Neuromarketing is simply the latest incarnation, says Joseph Turow, a professor of communication at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. “There has always been a holy grail in advertising to try to reach people in a hypodermic way,” he says.
[ A “hypodermic way”? Interesting choice of language, there; am I the only one who instantly thought of junkies slumped in dark rooms after reading that sentence? ]
Major corporations and research firms, he says, are jumping on the neuromarketing bandwagon because they are desperate for any novel technique to help them break through all the marketing clutter. “It’s as much about the nature of the industry and the anxiety roiling through the system as it is about anything else,” he says.
Personally, I harbour a (totally irrational and unfounded) hope that persuasion marketing will turn out to be a relic of the pre-networked world; when there are infinite channels through which to market, then all marketing is noise, and hence doomed to failure (or at least to being avoided) unless it has a tangible value for the audience independent of the product or service it is trying to sell.
But opinions are divided as to whether neuromarketing might be anything more than the next rung on the ladder up from the focus group:
Mr. Chester says the government traditionally hasn’t restricted advertising for adults because adults have defense mechanisms that can distinguish between truth and untruth.
[ I rather suspect that those “defence mechanisms” are not innate, but learned… and even then only with varying degrees of effectiveness, as a glance at contemporary political debate makes patently clear. ]
“But if the advertising is now purposely designed to bypass those rational defenses, then the traditional legal defenses protecting advertising speech in the marketplace have to be questioned.”
Proponents of the technique, however, say neuromarketing is simply a more accurate barometer of consumer response than traditional focus groups.
Dr. Pradeep of NeuroFocus, for one, says his company will never use subliminal techniques — like embedding stimuli that last 30 milliseconds or less — that people can’t consciously register. And while other neuromarketing firms have been involved in political campaigns, testing candidate speeches and ad scripts, NeuroFocus has not.
“If I persuaded you to choose Toothpaste A or Toothpaste B, you haven’t really lost much, but if I persuaded you to choose President A or President B, the consequences could be much more profound,” Dr. Pradeep says. “The fact that we can use this technology to do this doesn’t mean we should.”
Moreover, at this point, neuromarketing probably isn’t sophisticated enough to realize some of its critics’ worst fears.
Like any technology, neuromarketing is effectively morally neutral; it’s the hand that holds the gun that commits the murder, so to speak. And while I have some concerns about technologized marketing reaching into our brains, I also have the utmost confidence that someone somewhere will be building a spamblocker for it. Everything can and will be hacked.