Neuromarketing Threat Seems Quaint in Today's Ad Landscape

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The fact is subliminal advertising never became a major threat.
The fact is subliminal advertising never became a major threat.

Have you thought about sending in your entry to an awards competition called EthicMark, whose purpose is to serve as "a powerful way to address the role of advertising in creating a culture of consumption that is depleting the earth's resources and destroying the planet"?

Surely you've got an ad somewhere that shows your unequivocal opposition to destroying the planet. After all, your brand has a measly 2% share of market and you are doing your part to discourage any sort of culture of consumption.

You'd be in good company: Nike, Liberty Mutual and Toms shoes have won. And it won't cost you anything to enter -- in fact, students or other interested parties could enter for you. Judging from the acceptance remarks, the winners seemed truly gratified, beating the other 20 or 30 entries. Entries are due July 15.

But forgive me for advancing the thesis that EthicMark's main raison d'etre is not to provide an awards show -- it's to call attention to the consumer-brainwashing techniques of neuromarketing. Indeed, many of the criteria for the EthicMark contest demand that entrants not use "subliminal messages, brain science, MRIs or endocrinology as tools to manipulate [consumers] for marketing purposes."

Since Vance Packard's "Hidden Persuaders" hit bookshelves in 1957, we've been on guard against the possibilities of organized forces converting our subliminal thoughts to yearning for products we didn't think we wanted.

But the fact is, subliminal advertising never became a major threat because advertisers weren't able to replicate the procedure with any degree of certainty.

Maybe EthicMark would have more appeal if it embraced the dangers of outside forces tracking our very real moves to predict what we will do, as the government is doing. Patterns of our conscious actions seem to be more useful to advertisers (and to who knows who else?) than random efforts to conjure up deeply buried desires.

EthicMark was brought to my attention by my old friend Ron Nahser, who runs an ad agency in Chicago founded by his father in 1939. Ron has a doctorate in philosophy from DePaul University and lectures extensively on business values, ethics, purpose and corporate responsibility.

We ran a story in 1990 on how his agency celebrated its 50th anniversary by conducting a 20-month look at itself. The self-appraisal came out of three questions the agency wanted to answer: What are its values? How widely are they shared? How does the agency live them?

Ron told Ad Age at the time: "We had these goals and these values, but people would ask "Do you live them?' More and more, I realized that we [top executives] can't judge that. That's why we organized the study."

Three years later Crain's Chicago Business ran a story about the agency hiring a hawker of StreetWise, the nonprofit monthly newspaper sold by Chicago's homeless. The Nahser agency got interested in the problem of homelessness during a previous holiday when executives decided to donate money to StreetWise in lieu of giving gifts to clients.

So Ron definitely lives the values he has set forth for his company and himself.

Among the many boards and organizations Ron is involved with is the World Business Academy, a sponsor of the EthicMark ad awards (along with Ethical Markets Media; the Mendoza College of Business at Notre Dame; and ESPM, one of Brazil's institutions of higher education in communication, marketing and business management).

The World Business Academy also puts out an anti-neuromarketing video called "Spellcasters," which "reveals how corporations and political candidates are using MRIs, EEGs and other brain-scan technology to craft irresistible media messages designed to shift buying habits, political beliefs and voting patterns."

The "Spellcasters" video explains that "because of advances in neuroscience and medical technology, the Spellcasters are now able to accurately pierce the human subconscious and unconscious veil. It's an "Orwellian' action which has the potential to inhibit human beings' conscious choosing, whether you're selecting a product, a service or a politician and turn us into a human-like Pavlov's dog."

In addition to the awards, an important charge of EthicMark is to circulate a petition asking businesses to pledge not to use neuromarketing techniques. The petition and signatures are now being prepared to present to Congress, and EthicMark will urge Congress to hold hearings to investigate the commercial and political uses of neuromarketing.

All of this seems rather quaint to me. The EthicMark people appear to be fighting yesterday's consumer-protection battles. Does advertising have the power to infuse consumers with a buying frenzy that will destroy the planet? I have always thought advertising's critics give it entirely too much credit for getting consumers to act like automatons.

On the other hand, if the neuromarketing guys could get together with the big data guys, maybe they could figure out a way to incorporate below-the-surface fantasies with the tracking of rational buying behavior as the new evil of our times, and EthicMark would be the hottest ticket in town.

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