Saturday, 25 January 2014

Neuromarketing: Good Or Bad?

Date started: 24/1/14              Date Completed: 24/1/14              Date First Published: 24/1/14

You might be aware that i have done a mini-essay on a certain quack company that sells games, with the claim that it will make people keener of mind. That is not neuromarketing, and it is not the subject of this mini-essay. I want to write about the nature of marketing in general, and whether the use of techniques to exploit our susceptibility to persuasion, is something we should fear, and maybe even reject. That is what i shall do...

Like with any science, the techniques developed for use in marketing are tools that can be applied for good or evil.

Nuclear power, for example, can be used to light a city of 10 million people, or it can be used to destroy a city of 10 million people. What you choose to do with it, is a decision that could make you laudable or reprehensible. And that is why it's the politicians, with their fingers on the big red buttons, that should take the flack for nuclear weapons - not the scientists who pursue knowledge for knowledge's sake, naively or not.

And so it is, with the tools of marketing.

There is no (known) way of just reaching into someone's mind and... well, changing their mind. If you're sufficiently strong-minded, or aware of the tricks that might be employed, then you can more easily shrug off persuasive influences. Or, like me, you might just be really difficult to convince :-D

The intent of marketers is to hone a technique by which they can change people's minds. Oh yes - that is what marketing is for - please don't any of you embarrass yourselves by denying it! The entire point behind advertising, in general, is that it changes non-consumers of a product, into consumers of a product - your product - the one you advertised. If advertising never succeeded in this, then there would be no advertising para-industry, and no research being done into 'neuromarketing' either.

You might find this trend increasingly scary - this bid to influence the way we think - to corrupt our decision-making processes, and leave us drowning in useless products that we can barely cram into our homes, at the expense of our bank balances. Well, you're not alone.

But neither is neuromarketing. As we grow up, we all learn rules that are gracefully titled 'social skills'. We might be autistic, and have great difficulty picking them up, but the intent is to convey them to us, and condemn us if we haven't mastered them by adulthood!

The whole point of 'social skills' is that they influence the way people treat us - by learning social skills, we learn how to sculpt others' perceptions of us - essentially, social skills are for manipulating our peers. And that is what marketing is for. Some people will even use this paradigm to encourage jobseekers, for example, to 'sell themselves' more.

But we won't necessarily use these abilities for evil - we might use them to persuade someone to take their medicine, for example, or finish their work, or see something through, consider someone else's point of view, or add persuasive power to a logical argument.

Neuromarketing is contingent on learning how people respond to advertising - their attention spans, features that catch their eye, the cultural contexts in which their product will sell better - black eye-liner to goths, for example.

Or nappies and baby-food to pregnant women. Sometimes the algorithms that are already in use know more about a teenage girl than their own father does:

We know that the intent of neuromarketing is not selfless - it's not social, and it's not philanthropic - it's not the NHS persuading people to join a fitness group, or even the R&C persuading people to file their reports in time - it's intended to convince people to spend more money on products they didn't previously want to buy.

I'll attest this: i find the whole idea of neuromarketing... quite creepy. Another form of manipulation that i find creepy is seduction. Let's face it: the whole point of seduction is to change a person who doesn't want to have sex with you, into someone who does... ummmmm :-/

We could be using these skills to improve effectiveness in classrooms and lecture halls - by attuning to the pupils' and students' concentration spans, presenting data in a way that can easily be assimilated into their minds, and utilising examples that they find easier to engage with.

The techniques that are used in contemporary marketing, and the techniques that might be used in neuromarketing, are not intrinsically bad - they can help us learn - but in the avaricious hands of a profit-motivated company, they will be used to fill our heads with distractions and destructive thoughts. Think of tobacco advertising, and the marketing of 'fast food' to children, for instance.

But neuromarketing is the use of these techniques for the purposes of selling products. So with this specific definition: thumbs up, or thumbs down?

Thumbs down.

But the tools that are used in neuromarketing?

Thumbs up. Let's put them to good use.

If you haven't yet done so, go back and click on that link... or click on it, here: The Checkout did a great expose that's well worth watching. It's certainly scary, the way the biggest companies - the ones most dehumanised by scale, and empathic distance from the customer - have committed to marketing schemes that are designed to, basically, own us!

We should all be very wary of any entity that seeks to hoard data about us, and certainly any of those entities that are explicitly motivated by profit. "Knowledge is power", as they say, and if a profit-motivated company knows our susceptibilities, then they have us 'by the short and curlies'. This is why the Data Protection Act exists - with equivalents, around the world - to protect people from abuse by entities that deal with information about them.

You might have heard about the genetic 'testing' company - 23andMe - that has been in the minds of Science reporters, recently, for, to put it bitterly, screwing people over. Their genetic tests don't actually work, it seems - and this is a common problem with profit-motivated companies that offer such tests. I've written, more generally, about the hazards of medical screening, before, but it seems 23andMe, akin with 'neuromarketers', have a secondary agenda - to stockpile people's personal data for sale to third-parties, in flagrant breach of their trust, but with the potential to make those like Anne Wojcicki and her company stinking rich!

23andMe, by the way, have been told to stop selling their genetic tests, by the USA's Food and Drug Administration, having spent the last six years blagging rather than presenting evidence of efficacy, and are also involved in a separate $5 million class action lawsuit for misleading advertising! {Class action lawsuits represent multiple people at once}

23andMe wrote on its blog in 2008 "Wikipedia, YouTube and MySpace have changed the world by empowering individuals to share information. We believe this same phenomenon can revolutionize healthcare". Not if those individuals deem you untrustable, it can't!

So the techniques employed in marketing are generic, and the techniques involved in neuromarketing are just more effective techniques than their predecessors. Those same techniques can also be used for good, rather than evil, and those that would use them for evil, whether blindly or sightedly, are designing a world that no-one can really be benefitted by.

When it comes to advertising, all the fatcats of the world face the same problem as in Medicine - like Ben Goldacre says in Bad Pharma - when it comes to medicine, we are all in this together. If the director of a pharmaceutical company gets immensely rich, by corrupting the medical evidence-base (censoring negative results) then they will hamper progress, and inhibit the development of working medicines. It won't matter whether they're rich or poor - if the 'best' isn't very good, then they can't do much better than the poor person.

We are all going to be consumers of medicine, someday, and we are all going to succomb to marketing, too.

It all comes down to what we're prepared to put up with -- someone who works in Pharma will strike a wry smile at misleading claims on TV... "that kind of thing funds our vacations, honeybun" ...and someone in Marketing will do the same when they walk down a city street plastered with adverts. They judge it to be worth it, because their special interest biases their perception.

But in an absolute frame of reference, is it worth it, to suffer this barrage of persuasion?

San Francisco banned the 'smellvertising' of cookie-flavoured milk, in 2006, on various bases, but the main one being the exacerbation of obesity. People who overeat generally feel more hunger than people who do not - i, for example, stay thin because i'm just not that hungry. 'Bigger' humans i have met seem eternally hungry - their hunger sparkable by the mere mention of food. Biologists know this as a system hinging on the chemical 'ghrelin'. There are two mechanisms by which we feel hunger - one proportional to the depletion of our fat cells, and one proportional to our exposure to tasty stuff. Our stomachs release ghrelin whenever we're exposed to a tasty smell, or even the idea of something tasty, and some people experience this more powerfully than others. There is only so much that self-control can achieve - fat people genuinely do have it harder than thin people!

On this basis, smellvertising, and food advertising in general, can be seen, evidentially, as abusive.

As we proceed into the 21st century, markets are likely to become less physical, and more Web-based. If this does indeed happen (which i predict it will not, with products like food, because people feel reassured by tactile experience) then advertising might become the only way for unfamiliar products to become familiar to us. In the past, you'd just see it in the store, and so the only function of advertising was to make you perceive it as better. I remember a reader of New Scientist writing in their Letters section, that their young son had remarked that if the product were worth buying, then it wouldn't need advertising. Give that lad a medal :-D

We really need to get a grip on what we're prepared to tolerate, in letting control of our lives be meted out to companies. But inevitably, getting a grip will require some form of regulation - and the industry won't take kindly to that. If we don't reel them in, now, we might lose all opportunity to, in the future.

My advice, in the meantime: neuromarketing - get smart, know their tricks, always remind yourself what you originally wanted, also remind yourself of what you really need, and remember that even algorithms should be treated as salespeople - don't take their word for anything, try to make decisions in a diplomatically-neutral environment where you're less susceptible to pressure, and don't make decisions when you're tired and vulnerable.

Other than that... good luck.

Oh, and stay skeptical people, stay skeptical. i'm off to buy an electric golf trolley... FOR GOLF!!! :-P

P.S. There's no such thing as 'good luck' and subliminal advertising isn't a thing, either.

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