A few years ago, while reading an article on neuromarketing, for the first time I came across this question – is neuromarketing ethical? While thinking about this intriguing problem, I asked myself: Is an ax a tool or a weapon? I’m sure that we could, without much discussion, agree that an ax can be both at the same time.
But let us return to our fundamental question: Is neuromarketing ethical? To answer this question, we have to define what neuromarketing is, what its research methods are and how we use them in research.
Neuromarketing can be defined as a distinct and new scientific field of marketing which seeks to investigate the consumer reactions to specific marketing activities, as well as understand how they make their purchasing decisions through the use of scientific methods.
To simplify, neuromarketing enables marketers to “read minds (thoughts)” of consumers.
From that very fact raises the question of the ethics of neuromarketing.
Among the most used methods in marketing research are:
- Functional magnetic resonance imaging – fMRI (measures changes in activity in particular parts of the brain)
- Electroencephalography – EEG (measures activity in specific regional spectra of the brain)
- Positron emission tomography – PET (a brain imaging method that gives insight into brain structures which are active during imaging, as well as their activity levels).
- Sensors – (measure changes in a person’s physiological state, such as heart rate, respiration rate and galvanic skin conductance measurement).
When talking about the ethics of applying scientific neuromarketing research methods, the following should be emphasized:
- The methods which we use in neuromarketing are similar to those already used in medical diagnostics and as such are generally accepted.
- None of the methods which we apply are invasive so that the research participants do not feel any pain or discomfort.
- All participants in neuromarketing research participate voluntarily and with written consent.
Therefore, given the above characteristics of research methods, we can conclude that their application is not contrary to the established ethical principles which we follow in scientific researches.
Let’s go back to our example with an ax. If the ax serves us to chop firewood or to cut wood in our garden, then the ax is a very useful tool.
However, if the ax serves us to injure someone or, in the worst case, deprive them of life, then the ax is a very dangerous weapon.
Whether the ax is a weapon or a tool depends on who uses it and for what purpose.
If the results of the neuromarketing research are used to offer a better, more useful and acceptable product or a more comfortable and acceptable service, then neuromarketing is extremely ethical. However, if its results are used to manipulate people or their emotions in any way, threaten their dignity, or, as some critics of neuromarketing say, to abuse science for commercial purposes, then the ethics of neuromarketing is questionable.
Finally, we can offer a conclusion which can apply not only to neuromarketing but to any other area of human activity: Neuromarketing is as ethical as those who use it.