Neuromarketing in the Age of iPhones

Personal devices could help marketers peer deeper in our minds, but questions remain over credibility and ethics
March 3, 2017 Updated: March 3, 2017

Marketers are hoping to capitalize on biometric data that can reveal feelings we may not even know we have—or would rather not share.

The field of neuromarketing could be on the verge of a breakthrough with the latest smartphones and wearable tech. In the past, neuromarketers operated on the fringes of credibility, but that could change, along with the ethical issues the technology raises.

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Neuromarketing attempts to craft better marketing campaigns and products by measuring subconscious reactions.

That can involve conducting an electroencephalogram (EEG) or MRI brain scan on a test subject while exposing that person to a commercial or product, as was done in 2004 when volunteers took the Pepsi challenge inside a brain scanner. That test revealed how the brain responded differently once the drink was identified—neural evidence of brand recognition.

Neuromarketing is used by 10 percent of marketing buyers and accounts for 1 percent of global market research, according to a 2016 report by LCC, which predicts the market will double in five years.

We are already seeing the emergence of mobiles with in-built eye tracking and biometric measurement capability.
— Gemma Calvert, professor, Nanyang Business School

Neuromarketers claim their wares can develop marketing that appeals to subconscious emotions, but critics say it is riddled with spin and poor science.

Just as lie detectors pick up tiny changes in skin conductivity, devices such as brain scans and EEGs can catch hidden tells, such as blood flow in the brain or electrical activity on the scalp.

Neuromarketers say reaction tests can pick up subconscious biases. For example, a political campaign could use neuromarketing techniques to identify the key words and phrases that trigger positive reactions in potential voters.


But neuromarketing now doesn’t need large machines in specific locations. It can be done online, remotely. Smartphones and watches already contain the tech for some neuromarketing studies.

Some companies claim they can identify values subconsciously associated with a brand just by observing test subjects using a computer. In one format, participants hit keys or touch pads in response to images or messages, their reaction time indicating “gut instincts.”

Online neuromarketing will be the industry standard for testing ad campaigns, prototypes, and packaging designs within five years, said Gemma Calvert, professor at Nanyang Business School in Singapore and a pioneer of neuromarketing.

“We are already seeing the emergence of mobiles with in-built eye tracking and biometric measurement capability,” she said in an email.

Games, apps, and ads will also be tweaked according to feedback from subconscious indicators, picked up in eye gaze, heart rate, and the response time in clicking the buttons, said Calvert.

In 2016, Apple bought Emotient, a startup that uses AI to analyze facial expressions and read emotions. Apple is also reportedly set to include a 3-D camera on the iPhone, which theoretically would be better able to read facial expressions.

But the potential uses for neuromarketing bring ethical concerns. In 2011, France responded to these by banning brain scans for marketing purposes.

A Question of Dignity

James Garvey, author of “The Persuaders: The Hidden Industry that Wants to Change Your Mind,” says he’s concerned our moral system hasn’t caught up with the implications of neuromarketing.

“There is a question of human dignity here. Are we treating people like people with hopes and desires? Or are we treating them as things that we can manipulate based on our understanding of how brains work?”

Hundreds of years of research, and we are using it to sell sandwiches.”

Calvert and other proponents argue that neuromarketing allows consumers to get more of what they want by giving product developers better data.

Like some other neuroethicists, John Basl, assistant professor of philosophy at Northeastern University and an expert on neuroethics, isn’t particularly concerned with the current ethical threat. But he takes issue with the justification that neuromarketing would simply give us what we didn’t know we really wanted.

“Think about lying. Some lies, it seems, are wrong even when they promote well-being,” he said in an email. “One way to explain what is wrong with lying is that it subverts someone’s rational faculties, depriving them of important information that might influence how they decide to behave.”

The motives behind neuromarketing are also important, he said.

“Neuromarketing isn’t an attempt to reveal our desires and then fulfill them. It is an attempt to take advantage of certain mechanisms to shape or instill certain desires or behaviors.”

Some neuroscientists like Karen Rommelfanger, assistant professor of neuroscience and director of the neuroethics program at Emory University, say current practices simply aren’t developed enough to subvert free will.

The “neuro” label is a marketing device in and of itself, says Duncan Smith, managing director of neuromarketing company Mindlab International.

Even academics are seduced by brain scan images. Smith says studies show incorporating brain scan images in a research paper will increase perceptions of credibility.

Some marketing companies use the “neuro” label and brain scan images to look more credible, but many claims lack solid scientific backing, said Smith.

“A lot of the briefs we get asking for EEGs are actually PR dressed up as research,” he said.

Marketing companies want neuromarketing to help validate their own marketing products by proving their approach is superior, he said.

For those worried that neuromarketing could compromise consumers, there may be some comfort from Joe Devlin, head of experimental psychology at University College London.

He said that, in some limited areas, neuromarketing is based on sound research, but some neuromarketers don’t fully understand the limitations of the science they are using.

Science is far from unlocking the mysteries of the mind, Devlin said, dismissing concerns about manipulation.

“Not only can’t it be done, it never will.”

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