One of the fears raised by critics of neuromarketing is that by observing the brains of subjects reacting to ads, marketers will be able to make those ads much more manipulative than those developed using conventional approaches. I don’t believe this will happen (as much as some marketers would like it to), and the answer lies in chocolate.

Let’s think about chocolate for a minute – it’s been around for centuries, it comes in many forms and varieties, and it even has addictive properties. What if Microsoft (for example) decided to get into the chocolate market, hired the top formulators from the world’s best chocolatiers, and decided to optimize their final product using brain scans. This would be diabolical indeed… take an addictive product that people already desire, and then scan the brains of subjects while feeding them samples to find which recipe lit up their pleasure centers to the max. (I’ll be a willing volunteer for any such study, by the way.) Diabolical, but would it work? I think not.

First, the researchers would be confounded by individual differences. Some subjects would react most strongly to creamy milk chocolate, others to less-sweet dark chocolate. Adding raspberry cream might send some subjects to new heights of ecstacy, while others would have a “yuck” reaction. Hazelnut truffles might work best for others. Even as the researchers optimized the product for one subject, they would find its appeal to other subjects decline. Eventually, the formulators would be faced with the tradeoff of a single product that had broad, if not spectacular, appeal, or a selection of different flavors and styles that worked better for groups of subjects. Even within these groups, though, some would like a particular formula better than others.

Second, when the chocolatiers tasted their “neuro-optimized” chocolates, would they find them superior to the finest chocolates developed the old-fashioned way? Almost certainly not – centuries of experience and experimentation have allowed skilled chocolatiers to determine what people like, and it’s unlikely that all the brain scans in the world would produce a measurably superior product.

The leap to advertising from chocolate isn’t all that big. People are different. No ad works for everyone, and advertisers have to decide what compromises to make in developing an ad with broad appeal. And, with decades of really skilled minds working in the advertising industry, it’s unlikely that a handful of brain scans will produce a breakthrough ad far more effective than its predecessors.

So where’s the benefit? For both chocolate and advertising, neuromarketing technology can avoid waste. Somebody think that licorice-flavored chocolate is a great idea? The interns who tasted it said they liked it? Before going into production and launching the product at great expense, see how people’s brains respond to the new flavor compared to others. Take people’s expectations and prejudices out of the loop by measuring their real reactions to the product (or ad). Killing off a product that won’t sell or an ad that performs worse than others is a laudable goal, even if super-chocolate and super-ads won’t emerge from the process.