Called “Satan’s little helper”, the advertising industry has never had a good image.  Perhaps it doesn’t really care what people think.  After all, its bread and butter comes from the corporate sector, and being damned as ruthless manipulators is a good thing if you’re looking for someone to sell your product.

Advertising is the handmaiden to capitalism.  If the efficiencies of mass-produced products are to be realized, they cannot be sold by word-of-mouth.  Second, competition depends on producers being able to sell consumers the benefits of their products.  Conservative economists argue that advertising is just about transmitting useful information to help consumers make choices.

It beggars belief that Satan’s little helpers would be earning the stratospheric salaries if their jobs only required transmitting information.  They earn their keep by finding new, clever ways to manipulate consumers to buy products that they don’t want or to creatively promote products, not for their benefits, but to elicit an emotional response.

Such criticisms have not caused the advertising industry a moment’s regret, as it pursues the Holy Grail. If they could only read people’s minds, they could discover the “buy button” and press it—and keep pressing it.  Think it’s just science fiction or just another below-the-belt-hit on the advertising industry?  Then you haven’t read Buyology, written by marketing guru Martin Lindstrom.  Using fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) brain scans, his book reports the results of research in which scan technology was used to peer into the minds of over 2,000 people from around the world. The result allows advertisers see how people respond to their products and different sorts of advertising by monitoring the parts of their brain that light up on the screen.  These parts can be linked to emotions—fear, pleasure, reasoning or anxiety—the very emotions that advertisers tap into. The brain expends only 2% of its energy on conscious activity, with the rest devoted largely to unconscious processing. Thus, neuro-marketers want to read the unconscious mind so they can influence buying decisions.

Not everyone is pleased.  “It sounds like something that could have happened in the former Soviet Union for the purposes of behavior control,” says Gary Ruskin, executive director of the advertising watchdog group Commercial Alert.  Jeff Chester, the executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, claims that neuro-marketing is “having an effect on individuals that individuals are not informed about.” Furthermore, he argues that regulation on advertising has been light because it is assumed that adults have a rational capacity to discern what is true and untrue and to have the ability to determine whether or not they need a particular item. “If the advertising is now purposely designed to bypass those rational defenses . . . protecting advertising speech in the marketplace has to be questioned.”

With marketers devoting ever more effort to snaring children as consumers, neuro-marketing can turn wee mites into compliant consumers and to pester their parents to buy, buy, buy.  Little wonder marketers call kids “wallet-carriers.” Better still, habits learned in childhood can last a lifetime. So companies who capture children with advertisements from the day they are born can look forward to a lifelong relationship.

If you want to glimpse into the future, check out SalesBrain, which claims to the world’s first neuro-marketing agency.  According to its website, “find the buy button in your customer’s brain” by allowing SalesBrain to help design “sales and marketing materials to speak to the reptilian brain!”  This proposition is all about circumventing consumers’ rational decision-making abilities by tapping into the primeval parts of their brain.  If you think that this technique is on the fringe, the New York Times discovered that companies like Google, CBS, and Disney, as well as some political campaigns, have used neuro-marketing.

More than 50 years ago, Vance Packard, in his book The Hidden Persuaders, caused a stir when he described how advertisers played on people’s unconscious desires in trying to influence them. His warnings have receded over the years as it was clear that advertisers were not particularly skilled into taping into unconscious minds.  Neuromarketing has changed this, and perhaps we should revisit Packard’s warning that “large-scale efforts are being made, often with impressive success, to channel our unthinking habits, our purchasing decisions, and our thought processes…. The result is that many of us are being influenced and manipulated, far more than we realize, in the patterns of our everyday lives.”

What does neuro-marketing hold for the future? Advertising executives, the servants of Mephistopheles, can look forward to the day when they no longer need to bargain for people’s souls, because they will have the tools to read minds.

6 Comments for this entry

  • Greg says:

    This sounds preposterous, but as someone who has worked in the advertising industry I can say that it’s not too far from the truth. I have an upcoming essay about the topic, which I’ll share with you later.

    Packard’s criticisms have been dismissed as a conspiracy theory about subliminal messaging, but his book The Hidden Persuaders actually dealt with “motivational research” – a forerunner of the much more sophisticated brain scans you write about. So Packer’s warning is as relevant today as ever.

    The real problem here is that so many people percieve advertisers’ ability to control consumer demand as benign. There is a perception that the advertisers are actually helping consumers by giving them what they want. The truth is that advertising both reflects consumer demand and shapes it. As John Kenneth Galbraith wrote in The Affluent Society in the early 60s, advertising’s role is to create desires. We seem to have forgotten this, or are no longer as concerned about it. That’s a worry.

    Thanks for the blog post – a very informative piece.

  • Fiona says:

    Seems to me advertisers have already got the power to encourage people to buy useless things. After all, the industry has been using sophisticated market research and psychology tools for a long time to influence the public’s unconscious. I’m not sure it’s as new and scary as you suggest.

  • Quinn says:

    Is it just me that I don’t really understand their horror about neuro-marketing? Advertisers have ALWAYS tried to find ways to tap into consumers’ emotions to tempt them into buying products. That’s why they hire focus groups to test their commercials on: to see what works and what doesn’t. To me, the fMRI is basically an extremely expensive version of that. HOWEVER, the watchdog groups are acting as if the advertising industry is proposing to perform brain surgery to completely eliminate rational thought and turn us all into impulsive zombies. Yeah, your emotions and insecurities might be manipulated (hasn’t that been the way of commercials for centuries??), but rational thought still exists.

  • JT says:

    This is nothing new. (A trip down the cereal aisle with a tyke should remind us of that!) This is where parents should come in, to hopefully stop kids from buying things they don’t need. If watchdog groups truly want to counter marketing to children, they would focus on teaching parents how to effectively handle temper tantrums in stores.

  • Tina says:

    Wrong target. What you should be criticizing are adults who possess weak parenting skills.

  • Trevor says:

    Why pick of Google, Disney and other companies for being successful?

    Okay, two things. One, isn’t one of the reason these companies are so successful is because they provide quality services/goods (or at least better than their competitors)? Neuro-marketing may get consumers to purchase the product the first time, but it won’t make them STAY. I don’t care how appealing that marketing campaign is or how many of my “emotions” it tries to tap into, it can never trump shoddy goods/services. And two, if the fMRI can really “read” people’s minds and find out their likes/dislikes, wouldn’t this inevitably result in improved products? Sorry, I don’t see the harm in that.

    All in all, the watchdog groups haven’t truly convinced me that neuro-marketing is the mind rape everyone else is so horrifically certain it will be.

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