Why Neuro-Alarmists Have It Wrong


A week doesn’t go by with some blogger reading about neuromarketing, fMRI ad studies, and the like, and then posting, “This is creepy – very Orwellian! Pretty soon we’ll all be buying stuff we didn’t want or need!” While neuroscience DOES have a variety of ethical issues that will be increasingly important, techniques like advertising evaluation with brain scans shouldn’t be a big deal in neuroethics discussions. The fact is that good ad people knew which buttons to push LONG before the first MRI scanner. Ad guys like Leo Burnett and Bill Bernbach crafted campaign after campaign that changed consumer behavior – people saw the ads, and bought the product. And, at the end of the day, that’s the only test that really matters. Even if you know that Commercial A lights up viewers brains differently than Commercial B, that doesn’t tell you which will sell more product, or that Commercial C might outperform both A and B by a wide margin.

I’m sure we’ll get a better handle on brain mapping and the buying process, and that marketers eventually will be able to conclude that one ad is likely to be more effective than another. The key benefit, though, won’t be ads that hypnotically convince people to buy a product. Rather, some ineffective ads will be eliminated before a company spends millions of dollars running them, and perhaps marketers will get some clues as to how to refine successful ads and make them a bit more productive. What isn’t going to happen is a spate of geek-produced ads the magically outperform the best work of the ad geniuses of yesterday and today. Masters of creative advertising like David Ogilvy and Jay Chiat didn’t have fMRI tools, and didn’t need them to tell them what would alter consumer behavior. (Here’s a list of the Top 100 Ad People of the last century.)

Would the great ad people of the past have used brain scans if they had been available? I’m sure they would have, at least for big, risky campaigns. Not to come up with the concept, of course, but perhaps to refine and tweak a bit, or to evaluate an individual ad. And even that assumption is contingent on a better understanding than we have right now of how to interpret the data, and to relate that data to actual consumer behavior. Without that understanding, it would be all too easy to let inconclusive brain scans steer one away from a risky campaign that might end up redefining the market.

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