I’ve been hearing the invented word “brandwashing” for years now, but this combination of “branding” and “brainwashing” received new exposure when the New York Times suggested it as a synonym for neuromarketing.

But should we worry that a technique that probes subconscious brain patterns might be used to unduly influence consumers, turning them into shopping robots without their knowledge and consent? Indeed, neuromarketing is setting off alarm bells among some consumer advocates, who call it “brandwashing” — an amalgam of branding and brainwashing. [Emphasis added. From The New York Times – Making Ads That Whisper to the Brain by Natasha Singer.]

The article also quotes Penn prof Joseph Turow as saying, “There has always been a holy grail in advertising to try to reach people in a hypodermic way,” he says. The neuromarketing techniques described in the article are the use of EEG and biometrics to analyze consumer reactions to ads, as performed by firms like Neurofocus, Sands Research, and others.

Sadly, this juxtaposition of describing passive market research (like EEG ad studies) while talking about “hypodermic” persuasion and “brandwashing” provides fuel to crackpot conspiracy theorists.

EEG Studies Do Not Equal Brainwashing

Neuroalarmists generally are clueless about the details of neuromarketing as practiced today; they just know that it sounds scary. Seeing how people react to ads, brands, and packaging is something that marketers have been doing for decades, albeit with mixed results.

This does NOT mean that ads found to be more engaging will turn consumers into mindless drones. For many decades, marketers have been doing their best to develop powerful and effective ads. Sometimes, they succeeded in establishing awareness of a brand or product, or causing an uptick in sales. Never, though, have they taken over the brains of consumers in the way some people think neuromarketing can. NEWS FLASH: If there was a way to make ads effective enough to take over the brains of consumers, that would have happened long before EEG and fMRI arrived on the market research scene.

Why Wouldn’t We Want Better Ads and Products?

Most new products fail, and many ad campaigns have so little effect on sales that they are a total waste of money. Ultimately, consumers pay for these failed marketing efforts in the form of higher prices. In addition, we all have to put up with watching ineffective, boring ads because some firm’s marketing team launched the campaign without adequate testing. Personally, I like ads that engage me. While I fast forward past the endless stream of repetitive dreck that populates most commercial TV, I watch the Super Bowl more for the ads than for the game. Not all Super Bowl ads are winners, but their originality and creativity make them a lot more engaging than the usual fare.

If one takes the position that using neuromarketing studies are wrong, what one is really saying, “We want more boring ads, more new products that fail in the marketplace, and fewer products that people really like!”

The truth is that people are often incapable of articulating what they really like. EEG, fMRI, and biometrics may provide a somewhat more accurate way of measuring their preferences when compared to focus groups or surveys. These technologies do NOT inject brand preferences into consumer brains, so let’s lose the “brandwashing” idea before it gains more currency.
Image via Shutterstock

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