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What Are the Ethics of Neuromarketing?

What Are the Ethics of Neuromarketing?

Hal Conick

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Neuromarketing probably can’t help marketers “push the buy button” in customers’ brains, but can it influence their decisions? And is it ethical? 

“We have learned more about the brain in the last 15 years than in all prior human history, and the mind, once considered out of reach, is finally assuming center stage,” wrote Dr. Michio Kaku, a theoretical physicist, in his 2014 book The Future of the Mind. Kaku was right: The fMRI—or functional magnetic resonance imaging, a tool that allows noninvasive study and mapping of brain activity—was only invented in 1990. It has been essential in understanding the human brain. 

In marketing, the brain assumed center stage in 2002 with the first neuromarketing experiments. These studies—which used tools like fMRI, but also EEG (electroencephalography, a method for measuring brain waves) and biometrics (tools such as face and fingerprint scanners)—examined the intersection of consumer behavior and neuroscience to determine how consumers may respond to an ad, brand or campaign. 

The purpose of neuromarketing is to figure out whether customers might pay attention to an ad, says Roger Dooley, author of Brainfluence: 100 Ways to Persuade and Convince Consumers with Neuromarketing and owner of the Neuromarketing blog. If consumers pay attention, will they be affected emotionally? The answer can indicate buying intent, Dooley says. 


In a study published in the Journal of Legal, Ethical and Regulatory Issues, titled “Is Neuromarketing Ethical? Consumers Say Yes. Consumers Say No,” the authors say that an ethical concern for neuromarketing is that it will give brands super-effective means to surreptitiously “push the buy button” in a customer’s mind. Marketing News spoke with Dooley—who has been writing about neuromarketing for more than a decade—about the ethics and capabilities of neuromarketing and whether it can “push the buy button.” This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

MN: What are the ethical standards for neuromarketing research and the application of its findings?

RD: Most companies providing neuromarketing services would say that they operate in an ethical way, just as any advertising agency would. They’re not going to intentionally promote anything that’s deceptive or illegal. Most neuromarketing companies avoid testing kids under 18. They’re not trying to do neuromarketing studies on toddlers to figure out how to hook them onto their product; most people would find that pretty creepy. 

The question runs along all advertising: Are you doing things in a way that is honest and helpful to the consumer? Things that are not going to do harm? Are you helping the consumer decide to buy something they’re going to regret? If so, it doesn’t really matter what you’re doing, whether a marketing study or using deceptive ad copy—you shouldn’t do it. 

I’ve been reading about neuromarketing since about 2005 when there was a big concern that somehow brands were going to create these ads that would take over the customer’s brain and turn them into a buying drone. They’d be able to create ads that were so powerful that consumers would just do what they say. But that’s really a false concept. If those kinds of ads could be created, decades of work by Madison Avenue folks would have created at least a few of those ads by accident. 

The fact is that advertising has a limited impact. To me, it ends up being not a question of “Are you somehow using your marketing studies to create incredibly powerful ads?” but “Are you promoting a product or service that is good for the consumer?” And that’s not a neuromarketing question, that’s an advertising question. 

NeuroMarketing – Roger Dooley


MN: A concern might be undue influence on a consumer’s decision, but that’s a debate between old-school economics and behavioral science as to whether the average consumer has a rational mind or not. 

RD: Well no, of course they’re not of rational mind. People do not make decisions based on totally rational criteria, even though most people will tell you that they do. Rational criteria certainly enter decision-making, but I’m not going to buy a $1 million Lamborghini for rational reasons. 

Certainly some decisions have rational elements or are almost completely rational. If you have to replace a broken part, there’s not much emotion involved. But for most consumer purchases—automobiles, health and beauty products, food, fragrances, beer—there’s a strong nonrational component. Brand associations are important because they’re emotional, even though people would tell you that they made those decisions because they liked the flavor of one versus the other. 

MN: Can neuromarketing deepen the emotional affinities consumers have for a product or brand? 

RD: Oh yeah, and advertising can strengthen that brand affinity and emotional attachment. Take a real classic like Apple’s “1984” ad: They created a stunning advertisement that was engaging, exciting to watch and a heroic moment. I’d say it made Mac owners feel more emotional about their attachment to the brand. And to that extent, a neuromarketing study might help you show that the “1984” ad was more engaging than the “Lemmings” ad that Apple ran the next year. If you’re talking about analyzing ads using your marketing techniques—for instance, a 30-second spot on TV—the big advantage to neuromarketing isn’t that you’re going to create these amazingly powerful ads, but hopefully you can get rid of some of the ads that suck. 

There are all kinds of studies that show that more than half of all the ads used by brands don’t move the needle. They don’t create brand preference at all. That’s the benefit neuromarketing offers to advertisers: You can identify those ads that simply don’t work and will annoy the viewer. Good neuromarketing studies can perhaps help an advertiser choose what works best or at least engages the consumers the most. They can eliminate the ads that are ineffective or destructively bad. 

MN: In the scholarly article “Is Neuromarketing Ethical? Consumers Say Yes. Consumers Say No,” the authors mention that another top concern for neuromarketing is customer privacy. Have you seen any privacy issues in neuromarketing?

RD: Traditionally, neuromarketing studies were not highly personalized. Taking a small group of consumers, testing them and then scaling up the results doesn’t really raise privacy issues. 

Now, with increased digital information and trackability, we have allowed more personalized approaches. I’ve seen some companies claim that they can ask a consumer a small number of questions and determine which quadrant of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator they fall into, for example, which might dictate a different marketing approach. It’s hard for me to say how effective this is, but the possibility certainly exists. There are psychological factors being added to your digital profile along with all your other behaviors that are being aggregated. 

If you combine all this and target ads to people with specific characteristics, then that could be a good or a bad thing. It’s like if you are looking for a new suitcase, and as a result of your behavior, you start seeing suitcase ads everywhere. That could be good because it’s showing you other options than the ones you considered, or it could be really annoying and creepy if you already bought the thing. 

Personality-targeted ads could be the same way: You might find that you’re seeing better ads because, by and large, an untargeted ad from a consumer standpoint is the worst kind of ad. An untargeted ad is very likely to be meaningless. Maybe ads targeted to you based on your behavior or some personality characteristics would be a good thing. On the other hand, some people don’t want targeted ads because they don’t want to be identified or tracked. 

MN: It seems neuromarketing is a piece of the puzzle, but as you said, marketers and advertisers have to stand on a set of principles. Would marketers be wise to consider how they’d want their own data used as consumers?

RD: Right. One area that is particularly sensitive is political marketing. People could see neuromarketing techniques as even more creepy when using them in politics versus selling detergent or beer.

MN: Sure, and there’s more potential to use data to target different political groups so that only those groups see the ads—so-called dark advertising​.

RD: Right. And again, that’s not necessarily a bad thing in an abstract sense. If you have a product that’s going to appeal to a relatively limited number of people, then it’s great. You’re spending less on advertising and you’re not annoying the people who don’t care about your product. When you apply it to some sort of distasteful political subculture where you’re trying to aim only at a hate group, that gets to be undesirable.

MN: How should marketers stay vigilant in using neuromarketing ethically?

RD: Ask if the outcome is going to be good for the customer. Advertisers are always trying to make ads more effective—that’s been true since the first days of advertising. Neuromarketing is a tool for eliminating the worst ads, not necessarily creating ads that are going to drive consumers into doing things they don’t want to do. But you do have to get to a deeper question: Is the product or service you’re advertising good to the buyers you’re targeting? 

Hal Conick is a freelance writer for the AMA’s magazines and e-newsletters. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @HalConick.