors of State of Digital and is an award-winning SEO consultant based in Belfast, delivering specialised SEO services to clients across Europe.
  • Gordon Campbell

    This is one of the most interesting thought provoking articles I’ve read on this subject. I love the book Predictable Irrational that you cited, it is definitely worth a read for anyone interested in how people are encouraged to make irrational decisions.

    As marketers we are all somehow involved in using some of the techniques you mentioned to encourage(manipulate?) customers to buy from us and even techniques such as having a before and after price and a time constraint may fall into the type of neuromarketing that you speak of.

    Morality and marketing – love it. Great post.

  • Steve Genco

    Hi Barry. Thanks for this very thoughtful piece on neuromarketing ethics. I’m co-author of a recent book called Neuromarketing for Dummies (Wiley, 2013) and although the book is written in an irreverent and engaging style (as befits the “dummies” format) it is quite serious about the important issue of ethics in neuromarketing, and discusses it at length.

    We came to the same conclusion as you, that marketing must police itself, but we also dug down into the science of the nonconscious, and discovered some interesting things that add a layer of complexity to the question of how the nonconscious and conscious actually work together in human, and consumer, responses and decision making. Let me summarize a couple of points that are both surprising (at least they were surprising to me) and relevant to this discussion.

    First, the idea that the nonconscious is “at odds” with the conscious and somehow operates against conscious “better judgment” is not really what the sciece tells us. As Daniel Kahneman points out in his great book Thinking Fast and Slow (you should add it to your recommended reading list), the conscious mind, what he calls System 2 thinking, primarily acts as a controller of the nonconscious processes we are not aware of. Evolutionarily, nonconscious responses to environmental stimuli developed long before conscious control, which is a uniquely human adaptation that appears to have emerged along with the human prefrontal cortex, which has increased in size sixfold in the last 5M years.

    So one of the key purposes of the conscious mind is to override nonconscious impulses. The issue is not that we don’t have the CAPABILITY to do so, it’s that we very often CHOOSE not to make the effort to do so, because our brains are “cognitive misers” (a term long used in cognitive psychology) that prefer avoiding the expense of cognitive effort whenever possible. It’s important to understand that the consious mind can override the nonconscious mind at any time, but the opposite is not true. Our nonconsious minds cannot make us do things our conscious minds do not want to do. This is very important for understanding why marketers using nonconscious priming are not creating “zombie consumers” who cannot resist these subconscious triggers. We are quite capable of resisting them.

    Second, the literature on priming is fascinating and complex. It is not a simple thing, especially in an environment in which we are bombarded by thousands of competing primes at any given moment. We have some built-in (yes, nonconscious) defenses against priming that are worth noting: (1) We have to desire the primed state (priming beverage drinking does not work for people who are not thirsty), (2) we have to have established liking for the primed state (if you don’t like coffee, I can’t prime you to drink it), and (3) we have to be unaware of the priming intent (if I know you’re trying to prime me, the priming effect disappears).

    Third, research has shown that among our nonconscious processes there are a few automatic processes that provide cognitive DEFENSES against persuasion efforts, causing us to be “reverse primed” when our nonconscious minds perceive that we’re being subjected to persuasive tactics. On this topic I like to recommend this article as an example: Laran, Juliano, Amy N. Dalton, and Eduardo B. Andrade. “The curious case of behavioral backlash: Why brands produce priming effects and slogans produce reverse priming effects.” Journal of Consumer Research 37.6 (2011): 999-1014.

    Fourth, the modern way psychologists look at nonconscious processes is not as a competitor to conscious processes, but as a “behavioral guidance system” that offloads many operations from conscious control so we can free our conscious mind to do what it does best, thinking about (and hopefully learning from) the past and planning for the future. Picking up the toothpaste is often a habitual buy, and doesn’t need to invoke deep conscious thinking to accomplish, so often doesn’t. Meanwhile, nonconscious processes are structuring our perceptions, emotions, motivations, and evaluations as we navigate our momemnt-to-moment lives. For the most part, the system works quite well.

    I think that both marketers and consumers need to be better educated about how are minds really work so they can make better informed decisions. Humans will always be willing to trade off some amount of effortful thinking to achieve greater simplicity and less uncertainty in decision making. Will marketers try to take advantage of this? Of course they will! They always have. This is what they do. It’s a deal we all made in the market economy — I’ll let you try to influence me, and in response, I’ll get more variety, more choice, competitive pricing pressures, etc.

    I don’t think neuromarketing adds anything new to this arrangement. It simply exposes more about the actual mechanisms at play. Neuromarketing doesn’t try to change minds, marketing does that. Neuromarketing is just a set of relatively new techniques that let us see more clearly whether and how well marketing is working. My personal belief is that the more we learn about the complexities of the human brain, the HARDER marketing and influence appear to be. Our nonconsious mental processes didn’t evolve to make use easier to fool, they evolved to make us smarter and more efficient. Marketers need to appreciate that brain science is not a silver bullet for them, but rather a warning that much of what they’ve been doing is ineffectual, if not downright counterproductive.