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

  1. Verilliance says

    Much of the same has been on my mind lately. And it can’t be ignored that part of the problem in these misconceptions is caused by neuromarketers themselves. In an attempt to gain attention to their services, books, websites and so on. Phrases like “buy button” or “Get Inside Your Customers’ Heads” have been used.

    These phrases excite companies and marketers because they ARE looking for the golden switch, but scares the bejeezus out of some consumers.

    Hearing that even YOU don’t know what you want is frightening. Hearing that someone else can see into your brain to “see” what you like when you don’t know is frightening.

    And let’s not forget that some of the most interesting studies kind of DO suggest the ability to manipulate the mind and gain some sort of control. Take the Pepsi Challenge study recently redone with brain imaging. What did we learn there? That people prefer the taste of Pepsi, but the Coca Cola BRAND has managed to over-ride that taste and make people believe they like the taste of Coca Cola more. In other words, a brand can hijack our brains to some degree.

    I think it’s going to be very important moving forward for neuromarketing firms to develop standards for themselves. I know this is in the works, but I’m talking about self-standards that go beyond whatever consensus in the industry is reached. For example, not working with clients who market to children. Not working with clients who market harmful products such as known addictive substances and activities. Not working with political candidates, or at least not unless both parties are using it (though even then this could further squeeze out independents).

    Ultimately though, I do agree with you here. The fear AND the hype is often overblown. If Coca-Cola has managed to convince consumer brains to perceive the taste of Coke differently because of brand association, but they were going to drink soda anyway…no evil has been done to the consumer of sodas.

    I also whole-heartedly agree with the potential to create better products through Neuromarketing. And I’ll go further to suggest that a really positive aspect of all this research is that consumers can be more informed about their vulnerabilities and better prepare themselves for decision making.

    Well now, this is practically a post! Maybe I should just write a full response on my blog. 🙂

  2. Page says

    “…YOU don’t know what you want is frightening…” Question is who is the “YOU”, who is the “you”. Isn’t the point of neuromarketing to talk to the “you” as well as the “YOU”?

  3. Jeff Chester, Washington, DC says

    You do a disservice to an important public policy issue related to consumer and citizen protection in the digital marketing era. Our call for FTC and EU investigation into neuromarketing is based on solid research of the field–much of which we gave to the NYT. Luckily, there are regulators, policymakers, and well-informed health and other professionals who agree that neuromarketing requires serious scrutiny.

  4. Domain Hammer says

    Yes, this is alarming because we are not certain about the quality of the products. Consumers are misled by the brandwashers. However, this is the exact reasons why brand owners pay millions of dollars to these advertisers. I suppose we consumers, having read this article should be more vigilant on these.

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