Neuromarketing Ethics: How Far Is Too Far?

Neuromarketing Ethics: How Far Is Too Far?

As the marketing industry developed, researchers dove deeper into buying behavior and buyers’ minds. One early researcher was Edward Bernays—Sigmund Freud’s nephew—who coined the term “public relations.”

Bernays believed that people could be influenced via crowd psychology and psychoanalysis. His “Torches of Freedom” campaign in the 1920s promoted smoking among women as a symbol of liberation, opening a new market to cigarette companies.

Decades later, in 2002, Dutch marketing professor Ale Smidts coined the term “neuromarketing.” Neuromarketing maps neural activity to consumer behavior to help marketers craft more valuable, science-based campaigns. 

It focuses on the why and how of our decision-making, much of it unconscious, and offers a more direct view of the consumer’s “black box.” Neuromarketing has been defined as the third dimension of marketing research, along with qualitative and quantitative research.

Because neuromarketing often targets unconscious processes, it raises a number of concerns:

  • Is neuromarketing manipulation?
  • How far can subliminal marketing go?
  • Who is responsible for sharing and using sensitive findings?
  • Where do you draw the line between what data to use and not use?
  • What remains private?

Some of these ethical questions aren’t new. But neuromarketing’s potential power has made them increasingly relevant.

Why neuromarketing is so powerful

Neuroimaging techniques measure processes such as decision-making, reward processing, memory, attention, approach and withdrawal motivation, and emotional processing, all by means of specific brain-area activations.

That data isn’t available via traditional marketing research methods, whose efficacy relies on the accuracy of consumers’ stated reasons. That’s a major limitation.

We’re bad at predicting our own behavior.

“There is a very long history within psychology of people not being very good judges of what they will actually do in a future situation,” says Matthew Lieberman, a UCLA professor of psychology.

Lieberman studied the brain activity of people who watched public-service announcements about the importance of wearing sunscreen. The subjects were then asked how likely they were to use it. The researchers even gave them sunscreen to ensure they had access to it.

sunscreen on hands.

Meanwhile, neuroscientists compared subjects’ brain activity to their own predictions. A week later, it was time for measurement. About half the subjects had accurately predicted their behavior. The researchers’ model was accurate 75% of the time.

Neuroscience can also detect subtle emotional impacts. For example, using fMRI scans, researchers concluded that attractive ads activate the ventromedial prefrontal cortex and the ventral striatum, which are responsible for emotions in the decision-making process and the cognition of rewards.

In another study, neuroscientists at UCLA scanned the brains of people watching Super Bowl commercials. A Doritos ad stimulated empathy and connection, while other commercials provoked fear or anxiety.

Nationwide Insurance’s ad, which featured Kevin Federline as a failed rap star stuck in a job in a fast-food restaurant, generated anxiety and feelings of insecurity—not the goal of the advertiser, even though the multi-million dollar spot was surely “focus grouped” before getting approval.

Some advance neuromarketing research probably would have saved Nationwide tons of money.

Neuromarketing delivers access to the subconscious.

Until recently, researchers relied on buyers’ abilities to report how they felt about a particular marketing message (via surveys, focus groups, interviews, etc.). This assumed that people were able to describe and predict their own cognitive processes—a dangerous assumption illustrated by the sunscreen study. 

Brain responses offer more objective insights into consumer behavior. Those insights can reduce risks for new product launches or major changes that could define a brand. At a tactical level, companies can improve their customer segmentation and personalize marketing and sales experiences.

For example, by using high-res EEG headsets and eye trackers on Polish and Dutch IKEA customers, researchers learned about consumer reactions to green business strategies, which helped identify which business models customers were likely to accept, never accept, or accept in a few years.

ikea's sustainable platform.

IKEA now has a home solar offering that enables customers to generate their own renewable energy; it also shifted to renewable plastics and offers sustainable, healthy food in its restaurants.

Neuromarketing has the potential to reveal much more.

The potential impact of neuromarketing is only increasing.

In a study, Finnish researchers created a virtual customer journey model by studying customer engagement through brain scans. 

The researchers created a virtual store with 2D and 3D shopping experiences that simulated reality. Test consumers within the virtual store could interact with store merchandise and make purchase decisions in a way that resembled real in-store behavior. 

virtual reality store tested with neuroscience.
A virtual reality walkthrough of a hypothetical bank layout. (Image source)

While test subjects were shown video clips and still pictures from a consultative sales process, their brain activation was monitored to measure engagement.

Humans have mirror-neurons related to empathy and imitation that help us relate to people or behavior we see, even in a virtual environment. (Did you ever cry at a movie? Blame it on the mirror-neurons.)

The analysis showed heightened activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, meaning that increased feelings of safety had a positive effect on individuals’ willingness to buy. The research can help companies build appealing shopping environments, plan sales processes, and develop marketing materials.

But while the potential to pair neuroscience, virtual reality, and marketing may be tantalizing, neuromarketing has limitations—and critics.

The limitations of neuromarketing

Brain scans in a controlled environment aren’t the “real world.”

A big disadvantage of fMRI is that it doesn’t give you “live” images. Consumers might behave differently in the real world, unlike in a controlled environment. Researchers might end up with a response bias—subjects are aware that they’re being analyzed, which may affect their behavior.

Also, inside the lab, many variables are controlled; in the real world, we can’t control those same variables—or the resulting behavior. Lab-derived conclusions may not hold up elsewhere, especially when experiments rely on small sample sizes.

Finally, claims that tie specific brain regions to mental functions may be exaggerated. Our brains are complex, and why test subjects feel arousal, pain, fear, or other emotions is unknown.

Research is done with small sample sizes.

Remember the case study with the Super Bowl commercials? It used 10 subjects. To create the virtual customer journey, the study recruited 16 subjects.

Those small sample sizes, researchers argue, translate to low statistical power and a reduced ability to detect a true effect. They may also overestimate effect size and lower the replicability of results.

Unreliable methods surface ethical concerns about the publication of suspect research. 

Research standards remain unclear.

According to Dan Ariely and Gregory Berns, there are no legal requirements for neuromarketing studies to protect test subjects. As researchers caution, that fact

stress[es] the need for more intense and precise training of the subjects taking part in neuromarketing experiments. Thus, companies can prevent the onset of anxiety, fear or cognitive inhibition among respondents.

Some studies might also reveal incidental findings, but researchers don’t know how to handle them—there are no reporting requirements. If an abnormality is detected, who should communicate that information? And to whom? 

Those concerns spill over into privacy concerns, too:

The use of data obtained from brain imaging poses ethical dilemmas for marketers, as some marketers seek to limit our understanding of their true intentions and some activity lack transparency. Potential moral issues emerging from neuroscience applications include awareness, consent and understanding of individuals consumers to what may be viewed as invasion of their privacy rights.

Questions persist:

  • Who owns brain scans? 
  • Who has access to the data? 
  • How is the data being used? 
  • Which measures are to be taken to ensure interpretation and confidentiality?

These aren’t hypothetical concerns. In 2012, Facebook experimented on 700,000 users without their consent when analyzing mood states.

In Mexico’s 2015 elections, citizens’ responses to the governing party ads were often recorded without their knowledge. (The party leader said they would stop hiring neuroscience consultants to register voters’ brain waves and read their facial expressions.)

Even if those issues are solved, ethical concerns remain.

The fine line between persuasion and manipulation   

Is neuromarketing capable of subverting free will and promoting compulsive buying behavior? Probably not. But it still has the potential to cross an ethical line.

James Garvey, author of The Persuaders: The Hidden Industry that Wants to Change Your Mind, argues that our ethics system hasn’t caught up with the implications of neuromarketing:

There is a question of human dignity here. Are we treating people like people with hopes and desires? Or are we treating them as things that we can manipulate based on our understanding of how brains work?

Back in 2010, Ariely and Berns cautioned that the profit motive may incentivize companies to misuse neuromarketing—encouraging them to try to cross from persuasion to manipulation.

One example is so-called “stealth neuromarketing,” which tries to manipulate consumer behavior without their being aware of its influence, threatening consumer autonomy.

Roger Dooley frames marketers’ responsibilities this way:

“roger”Roger Dooley:

“My response to the ‘manipulation’ question is always, ‘If you are being honest, and if you are helping the customer get to a better place, it’s not manipulation and it’s not unethical.’

In today’s age of enforced transparency for business, manipulative tactics that deceive the customer simply won’t work. They will be quickly exposed and, with consumer voices amplified by social media, cause far more damage to the business than any short-term benefit.”

The Neuromarketing Science and Business Association has published a code of ethics to act as guardrails for those values. Its three pillars include:

  1. Establishing public trust in neuromarketers’ integrity;
  2. Protecting the participants’ privacy;
  3. Protecting the neuromarketing service purchasers.

Other codes in the business world have similar principles: informed consent, confidentiality, privacy, etc. Even as ethics in neuromarketing continue to take shape, some boundaries are clear.

Clear boundaries: Protecting vulnerable consumers

The protection of vulnerable populations—kids, teens, and people with high debt, compulsive buying behavior, and other neurological diseases or pathological disorders—is often raised with neuromarketing. 

Children and adolescents

Children are sensitive to commercials because their neural inhibitory mechanisms are not yet mature. Advertisers could take advantage of their lack of self-control.

Of course, traditional marketing has exploited this for years—McDonald’s has long partnered with companies like Disney to serve beloved toys with nutritionally vapid Happy Meals.

disney toys at mcdonalds.
(Image source)

Neuromarketing techniques could elevate the already problematic outcomes of marketing messages to children:

  • Encouraging consumerism in children;
  • Child-parent conflicts;
  • Life dissatisfaction via promotion of a world full of beautiful people and better and nicer things;
  • Health problems due to the promotion of unhealthy products.

Researchers from Liverpool University’s appetite and obesity research group found that, in one half-hour episode of Hollyoaks (a soap opera targeting youth), more than 140,000 children were exposed to nine junk food advertisements. The very next day, during an episode of The Voice, 708,500 children watched 12 junk food ads.

The risks aren’t to young children alone. In most cases, teenagers have less control over their emotions and behavior than fully mature adults, making them vulnerable. Researchers also suggest that adolescence extends into the early 20s.

Adults aren’t immune to the subtle but powerful marketing cues neuroscience can identify either.


In a 2016 study, researchers observed that people with a high body mass index (BMI) prefer a thinly shaped bottle, even if the drink is higher in price. That implies that soda manufacturers could, for example, profit more through changes to packaging. (On the other hand, the same information could benefit healthy drinks producers.)

A 2011 study suggested that the brains of obese people respond differently to nutrition labels. When given an identical milkshake, they showed more brain activity in reward areas if the label read “regular” compared to “low-fat.”

Would obese people also respond differently to color, image, smell, or touch? And if marketers had answers to these questions, how would they use the data?

In another study, researchers found that areas of fMRI scans correlated with compulsive buying. Being presented with a product and its price resulted in higher striatal activation in compulsive buyers compared to non-compulsive buyers.

The implication is clear: If sellers learn which marketing messages hyperstimulate those areas, they could override the better judgment of buyers.

Many of these concerns, though amplified, aren’t new. 

It’s not as though traditional marketing is immune to manipulation

Take a look at these burger ads—the promise versus the reality.

hamburger portrayal vs. reality.
(Image source

And, if we’re looking at who’s sponsoring national health organizations, we see Nestle, Coca-Cola—ethical conflicts abound. 

sponsorship of government nutritional panels by unhealthy food producers.

Neuromarketing isn’t the only way to gain tacit influence over consumer behavior (or government policy). Plenty of marketing strategies (many would argue most) target our subconscious

Neuromarketing just may be a whole lot better at doing it.


In 2017, neuromarketing pioneer Gemma Calvert claimed that “Online neuromarketing will be the industry standard for testing ad campaigns, prototypes, and packaging designs within five years.”

That seems unlikely, but neuromarketing isn’t going away. And the privacy debates surrounding online advertising suggest that technology will keep outpacing regulation. Ethical issues with neuromarketing will continue to surface; they may become more pressing. 

Here’s what won’t change: Deceptive marketing tactics and promises not delivered won’t build, as Dooley rightly notes, a sustainable business. Plan accordingly.

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Neuromarketing Ethics: How Far Is Too Far?