Deflating the Neuromarketing Craze


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I have never made a secret of my dislike of so-called neuro-marketing. My main argument is that it perpetuates a kind of misbehavior on the side of marketers that dates back to the days of the “Hidden Persuaders” but should have been retired long ago: the rude and inhumane habit of not talking to people on eye-level in a straightforward fashion, looking them in the eye — but to a hidden homunculus within their brain that actually directs their behavior.

There’s a straight ancestral line from the “implicit system” or “autopilot” of neuro-marketing to Freud’s unconscious. And marketers were happy to keep alive the illusion that the magic silver bullet can be found — in the shape of a headline, key visual or slogan — that will make target subjects seek their product like lab rats seek the pellet dispenser.

Marketers have good reasons to cling to the idea of man as a predictable stimulus-response machine. Without predictability, the rationale behind their budgets would evaporate. The alternative, talking and listening to people on eye-level, looks messy comparing with cause-and-effect, mass-broadcast marketing plans, and doesn’t seem to scale.

Against these concerns of a multi-billion marketing industry, my criticism of “bad manners” is much too soft to effect any change. But now there’s some harder currency of evidence that proves that man is fundamentally no stimulus-response machine and that our free will is not “an illusion”, as neuro-scientists believe, but a pervasive trait of life.

Björn Brembs, a professor of learning biology in Berlin, has shown in an article for the Proceedings of the Royal Society that there’s a large and growing library of scientific data supporting the existence of the free will.

Free Will 2.0 — as I reluctantly call it, and just for clarification, and just once and here — doesn’t revive the romantic notion of man as the chosen species, endowed with a soul, beyond the grasp of science. The new free will instead is an essential piece of evolution’s engineering, designed to render individuals less predictable for predators. And it occurs as early as in fruit flies, sea snails and cockroaches.

So, now that we can and should finally wave good-bye the illusions of “hidden persuaders”, “subliminal signals” and “unconscious purchase drivers”, shouldn’t that make us ready to re-invent marketing as a discipline for adults!

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