Date posted: 01/12/2016 5 min read

Is neuromarketing becoming unethical?

As neuromarketing gathers pace and we can be increasingly manipulated, pressing ethical questions need to be answered

In brief

  • Research reveals positive brand associations can almost override the basic pleasure response
  • Neuromarketers want to understand what brains are doing when making purchasing decisions
  • We can learn about the ways in which we can have our choices directed and manipulated

By Patrick Stokes

In the mid-1980s, Coke was losing the “cola wars”. And science, it seemed, offered a stark explanation for what was going wrong.

Countless blind taste tests showed that when people didn’t know which cola they were drinking, they preferred the sweeter taste of Pepsi. So Coca-Cola embraced the science and developed a new, sweeter formula.

As expected, focus groups preferred the new taste. The stage was set, it seemed, for a science-led comeback.

Instead, the result was a marketing debacle of legendary proportions.

New Coke debuted in April 1985. Positive initial reaction quickly gave way to an unprecedented consumer backlash. The company was swamped with hundreds of thousands of complaints. New Coke became the butt of late-night comedians’ jokes and the target of lawsuits.

Within three months Coke announced they were going back to the old formula. Consumers were delighted, sales soared, and by year’s end Pepsi was cemented back in second place.

Some muttered that New Coke wasn’t the spectacular own goal it appeared, but a cunning plan to revitalise the brand.

In fact, Coke was caught out by one of the most stubborn problems of marketing psychology: it asks us what we want when we don’t always know ourselves. Our subjective reports are unreliable, and our self-assessments of why we choose the things we choose are even worse.

Then, in 2004, Read Montague and his team at Baylor College did the same Coke/Pepsi blind tastings, but with a twist: scanning the participants’ brains at the same time.

As in the 80s, subjects preferred Pepsi if they didn’t know what they were drinking, but preferred Coke if they did. But the scans showed different activity in different parts of the brain in each case.   When the subjects were tasting blind, one of the brain’s reward centres (the ventromedial prefrontal cortex) responded more actively to Pepsi.

But when they were told they were drinking Coke, there was more activity in the medial prefrontal cortex — a part of the brain dealing with higher cognitive processing and memory.

In other words, positive brand associations could almost literally be seen overriding the basic pleasure response.

Inside your head

Welcome to the exciting, and scary, world of neuromarketing.

The premise is simple: consumer behaviour originates in brains, and so if we can understand what brains are doing when making purchasing decisions, we can tailor marketing accordingly.

It’s not just about brains though. Thinking, as “enactivist” philosophers of mind have recently argued, ain’t all in the head. It’s something we do both within our whole bodies and in partnership with our environment.

Nicole Vincent, associate professor of philosophy at Georgia State University, stresses that talk of “neuromarketing” shouldn’t be limited to brain imaging: it’s involved in everything from how Google collects your usage data to the way supermarket displays are arranged.

Supermarkets have long known, for instance, that shoppers are more likely to purchase items on easy-to-reach shelves, simply because they’re more likely to notice them. But now this sort of data is becoming more fine grained.

Our eyes aren’t steady like cameras; they’re constantly darting around at considerable speed and without our awareness. In a crowded shopping mall or supermarket aisle, the difference between purchase and non-purchase can therefore hinge on incredibly quick and tiny eye movements. As a result, eye movement tracking has become an increasingly standard tool for understanding how people interact with both online and bricks-and-mortar environments.

Marketers know what you’re looking at better than you do, and that means they know how to make you notice what they want you to buy.

If the eyes are the window to the soul, other techniques are bypassing the window and looking at the soul directly — or at least the brain. Electroencephalograms (EEG) measure electrical impulses near the surface of the skull, while functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) visualises bloodflow to determine brain activity. Both help to show which parts of the brain are involved in the sorts of behaviour-determining processes marketers are keen to get a grip on.

Brain imaging offers marketers the tantalising prospect of sidestepping the murkiness of human psychology: you can be mistaken about what you want, but you can’t lie to a brain scan or tell it what you think it wants to hear.

The field is still relatively new, but these techniques are already being used to determine how consumers actually respond to messages — which can be quite different to how they think they respond.

Vincent points to a 2012 UCLA study on three different anti-smoking ads. Traditionally, advertisers would show the ads to test audiences and ask them to rate what they saw. But that won’t necessarily tell you which ad is actually most likely to get people to call a quit smoking helpline.

Brain scans, however, gave much more valuable information.

“What people thought they were going to be persuaded by wasn’t, in fact, the most persuasive ad. However the brain imaging data did predict correctly which advertisements would be the most convincing,” Vincent says.

There’s some evidence neuromarketing can even help you pick a hit song. In 2012, researchers at Emory University played songs from then-unknown artists to teenagers in fMRI machines. They then tracked the sales of those songs over the next three years. 

What the subjects actually said they liked didn’t predict subsequent sales — but the activity in their ventral striatum did. Our brains can spot a hit, even if our minds can’t.

So, should we be worried by this? Are such techniques intrusive? Unethical? And if so, how should we respond?


Persuasion is nothing new. We’re constantly bombarded by messages designed to convince us to act in particular ways. But these messages operate on things we would think of as us: our fears, hopes, desires, self-images. That allows us to continue to believe we’re acting freely when we respond to them. Someone may be trying to persuade us, but we allow ourselves to be persuaded.

Neuromarketing bypasses that level of conscious agency level altogether.

While psychology has always treated us as beings that behave in predictable ways — and whose behaviour can therefore be manipulated — neuromarketing seems to reduce us even further, to brains. No “ghost in the machine”, just a fleshy computer ripe for hacking.

But the real ethical issues aren’t just with treating people as predictable machines (in a sense, all marketing does that anyway) but with the extent to which we can fight against what Vincent terms “non-argumentative modes of persuasion”.

Not all non-argumentative persuasion is unfair. I might not realise you’re manipulating me into buying this lemon of a used car with a well-rehearsed patter or an ingratiating manner, but it’s at least possible to detect these techniques and try to defend myself against them. But what about techniques I can’t notice?

That’s a problem that’s been with us a lot longer than MRI machines, but neuromarketing is finally making us notice it. Brain studies provide new reasons to reassess old standards on different modes of persuading one another, in this case, by reflecting on the fact that there might be certain brain interventions that I can’t detect, says Vincent.

“What we should have been saying some time ago about the old techniques is simply that it’s about fair and unfair forms of interaction with one another.”

Unavoidably, gaining a better understanding of consumer psychology gives marketers power over consumers. And, notes Vincent, brain science gives them even more power than studying behaviour at the psychological level, including power to make people “do things that we reflectively wouldn’t do”.

While psychology has always treated us as beings that behave in predictable ways, neuromarketing seems to reduce us even further, to brains. No “ghost in the machine”, just a fleshy computer ripe for hacking.

Fight back

Vincent suggests consumers can try to take some of that power back.

She advises we learn about the ways in which we can have our choices directed in the moment, in ways that we wouldn’t endorse on later reflection. Such knowledge can then help us to guard ourselves, to know when we’re being manipulated and work against it.

Unfortunately such protection isn’t always possible. That, says Vincent, is when regulation comes into play.

“Here are all these different techniques that are being used against me, and I can’t even do anything about it now that I know about it. Maybe that’s a good reason to say ‘well, I don’t want this power to be exercised over me by those people,’ and then to lobby to avoid certain techniques from being used.”

It may be hard to put the genie back in the bottle though. The ethical issues are real and pressing — but no-one wants to be the next New Coke.

Patrick Stokes is a Melbourne-based philosophy academic and writer.

This article was first published in the August 2015 issue of Acuity magazine.