Crap We Don’t Need?


One of the common views of neuromarketing, often expressed by those who are suspicious of business in general, is that the main purpose of neuromarketing is to manipulate consumers into making unnecessary purchases. In the words of a commenter on a blog post titled, This is Your Brain on Neurotechnology, neuromarketing is intended to make us buy “crap we don’t need and can’t afford.” Sadly, I often hear variations on this comment from all kinds of well-meaning people. Here’s my more optimistic take on the promise of neuromarketing:

First, the idea that neuromarketing can make us do things we don’t want to is bogus. If it was possible to create ads that powerful, the ad geniuses who have given us billions of dollars worth of amazing (and sometimes not so amazing) ads in the last half-century would have already discovered the formula. Sorry, but “super-ads” that turn us into buying drones aren’t going to happen.

Neuromarketing DOES offer the promise of reducing advertising waste by identifying ads that are ineffective or even turn off their target audience. Less annoyance for consumers, and perhaps even lower ad expenditures.

An even greater promise is the potential to make products we really like. Most new products fail, even when market research using focus groups, surveys, etc., predict they will be well-received. Movies and video games are already being tested this way, and the day may not be far off when, say, a new cell phone’s look and feel is neuro-optimized. (It may have already happened!) What’s not to like about that?

Forget about selling “crap we don’t need.” Let’s think about using neuroscience to improve our daily experience with ads that don’t make us switch channels and products we actually love.

  1. Steve Genco says

    Hi Roger,
    Well said. I have tried to make a similar point in several posts on my blog Lucid Thoughts. This theme of “zombie consumers” and “hidden persuaders” is so deeply entrenched I don’t think it will ever be completely dislodged. I suspect it taps into the same primal fears as movies like Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Rationality has little to do with it.

    I think it would help if we all had a little more respect for how our brains actually work. Yes, our minds do operate to a significant extent nonconsciously, but this does not mean we are slaves to our nonconscious “impulses”. A lot of that nonconscious processing is devoted to filtering out much of the noise and clutter that modern advertising and marketing surround us with.

    The trick to brainwashing is that you have to be assaulted with one idea, and one idea only, for it to work. And with 200 different brands of toothpaste vying for our attention, we are hardly at risk for that.

    So I think you are right. The question on the lips of every consumer product developer and marketer I have worked with since opening Lucid in 2006 is “what the heck do these people want, anyway?”

    I think the consumer remains very much in charge of the marketplace. The only hidden persuaders I’m aware of are the neuromarketers who are still trying to sell “the buy button” to naive corporate clients.

  2. José Luis Campanello says

    The same kind of argument probably happened when cars first appeared (“yeah, you are going to make me buy this thing that i don’t need”).

    I think that even the first paid physicians got into this “distrust” pattern (out of suspicion that most people other than me are evil and you will say something that i don’t understand to get money out of me).

    It’s a good sign thou. It means your discipline is growing, as this kind of thing happens only when the general public faces the “new”.


  3. Peter.T says

    My view on this is that people buy things that they not need. Nothing can make you do something, we are totally free in our decision. Even in hypnosis you would not do things, you wouldn’t do in normal state.

    Marketing can only persuade people that they need to buy something or make so good impression, that people will want to buy it.

    There is moral question. If I strongly believe that my product is good for consumers, it’s not scam, it is something I put my hearth to, that it is moral to use any kind of marketing.

    It is imoral if I know that what I am trying to sell it’s just bullshit. I wouldn’t worry about this kind of business because it doesn’t last especially in this time of financial crysis where products which aren’t good enough don’t last.

  4. Tom says

    Great post! We are definitely moving towards a situation where the ‘advertising – market research – product design’ chain of effect works in both directions.

  5. Zachary Constantine says

    In all fairness, if neuromarketing is effective in the least then there is a valid concern that it (like any tool or science) may be put toward uses which some people find acceptable.

    Just as physics preceded the fission bomb, the art of short-circuiting rational thought in the interest of closing more sales has created results which some people find undesirable.

    Is it an example of socially-principled marketing to include a picture of a beautiful woman (perhaps in a revealing outfit) in your advertisements (some of which may have nothing to do with selling skimpy clothing) or does it contribute to the objectification of the gender?

    Look at a few different billboards and consider what someone with different experiences and background might think – I am certain you can find plenty of evidence for the inclusion of sexually-suggestive imagery as it pertains to selling your product, but the standard being set with such activities isn’t necessarily a positive influence throughout society.

    It would be a biased viewpoint to suggest that a tool like the understanding of cognitive processes could be used only for constructive or destructive purposes.

    Love your blog and read it regularly – just thought I’d throw my two cents in here.

  6. Steve Genco says

    Hi Zachary, I think your concerns about marketing are valid. There can be a kind of Gresham’s Law at work – bad currency drives out good. But I think good research, whether neuro or otherwise, can basically only tell you whether a persuasive message is working, not what that message should be. That the myth of the “buy button”. It doesn’t exist. For better or worse, it’s those diabolical ad guys who make up the advertising, not some formula from neuromarketing.

    Your comment about scantily-clad women reminds me to point you to Roger’s classic post “Bikinis, Babes, and Buying” ( Sometimes sex doesn’t sell, and if research points that out, it’s a force for good, yes? Also, you may want to check out this post from the Science Daily blog, which covers an article that found that sex (and violence) in TV programming actually lowered propensity to buy products in associated ads ( So maybe sex mainly sells itself, not products.

    Anyway, we’ll only know any of this if we keep doing the best research we can.9

  7. Speed says

    Steve Genco says: “The trick to brainwashing is that you have to be assaulted with one idea, and one idea only, for it to work. And with 200 different brands of toothpaste vying for our attention, we are hardly at risk for that.”

    The ONE idea that has been pushed on us for decades now, by all forms of advertising, is that we are Consumers first and foremost. We live in a Consumer Society – our lives are defined by what we buy, our economy depends on us being “good consumers,” you are a “winner” or a “loser” based on how much stuff you own. So we endlessly create more junk for people to buy and throw away. Are we a happy, healthy society because we have 200 brands of toothpaste to choose from? Hardly.

    For god’s sake, all you have to do is open your eyes and take a good look at the Western world today. Most people ARE brainwashed; there is little independent thinking anymore. They mindlessly repeat stuff they hear in commercials, they judge people by the brands they consume, they buy crap because their peers are buying it. They have become cattle. Our children today are so far gone in the Consumer Matrix, it’s frightening. Most of the people in my generation (I’m 42) truly are consumer zombies. And you people in the “marketing” industry bear a huge amount of responsibility for that.

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