Advertisers and Politicians Hunt for the "Buy-Button" in Your Brain

Saturday, 23 January 2010 00:52 By , t r u t h o u t | Op-Ed | name.

Advertisers and Politicians Hunt for the "Buy-Button" in Your Brain
MRI brain scan. (Photo: jsmjr / Flickr; Edited: Lance Page / t r u t h o u t)

Editor's Note: Truthout is joining with the World Business Academy in an effort to demonstrate popular opposition to the unethical practice of neuromarketing manipulation. Please visit the Stop Neuromarketing page to view a video and sign the petition.

Guard your reptilian brain. Corporations and politicians are trying to tap into it to use the latest brain research and sales techniques to influence your buying and voting patterns.

The idea is this: you have three brains, the new brain that thinks, the middle brain that feels and the old brain that decides. The old brain (also called the "reptilian brain" because it dates back 450 million years and is like reptiles' brains today) is focused on survival. It is the gatekeeper that controls what gets to the other two brains.

Using a form of marketing known as neuromarketing, corporations and politicians are using MRIs, EEGs, and other brain-scan and medical technology to craft irresistible media messages designed to shift buying habits, political beliefs and voting patterns, as described in the World Business Academy's video "Spellcasters."

By measuring activity in different parts of the brain in response to an ad or other media message, advertisers and political consultants can create advertising campaigns that tap into the pre-conscious brain. The idea is to assess central nervous system response to certain ads, the better to skirt the viewers' rational thought.

Since the dawn of commerce, sellers have tried to figure out how to best pitch their wares, grab attention and close the deal. Sales pitches have always been designed to create a willing buyer, often by creating needs and wants and then offering up a new product to satisfy them.

Clever and unscrupulous sales pitches are nothing new. They helped create a nation of smokers until litigation revealed that tobacco companies hid known risks. The court cases led to big damage awards, new warning requirements and, finally, fewer smokers.

The use of music, images and emotion to manipulate the consumer and voter is also nothing new. But neuromarketing involves a degree of intrusiveness and manipulation that needs to be exposed and stopped. Consumers pushed back when advertisers turned to subliminal advertising - the practice of flashing an image for a tiny fraction of a second, too fast for the cognitive brain to process. It's time to push back again.

Neuromarketing is sometimes defined to include not just the use of brain scanners, but also the use of eye tracking and skin sensors to assess the power of an image or media communication. Whether or not there is any bright line that divides appropriate and inappropriate uses of technology to get inside people's heads in the figurative sense, here is a stand we should take and fight to hold: technology that literally gets inside people's heads in an attempt to circumvent their rational thought and animate their preconscious brain is unethical and unacceptable. Brain scanners go too far. Marketing and public relations firms should be limited to tools that measure the external manifestations of people's reactions to media messages.

Neuromarketing undermines our core democratic values of freedom and self-determination. No wonder the practice is still largely in the closet. Most companies and political parties do not want to become known as master manipulators, whether they're selling a consumer product or a political candidate. But just this week, Bark Group Inc., a multinational European advertising company, issued a release about neuromarketing technology that Bark is developing with a brain research firm MindMetric, to produce ad campaigns that will create a stronger emotional response in consumers.

Spooked? If you aren't, you should be.

Powerful and well-funded corporate interests already wield too much political power. If neuromarketing catches on as a favorite tool of politicians and their masters, 2010 will make the totalitarian mind control games described in George Orwell's frightening book, "1984," look like child's play. Big Brother is watching you.

Congress should hold hearings to investigate the commercial and political uses of neuromarketing so the public can learn what companies and political candidates are using neuromarketing research to manipulate consumers' and voters' choices. The Democratic and Republican parties and all 2010 political candidates should disclose their neuromarketing research and expenditures. The public should demand that companies pledge not to use neuromarketing or other unethical marketing techniques.

That you, the reader, take action is more important now than ever in light of this week's Supreme Court decision that allows corporations to spend as much as they want to influence voters in federal elections. The decision wipes out a century of law that somewhat curbed the power of corporate money over Congress. If not countered by determined citizens fighting back, it could spell the end of our 200-year experiment with democracy.

The fact that 72% or more of the U.S. economy is consumer-controlled means that we can - and must - use our dollars to impact corporate decision making, or all is lost. People must put their money where their values are, and corporate America will listen - because our purchases make their cash registers ring. We may have lost tremendous power at the ballot box but we can control society from the cash register.

There is one shining example where a depressed minority in America without the right to vote, opposed by every formal institution in society, channeled consumer spending to change the political course of our nation’s history. That was the grape boycott in the 1960s led by migrant farm workers and Cesar Chavez who said, "please do not buy grapes, so we can live without being subjected to toxic pesticides and inhuman working conditions." American consumers responded with their dollars and history was changed forever.

That example of consumer power does not apply only to disenfranchised political minorities. It is the beacon we must follow if we are to save our free will and the legitimacy of our electoral system.

Almost two centuries ago, Thomas Jefferson warned about the power of "moneyed corporations" to distort good government. He wrote about his hope to "crush in its birth the aristocracy of our moneyed corporations, which dare already to challenge our government to a trial of strength and bid defiance to the laws of our country."

Sign the neuromarketing petition. The World Business Academy will keep a public record of those companies that pledge not to use neuromarketing. Those are the ones you want to do business with. Your choice to be individually responsible matters now more than ever. It's time to put your money where your values are.
 

About the Authors:

Rinaldo Brutoco is a well-known futurist and the founding president of the World Business Academy, a nonprofit think tank launched in 1987 with the mission to educate and inspire the business community to take responsibility for the whole of planetary society. He is a frequent public speaker and a prolific author on renewable energy, climate change and sustainable business strategies. He is the co-author of "Freedom from Mid-East Oil" (2007), a leading book on energy and climate change, and "Profiles in Power" (1997) a college textbook on nuclear power and the dawn of the solar age.

Madeleine Austin is vice president of the World Business Academy; editor of the World Business Academy's 2007 book, "Freedom from Mid-East Oil," and a member of the Hawaii Energy Policy Forum. She is the co-author with Rinaldo Brutoco of "The Nuclear Nemesis"  (ABA, Trends May/June 2008) and "The Nuclear Nemesis Redux" (Forum CSR International, Dec. 2008).

Last modified on Saturday, 23 January 2010 09:32