Advertising Age revisits neuromarketing, this time in the form of a blog post by Jonathon Feit, Neuromarketing and Diversity Go Hand-in-Hand. Writing about the 2007 American Magazine Conference in Boca Raton (nice work, if you can get it…), Feit posits:

Neuromarketing — assuming its science can be translated into a meaningful technology — would finally enable marketers to reach out and pinprick consumers not using broad strokes like geography; not even using concentric criteria like demographic and psychographic information within a geographic area.

Rather, imagine the implication of knowing one’s customer at the deepest biological level! To do so is necessarily to recognize the biological commonalities that define Homo Sapiens — and at the same time, to wend through the labyrinth of upbringing, education, genetic proclivity and emotion that comprises each individual’s quintessential uniqueness.

The endgame of neuromarketing would enable a seemingly paradoxical celebration of diversity at the most fundamental, humanistic levels, tucked inside a double-helix of commonality. It would provide proof-positive that, for all our differences, we are built (and function) in largely the same way.

That’s an intriguing idea, but I fear that it may give neuromarketing a bit too much credit. My concern isn’t that neuromarketing will show that everyone harbors racist tendencies (although Malcom Gladwell’s Blink suggests that even the most open-minded people have subliminal reactions that differ in response to different races).

Rather, just as the search for a “buy button” is doomed, so are searches for universal common ground in reaction to advertising. Our brains aren’t like personal computers that come pre-loaded with standard firmware and software. They have been developing since birth, and have been heavily influenced by family, society, education, culture, experience, and everything else in the surrounding world. Our brains are plastic (in the sense that they can change), too – the brain will rewire itself in respose to injury or even activities like music training.

Hence, I think it unlikely that neuroscientists will find that we are really all the same inside our skulls. People who react differently on the surface to advertising or other media will no doubt be found to have different patterns of activity in their brains. While superficial similarities will be (and already are) evident, in most cases I think marketers will do what they have done in the decades before neuromarketing: study our differences to target their ads more effectively. Of course, sometimes it could be useful to look for common ground: Super Bowl ads, for example, will be viewed by an extremely diverse cross-section of society.

One shouldn’t dismiss Feit’s suggestion out of hand. It is entirely possible that in some cases neuromarketing studies could show more useful customer segmentation strategies than groupings based on simple racial and ethnic characteristics. I’m an optimist, as Feit seems to be, and I hope he is right.

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