Neuromarketing: teach your children well

Sarah: I am a proud and conscious resistor of marketing. I chose the ABC over commercial channels at every opportunity. I mute the volume when wrinkle-free faces tell me I could clean my toilet better. I grumpily analyse product claims and lables to determine whether I have been mislead. I drill the children:

*insert shrill voice* “And WHY do they make it look like it’s fun to eat at their ‘restaurant’?”

*insert dreary voice* “….because they just want our money, Mummy”

To further reduce my chances of being conned, this week I attended the Seven Deadly Sins:Envy – Neuromarketing event at the RiAus, Adelaide.

I was most excited to see Natasha Mitchell hosting – as a regular listener to her ABC Radio National show All in the Mind, I find her insight and capacity to add the human touch to scientific information outstanding. So once I’d stopped gleefully clapping my hands in anticipation, I settled in to listen to Natasha and her panel of 3 experts.

Bang. Pretty much straight up, any hopes I held of resistance to marketing and its influence were dashed. Phil Harris told us that consumers are significantly affected by marketing and the vast majority don’t even realise it. Furthermore, it’s very difficult for consumers to enunciate what influences them and why they make decisions. As a result, companies have been looking beyond the traditional, highly subjective focus group and started on a quest for solid, objective measures of the impact of advertising on mood, desire and decision-making. To identify a human ‘buy button’. Enter neuromarketing – the use of the theory and tools of neuroscience in marketing. Theory based on roughly 150 years of analysing anatomical, cellular and molecular aspects of the brain; tools like EEG (electroencephalogram) and fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging), which measure brain activation in terms of electrical pulses and blood flow respectively.

Right. Brilliant. I was a sucker and didn’t event know it. My brain was ignoring its own good intentions. I soothed myself with the thought that this could be all talk. Perhaps neuromarketers were getting ahead of themselves. Are neuroscientific techniques really ready to come out of the lab and into the ‘real’ world? Guest Shane Moon said yes – his neuromarketing research company offers services to assist advertising companies measure the impact of their ads on the brain. He can tell clients whether a particular advertising clip triggers a brain response reflective of being ‘engaged’, or if a positive or a negative impact was achieved. He can advise clients on the optimal length of an ad – buying 60 second block on the television may not be worth it if peak, positive engagement can be achieved in 30 seconds.

If I’d been hooked up to all that equipment they’d mentioned, the machines would be screaming ‘engaged and negative!’ right about then. Shane and his team had the tools to know what marketing my brain responded to and when. Was it even legal? Well….yes. But, as the 3rd panel member Peter Reiner explained, it needs careful thought and regulation. There is a growing movement towards creating a code of ethics to guide marketers and scientists in the neuromarketing realm. A code which regulates use of humans as neuromarketing subjects, ensures their right to informed consent and offers some guidelines as to how data collected can be used and interpreted.

Well, phew! But what about those not engaged as subjects in studies? Does the general public also deserve informed consent when it comes to neuromarketing? Just like the recent public demand to know when models have been digitally altered, do we have the right to information about how advertising is tweaked to trigger certain brain responses in us? I think we do. So lets support the creation of a neuromarketing code of ethics. And make sure we keep supporting wonderful science outreach programs such as those offered at the RiAus and via All In The Mind. And watch The Gruen Transfer. And teach our kids about marketing. Even it it does get dreary from time to time.

Excerpts from the Seven Deadly Sins:Envy – Neuromarketing event at the RiAus, Adelaide were broadcast as the 26 March edition of All In The Mind on ABC Radio National. Podcast available here.

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