Neuro-Cola: Policy implications (Part 2)

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Based on Dr. McClure’s research, several companies have started to apply neuroscience techniques to marketing (neuromarketing). One such company, Imagilys, which conducts fMRI experiments on people as they watch advertisements, cites Dr. McClure’s experiment as the founding article for neuromarketing. These companies promise to tap into the unconscious decision-making process of consumers so advertisers can optimize their trademarks and make their marketing more effective. Their goal is to get as close to the brain’s “buy button” as they can.

If commercial applications of this research make you worry, you are not alone. Gary Ruskin at Commercial Alert believes that neuromarketing will lead to an increased incidence of marketing-related diseases, more effective political propaganda, and more effective promotion of degraded values. Mr. Ruskin’s concerns may be the reason one neuromarketing company, BrightHouse, was already shut down.

Perhaps the most disturbing part of this work is how early branding affects our decisions. Researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine and Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital found that children as young as 3 years old prefer food in McDonald’s wrappers over the same food in an identical wrapper without the McDonald’s logo. Neuromarketing might produce advertisements that have an even stronger influence on children. There are ways, however, to restrict the uses of neuromarketing. For example, as Emily Murphy suggests, neuromarketing companies could allay concerns about brain-washing if they conform to a code of professional ethics that protects vulnerable groups.

On the other hand, there may be positive applications for this information. We discussed two such applications during the question and answer portion of Dr. McClure’s talk. (1) Neuromarketing might increase healthy behavior by developing a powerful brand for healthy food like organic or locally-grown produce. Health food groups, however, may be at a financial disadvantage in a neuromaketing war. (2) Dr. McClure proposed that this research could also be used to advocate for protecting vulnerable groups (for example, young children whose brains are still developing) from being targets of advertising campaigns. So far, the research does not seem to have been cited for this purpose.

Ultimately, these neuromarketing companies may not add much to advertising beyond what advertisers already know from focus groups and surveys, but we don’t know that. We don’t know what they are doing or for whom they are working; we know just enough to make us worry.    — Kelly Lowenberg


3 responses to “Neuro-Cola: Policy implications (Part 2)

  1. Why/how was BrightHouse shut down?

  2. Kelly Lowenberg

    Dear Alex,
    Thank you for your comment and for visiting our blog!
    Dr. McClure believes Emory University closed BrightHouse in response to threats by consumer advocacy groups.
    BrightHouse was closely tied to Emory University. BrightHouse conducted its experiments with the MRI machine at Emory University Hospital. Additionally, the founder of BrightHouse was an adjunct professor at Emory, and the chief scientist was a professor and vice-chair of Emory’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences.
    In one of Gary Ruskin’s letters to Emory University, he argues that BrightHouse’s research did not meet the ethical standards set out by the Belmont Report, and as a result, Emory University could lose all of its federal research funding. The full letter is posted on line at
    I could not find any statements by Emory or by BrightHouse about why BrightHouse closed, so I cannot say with certainty that ethical concerns were the reason. Considering, however, the bad publicity and the threat to Emory’s funding (the seriousness of which is debatable) those ethical concerns are likely candidates for the reason BrightHouse no longer exists.

  3. The Stanford Alumni Magazine recently published an article that also addresses some of the topics Sam McClure explained during his talk :

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