Is Neuromarketing Ethical?

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When discussing neuromarketing, the topic is likely to come up: Is the commercial application of neuroscience ethically justified?

After all, what can remain of choice freedom of consumers, when a marketeer can influence the subconscious drivers behind behavior? Will their wallets be emptied without them knowing why? And what changes in the consumer in a brainless buying zombie?

In this blog, we’ll dive into the ethics behind neuromarketing. We’ll see that – just like every other type of marketing – the marketeer plays a key role in the ethical application. And, like always, we’ll see that the consumers win at the end of the day – not the marketeer.

“There’s no such thing as evil marketing, only evil marketeers”

Some people morally object to neuromarketing and not to traditional marketing. Why? Because neuromarketing would be able to persuade consumers without them being conscious of it, thereby robbing the consumer of their free will.

Apart from the endless philosophical discussion as to whether or not the free will exists, it is factually impossible to put the ethical line at ‘neuro’. Each type of marketing (partially) influences the subconscious consumer’s mind – whether or not it was intended by the marketer.

A shop owner who furnishes his shop in a nice and clear manner, makes his shop environment more attractive for the subconscious part of the customer’s brain. The effect: The customer is more likely to buy something at this particular shop. Not because consumers take the attractive sale environment into account, but because this subconsciously increases the willingness to buy.

So, playing the subconscious – fancying up the store – has been done since the beginning of time. The only difference is that we start understanding why organizing a store has this influence on consumers. For example, by using the insights and research techniques from neurosciences. The best prehistoric hunter is today’s neuromarketer.

Every argument against neuromarketing is an argument against marketing in general. The ethical question is not about the marketing technique in itself, but the intended goal of the technique. In other words: There’s no such thing as ‘evil marketing’, just ‘evil marketeers’.

Take your responsibility as marketeer

We pose that marketeers in general, and especially neuromarketeers, have a huge responsibility in the application of their insights and research techniques. They actively contribute to what consumers eat, experience, wear, give, get, miss, and consume in any type of way.

Why neuromarketeers in particular?

Within the complete arsenal of marketing methods, neuromarketing research is especially effective. With great power comes great responsibility. When low-quality marketing is being used to promote smokes, no extra cigarette will be lit. With neuromarketing, that’s not the case.

So, as a (neuro)marketeer, you should ask yourself this question before starting any assignment: “What will be the effect if the consumption of this product increases?” Because that will be the result of your (neuro)marketing campaign: An increase in consumption. Will it harm the environment, public health or life satisfaction of others? Alarm bells should start ringing.

Why the consumer always wins in the end

There is no marketing technique that will make consumers buy something they do not want to buy. It only increases the likelihood that someone will by something they wanted in the first place.

Mendacious marketing might boost sales on the short term yet will boomerang right back within the blink of an eye. Especially in the current era, where everything is communicated to everyone by the use of social media. The unsatisfied consumer can and will be heard.

Marketing techniques saturate quickly in effectivity. Neuromarketing is – just like all other effective approaches – very profitable for a brand whose competitors aren’t using it yet. What happens when every brand has the perfect commercial, retail environment, and product proposition? Brain research will then only be a basic requirement to stay in the game.