Does neuromarketing trick your brain? An introduction to the ethics of neuromarketing

Essay 2012 12 Pages

Communications - Public Relations, Advertising, Marketing, Social Media


Table of Content

Neuromarketing: Introduction

Ethical implications of neuromarketing

Deontological ethics // Ethics of principle

Teleological ethics // Ethics of consequences

Ethics of virtue

Business ethics



Works cited

Neuromarketing: Introduction

As a consequence of the advanced preoccupation with the human brain during the last years, the long displaced subconscious has moved back into the focus of researchers’ attention. In the late 1990ies, Gary Zaltman detected that “subliminal motivations” play a major role in decision-making processes like purchase decisions. Brought forth under the less threatening term of “the implicit”, the subconscious, which is the preserve of approximately 95% of our thoughts and mental stirrings, became a key concept again for neuroscientists, neuroeconomists and finally neuromarketers.[1]

Neuromarketing is a conglomeration of not only so recent disciplines, among them marketing, market research, brain research, cultural studies and psychology.[2] It can be defined as the analysis of the neuronal effects of sales-promoting measures.[3] It is based on the assumption that there are no merely rational procedures in the human brain for what reason marketing, which rests upon the verbal presentation of sales arguments, cannot create a powerful brand association and is thereby not likely to stand out from the multitude of commercials customers are faced with. Instead, neuromarketing focuses less on rational arguments or the formalities of advertising but it aspires to create a strong response and meaning in the customers’ heads. The tools by which neuromarketers try to directly address the recipients’ subconscious are the four so-called “codes” or “cues”: language, stories, symbols and senses.[4] These codes operate as a bridge between the product and profound motivations like harmony, domination and stimulation.[5]

These kinds of “implicit” or “subliminal” communication strategies were firstly conveyed to a broader public already in 1957 when Vance Packard published his bestseller “The Hidden Persuaders”. It referred to a faked study by James Vicary who had claimed that he increased the sale of cola and popcorn in a cinema by using consciously imperceptible flashes of advertising.[6] Although the experiment turned out to be nothing but a hoax for Vicary’s marketing business, the American public was startled. It was the starting point of a stormy debate about the ethicality of neuromarketing which is, today, more relevant than ever because fundamental advances in the exploration of the brain are occurring faster and faster.[7]

Ethical implications of neuromarketing

Neuromarketing is (1) an interdisciplinary, application-oriented field of research as well as (2) a marketing technique that leans on the findings of neuroscience. It affects people in two basic dimensions:

(1) the conduct of research itself and
(2) the application of this research.

Since neuro-related marketing techniques were made available to a broader public for the first time, many people and also the media expressed their concerns about the ethicality of such practices. Consumer advocate organizations have formed or included the issue in their working domain, for example the “Center for Digital Democracy”[8] and “Commercial Alert”[9].

In its public perception, neuromarketing can be compared to other technological developments, which have the potential to fundamentally transform the way we live. Preimplantation diagnostics, for example, have raised basic questions about matters of reproduction through to whether there is life we do not consider worth living. Neuromarketing, on the other hand, induces reflections on the potentially invasive and manipulative power of companies and their marketing departments amounting to how much privacy and autonomy we have got left, if salesmen find a way to directly address our subconscious.

Both developments share the characteristic to be concerned with highly complex constituents of human existence: the genome and the brain. We are still far from understanding or even mastering either of it. The average consumer’s lack of knowledge about how the human genome or brain really works contributes massively to his fear and aversion of such technologies. Moreover, it exacerbates the discourse about ethical implications. Consumers and scientists often fail to discuss on common ground which again provokes misunderstanding and alienation.

On the upcoming pages, the ethical significations of neuromarketing shall be discussed from different perspectives: (1) classical normative ethics, (2) business ethics and neuroethics, as well as in a summarizing conclusion.

Deontological ethics // Ethics of principle

The word deontology is a derivation of the Ancient Greek words for obligation or duty (deon) and study (logos).[10] Deontological ethics suggest that the key to the morality of one’s actions lies in what one is doing, in contrast to why or with what kind of consequences. It assumes that there are absolute principles which provide clear guidance on the right path to choose in a morally demanding situation. One important means of assessing one’s actions in terms of morality is Kant’s Categorical Imperative that asks whether you act according to a “maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law”[11]. Kant’s second formulation of the Categorical Imperative reveals more precisely how it can be linked to the issue of neuromarketing: “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end”4. One could argue that, if marketers use their knowledge about the mechanisms that make their customers’ brain want to get something, they are treating these human beings not as an end in themselves but as a means to increased sales. On the other hand, one could, firstly, never prove that they do so. Professionals involved with neuromarketing are likely to claim that they are doing what they are doing for their customers by providing them with more interesting and relevant communication and by responding more adequately to their needs and wants. Secondly, the concern that customers are misused as a means for increased sales and profits is not exclusively bound to neuromarketing at all but rather refers to any marketing as well as capitalism itself.

Contiguous to The Ten Commandments, there is another famous deontological code of ethics, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Godina explains that, from his point of view, subliminal marketing strategies, especially when they address children and young people, constitute a more subtle violation of “immaterial” human rights (in contrast to more easily perceivable physical violations).[12]

Another possible starting point is the human desire for growing knowledge and progress. Since it is obviously a persistent and powerful motive of human behavior, it could hardly be considered unethical. Progress could even be viewed as a general ethical principle. For a long time, it was rather undoubtedly the engine of ameliorated living conditions for all people. Only in our current and the last century, it has been questioned whether progress – in its predominantly technological understanding – is inherently good or bad because it seemed to also invoke negative consequences, for example alienation from nature and resulting environmental destruction or devastating technologies like the nuclear bomb.

But if one cannot label progress in general to be unethical, then it is also difficult to explain why growing knowledge about how our brain reacts to product and brand communication should be considered unethical. This explanation would require us either to forbid the practical application of such knowledge, which already did not succeed with plenty of other research before. Humanity appears to be incapable of not making functional use of their knowledge – even the above-mentioned most destructive technology of all, the nuclear bomb, “had to” be not only “tested” under more or less scientific conditions but also “applied” in an actual war. The other option to explain coherently why neuromarketing is deontologically wrong would be to distinguish the human brain as a “prohibited zone” for research (and its deriving application). But in order for this to be even close to realistic, we have passed the crucial time slot a long time ago. For several years now, people attempt to strengthen and optimize their brains just like any other organs, even by means of neuropharmaceutics like Ritalin. The buzzwords for this enduring trend are “mind style” and “neuro-enhancement”.

Teleological ethics // Ethics of consequences

The word teleology is a derivation of the Ancient Greek words for end or purpose (telos) and study (logos).[13] Teleological ethics suggest that the key to the morality of one’s actions lies in the consequences of what one is doing, in contrast to what is done or why. It is therefore also known as consequentialism. It assumes that a person should always “choose the action that maximises good consequences”[14]. A subdomain of consequentialism is utilitarianism which considers morally right what causes “"the greatest happiness for the greatest number"[15].

Accordingly, the ethicality of neuromarketing depends on its possible positive and negative consequences some of which are presented in the following table.

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Teleological ethics can be hard to apply because most things have or could have both negative and positive consequences, as is also the case with neuromarketing. From the table of its possible consequences, one can easily see that most effects have ambivalent implications which makes neuromarketing like many other modern technologies a two-sided coin.

What is a clear condition of a consequentialist perspective on ethics on the other hand is that, if there are different consequences, they result in a different moral estimation. In terms of neuromarketing, research has proven that children under twelve and seniors from their late fifties on are more sensitive to subliminal messages than middle-aged adults. This is founded in the prefrontal cortex, “an area that plays a key role in levelheaded decision making and long-term goals. It takes years to develop and then starts to lose some of its swagger when we’re in our late 50s. That means kids under 12 and older people are more susceptible to urges that come from the amygdala, the emotional hot button in our heads”[16]. Thus, neuromarketing directed at these predisposed target groups must be considered less ethical than neuromarketing addressed to middle-aged people with a fully operative prefrontal cortex.

What derives from such reflections is that neuromarketing gets less ethical the more negative consequences it induces for anybody. From this again it follows that researchers and practitioners, who do not want neuromarketing to be considered unethical, must take over the responsibility to protect people from such bad consequences. From my point of view, this is an individual responsibility for everyone involved but all the more so for a whole profession, be it the profession of scientists or communication advisors concerned with advertising, public relations or political marketing. The deontological concept of a code of conduct which provides ethical standards may serve as such a means of protection.

Ethics of virtue

The word virtue is a derivation of the Latin words for man (vir), respectively virtus meaning manliness, bravery or moral excellence.[17] Virtue ethics suggest that the key to the morality of one’s actions lies in why one is doing so, referring to the agent’s moral character, in contrast to what is done or with what kind of consequences. It assumes that, in a morally demanding situation, the “right act is the action a virtuous person would do in the same circumstances”[18].

Being “person rather than action based”11, virtue ethics cannot provide an answer to the question whether neuromarketing is ethical or not. It can merely point us to the assumption that the ethicality of neuromarketing is vitally dependent on the moral character of the individuals which conduct research on or apply the techniques of neuromarketing. As Gratz puts it: “The potential for harm seems to be there, if an ‘unethical’ person wants to use subliminal”[19]. The question, that is not far too seek, is of course: How should one know whether the subliminal marketing messages at stake are designed by a neuromarketer who can be considered a virtuous person or not? The customer does not know this person and even if he or she would do so, what should enable him or her to make a judgment about the neuromarketer’s character? Thus, the relation between customer and marketer is fundamentally affected by trust or mistrust. This is the case with all professionals who are equipped with special powers and a deriving special responsibility like policemen, judges or doctors. In order to build and maintain this trust, a code of conduct can be helpful. It still does not prevent ‘unethical’ persons from engaging in neuromarketing but if they are perceived to violate the code of conduct, they can be impeded to continue working in this field.

Business ethics

Every business has to face the moral dilemma of combining two often incongruent responsibilities:

(1) the commitment to the interests of others
(2) and the responsibility towards itself (in terms of returns and continuity).[20]

From this enduring challenge, the discipline of business ethics has arisen mainly during the 1980ies and 1990ies. Despite these efforts to integrate ethical considerations into business strategies, many people are followers of what Jeurissen calls “self-interest hypothesis”. From his point of view, this is an “unsound theory” because it cannot be falsified and is, therefore, “rather an expression of belief, or a statement based on hidden assumptions”[21]. Values and norms constitute two important pillars of (business) ethics. The relationship between them is one of “ends and means”[22]. Whereas one’s values provide an answer to the question “What do I consider (morally) desirable in my life?”, norms are formulated to indicate how these visions can be reached. For instance, a company engaged with neuromarketing could think of “transparency” as a prominent value and deduce the norm to publish the groundwork of their marketing techniques on their website. This example also illustrates very well the basic dilemma of business ethics. Revealing major parts of the knowledge one’s service is based on could facilitate one’s competitors’ performance and therefore result in diminished returns. Being committed to your stakeholders’ interests, on the other hand, requires respect for your customers demand for transparency. The potential danger of economic loss can, again, be extenuated by a profession-wide code of conduct because it creates a level playing field for all competitors – at least on paper, of course.


Neuroethics are probably the most recent development in ethical sub disciplines. The term refers to the applied ethics of neuroscience and its derivatives. Confusingly, it is sometimes also applied to neuroscientific findings on moral feelings and ethical behavior. Experts from the Canadian “National Core for Neuroethics”[23] consider “(1) [the] protection of various parties who may be harmed or exploited by the research, marketing, and deployment of neuromarketing and (2) [the] protection of consumer autonomy if neuromarketing reaches a critical level of effectiveness”[24] to be the most important ethical challenges posed by neuromarketing. Nevertheless, they perceive neuroethics to be “well-positioned to offer guidance for beneficent and non-harmful deployment of neuromarketing techniques”[25]. As far as the moral judgment of neuromarketing is concerned, this might be a head start of neuro-ethics in comparison to traditional ethical perspectives: Being familiar with neuro-scientific research facilitates a more dispassionate view on the threats but also opportunities of neuromarketing. The experts’ analysis amounts to the proposition of an “industry-wide code of ethics”, which shall be “adopted by all researchers and vendors of neuromarketing and enforced by a discerning marketplace of neuromarketing consumers doing business with companies voluntarily adhering to the code of ethics”[26]. It is designed as a “basis for immediate and short-term action in the neuromarketing community and longer-term empirical research”[27]. As the authors also admit, a code of conduct for such a dynamic field of research and business inherently requires constant monitoring of and adaption to new developments. The condensed major components of the proposed code are:

(1) “Protection of research subjects. […]
(2) Protection of vulnerable niche populations from marketing exploitation. […]
(3) Full disclosure of goals, risks, and benefits. […]
(4) Accurate media and marketing representation. […]
(5) Internal and external validity. […]”[28]


During the past years, we experienced ever faster growing knowledge about the human brain, our subconscious, emotions and decision-making processes. The application of this knowledge is also on the rise. Although it concerns a particularly sensitive issue, from my point of view, this is a development we can only try to handle – not impede.

Neuromarketing had to face oversimplifying criticism, as the notion of a “buy button” illustrates. The truth is that the brain is distinctly more complex than that. Many people have an exaggerated image of the expressiveness of brain imaging methods, but “just because we can see neurons firing doesn't mean we always know what the mind is doing”[29]. Many also share an outdated understanding of communication: Meaning and significance are not “contained” in the message, but they are created by the recipients, depending on what they have learned and memorized during their lifetime, thereby being individual and non-controllable.[30] These are the basic reasons because of which I am convinced that, with the help of a precise and constantly modernized code of ethics, neuromarketing will be more of a fruitful scientific achievement than a threat to the ethicality of our society.

Works cited

"Categorical Imperative."Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Web. 23 June 2011. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Categorical_imperative>.

"Consequentialism."Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Web. 23 June 2011. <http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/consequentialism/>.

"Deontology - Wiktionary."Wiktionary, the Free Dictionary. Web. 23 June 2011. <http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/deontology>.

Dooley, Roger. "Neuroethics vs. Neuromarketing." Web log post. FutureLab. 17 Feb. 2007. Web. 23 June 2011. <http://www.futurelab.net/blogs/marketing-strategy-innovation/2007/02/neuroethics_vs_neuromarketing.html>.

Godina, Bojan. "Unsichtbare Religion des Subliminalen Marketings in den Medien: Ein epochaltypischer Beitrag zur Medienbildung bei Kindern und Jugendlichen." Diss. Universität Heidelberg, 2007. Print.

Gratz, J. E. "The Ethics of Subliminal Communication."Journal of Business Ethics 3 (1984): 181-184. Web.

"Introduction to Ethics: Consequentialism."BBC - Homepage. Web. 23 June 2011. <http://www.bbc.co.uk/ethics/introduction/consequentialism_1.shtml>.

"Introduction to Ethics: Virtue Ethics."BBC - Homepage. Web. 23 June 2011. <http://www.bbc.co.uk/ethics/introduction/virtue.shtml>.

Jeurissen, Ronald, ed. Ethics & Business. Assen: Van Gorcum, 2007. Print.

Kershner, Isabel, and Mark Landler. "There's a Sucker Born in Every Medial Prefrontal Cortex."The New York Times. 26 Oct. 2003. Web. 23 June 2011. <http://www.nytimes.com/2003/10/26/magazine/there-s-a-sucker-born-in-every-medial-prefrontal-cortex.html?pagewanted=8>.

Murphy, Emily R., Judy Illes, and Peter B. Reiner. "Neuroethics of Neuromarketing."Journal of Consumer Behaviour 7 (2008): 293-302. Web.

National Core for Neuroethics. The University of British Columbia. Web. 23 June 2011. <http://neuroethics.ubc.ca/National_Core_for_Neuroethics/Home.html>.

"Neuromarketing - Commercial Alert."Commercial Alert - Protecting Communities from Commercialism. Web. 23 June 2011. <http://www.commercialalert.org/issues/culture/neuromarketing>.

Raab, Gerhard, Oliver Gernsheimer, and Maik Schindler. Neuromarketing: Grundlagen - Erkenntnisse - Anwendungen. 2nd ed. Wiesbaden: Gabler, 2009. Print.

Rothenberg, Randall. "How Powerful Is Advertising?"The Atlantic Online. June 1997. Web. 23 June 2011. <http://www.theatlantic.com/past/docs/issues/97jun/advert.htm>.

Scheier, Christian, and Dirk Held. Wie Werbung wirkt: Erkenntnisse des Neuromarketing. Freiburg: Haufe, 2010. Print.

"Teleology - Wiktionary."Wiktionary, the Free Dictionary. Web. 23 June 2011. <http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/teleology>.

"Virtue - Wiktionary."Wiktionary, the Free Dictionary. Web. 23 June 2011. <http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/virtue>.

Wells, Melanie. "In Search of the Buy Button."Commercial Alert - Protecting Communities from Commercialism. Forbes, 1 Sept. 2003. Web. 23 June 2011. <http://www.commercialalert.org/issues/culture/neuromarketing/in-search-of-the-buy-button>.

"Yahoo Combines Neuromarketing & Behavioral Targeting: FTC/Congress Should Investigate Work to Elicit "Non-Conscious" Responses."Center For Digital Democracy. Web. 23 June 2011. <http://www.democraticmedia.org/yahoo-combines-neuromarketing-behavioral-targeting-ftccongress-should-investigate-work-elicit-non-co>.


[1] Raab, Gernsheimer & Schindler 2009, p. 8

[2] Scheier & Held 2010, p. 22

[3] Raab et al. 2009, p. 6

[4] Raab et al. 2009, p. 236

[5] Scheier & Held 2010, p. 98f.

[6] http://www.theatlantic.com/past/docs/issues/97jun/advert.htm

[7] http://www.futurelab.net/blogs/marketing-strategy-innovation/2007/02/neuroethics_vs_neuromarketing.html

[8] „ We believe it's time for the FTC, Congress and the EU to enact safeguards to govern the use of neuromarketing.” http://www.democraticmedia.org/yahoo-combines-neuromarketing-behavioral-targeting-ftccongress-should-investigate-work-elicit-non-co

[9] “We oppose the use of neuromarketing for corporate or political advertising.” http://www.commercialalert.org/issues/culture/neuromarketing

[10] http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/deontology

[11] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Categorical_imperative

[12] Godina 2007, p. 382 et seq.

[13] http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/teleology

[14] http://www.bbc.co.uk/ethics/introduction/consequentialism_1.shtml

[15] http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/consequentialism/

[16] http://www.commercialalert.org/issues/culture/neuromarketing/in-search-of-the-buy-button

[17] http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/virtue

[18] http://www.bbc.co.uk/ethics/introduction/virtue.shtml

[19] Gratz 1984, p. 183

[20] Jeurissen 2007, p. 13

[21] Jeurissen 2007, p. 15

[22] Jeurissen 2007, p. 56

[23] http://neuroethics.ubc.ca/National_Core_for_Neuroethics/Home.html

[24] Murphy, Illes & Reiner 2008, p. 293

[25] Murphy et al. 2008, p. 294

[26] Murphy et al. 2008, p. 295

[27] Murphy et al. 2008, p. 299

[28] Murphy et al. 2008, p. 298f.

[29] http://www.nytimes.com/2003/10/26/magazine/there-s-a-sucker-born-in-every-medial-prefrontal-cortex.html?pagewanted=8&src=pm

[30] Scheier & Held 2010, p. 32 et seq.


ISBN (Book)
File size
395 KB
Catalog Number
Institution / College
University of Applied Sciences Groningen
Neuroethik Neuromarketing neuro marketing neuro ethics




Title: Does neuromarketing trick your brain? An introduction to the ethics of neuromarketing