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Does Neuromarketing Press A 'Buy Button' In Your Brain?

The executive director of Commercial Alert, a consumer group highly critical of Neuromarketing, wrote, “What would happen if corporate marketers and political consultants could literally peer inside our brains and chart the neural activity that leads to our selections in the supermarket and voting booth? What if they then could trigger this neural activity by various means, so as to modify our behaviour to serve their own ends?”

This kind of response to Neuromarketing is not uncommon.

Is Neuromarketing Controversial?

The idea that Neuromarketing is any more controversial than traditional market research techniques rests on two assumptions. One, that Neuromarketing methods allow marketers to read the minds of their consumers, and two, that if they are able to read minds, they would surely have the ability to influence and control their minds as well.

Another complaint levelled against Neuromarketing is its so-called ability to push an irresistible ‘buy button’ in our brains thereby forcing us to want things, some of which may even be harmful to us, without being consciously aware of its influence.

While the technologies used in this field are advanced, they can by no means ‘read minds’ and there definitely isn't a simple ‘buy button’ in our brains. The brain is the most complex organ in the human body with billions of interconnected neurons, and we’re only beginning to scratch the surface of how it all actually works.

Why Is Neuromarketing Thought To Be Controversial?

What Neuromarketing does do, is provide us with some valuable insight regarding human emotion and decision-making processes. These insights, however, cannot be used to control us. Rather, these insights are improving the products, services and marketing activities of companies to better meet the needs, wants, and desires of their target markets. As a result, these target market will have better consumer experiences. Despite this, Neuromarketing has emerged from a somewhat controversial past.

Much of this has to do with the fact that many Neuromarketing practitioners were secretive about their methodological approaches, and operated within a closed black box. In addition, the field was young and the evidence base for applying many of the clinical neuroscience techniques to commercial market research was small. However, it has in the last few years matured and come into its own as a legitimate industry with a set of established market research methodologies. So much so that it is set to change, replace and, in some cases, supersede some of the more common traditional market research practices, such as focus groups and survey research. Those who argue that Neuromarketing is controversial are, therefore, not fully acquainted with the field or understand the methodologies and principles used.

The field has, and to a large degree still is, been fairly academic and closely related to the clinical neurosciences. This has meant that the methodology and the associated language of discussing findings have made it hard for non-practitioners to understand Neuromarketing methodologies and the resulting findings. This, however, has changed significantly over the last few years as the methodologies have become more accessible, translational, and embedded within the market research field.

Neuromarketing is now no more controversial than any other field of applied neuroscience. The methodologies used are robust and findings are reported more and more with transparency. The Neuromarketing Science and Business Association has outlined a clear code of ethics and its members uphold the highest standards of scientific rigour, which is often not found in other market research organisations. This may even stand Neuromarketing apart from traditional market research. Neuromarketing is scientific in its approach, which emphasises reliability, replicability, and precision. It also embodies the scientific philosophies of truth.

Many traditional market research methodologies that have have been popularised on a global level lack this kind of rigour. This then raises the question of where the controversy may actually lie...

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