How ethical is it to exploit people’s emotional reflexes in order to achieve a laudable goal, asks Mallen Baker
Marketers discovered many years ago that devices such as focus groups have major limitations. They don’t always deliver the truth, and in the early days nobody knew whether this was because subjects knowingly lied or simply knew less about their own preferences than they imagined.
But new tools have given us great understanding and insights. In particular, neuro-marketing – where brain scans give us information about what’s really going on in a customer’s mind – has shown just how subtle the process of persuasion can really be.
For instance, we discovered just how highly connected our sense of smell is to our memories, and how powerful invoking memories can be in persuading people to buy.
So, increasingly, though you may not have realised it you walk through a sensory feast where stores pump aromas into the air hoping to quietly seduce you into making that additional purchase. This is invisible marketing.
That smell of chargrilled beef that gets you buying the burger in that fast-food restaurant whereas you came in hoping to buy salad? It came out of a can.
The freshly baked bread smell in the supermarket that entices you to feel more hungry and buy more stuff? Most such supermarkets no longer have a genuine on-site bakery. So where does that smell come from?
Is it ethical? Sure. But it’s a step into the grey. Invisible influence. Tweaking sensory experiences to provoke an unconscious reaction designed to favour the marketer. It’s that slippery aromatic slope.
By the way, you know that lovely smell of coffee you get when you break the wrapper on a jar of premium instant coffee? Totally made up. Instant coffee doesn’t smell. I was gutted when I discovered that. I love that smell.
But it goes further, much further.
We know that we’re creatures of habit. So marketers now create or co-opt rituals that will give us the habit of doing what they want us to – buying their product. They have also discovered that the reaction in the brain we have when we see a powerful brand is almost identical to the reaction in the brain of a religious person when contemplating the highest spiritual experience. And you can bet that some brands exploit the heck out of that.
Suddenly, we have tools to know consumers better than they know themselves. The smokers may have answered “yes” to the question about whether warning messages on packs of cigarettes made them less likely to smoke, but the brain scans showed that the opposite was true – the messages actually triggered their craving for a smoke.
And we discovered that our view of ourselves as predominantly rational beings responding to choices was wrong. Brain scanning has shown that our emotions impact our decision-making time after time – and the factors that trigger those emotions are automatic processes, not deliberate thinking – and can be manipulated.
Let’s take this to another level. Suppose marketers were able to use this technology to identify what were the real barriers to people behaving sustainably. Supposing they were able to come up with the concepts that would enable politicians to persuade people to accept some of the necessary, but tough, policies in the future to give us a hope of a better world.
Since, to date, we have routinely failed to achieve this, it would be of interest, would it not? It would be an ethical use of marketing that we would celebrate. And we are already intrigued by the possibilities.
Let me change the proposition just a little.
Supposing these techniques could be used instead to pull the little levers in people’s minds to get them to acquiesce to authority under all circumstances. And by routine exploitation of these mind-tricks, a government could do what it wanted without fear of backlash among the population.
That would be bad, right? I mean nightmarishly George Orwell-style bad.
But the only difference is one of intent.
So the question is an open one. At what point does marketing become unethical, if it is able to use our mechanical responses to stimuli to manipulate what we do?
And if we want to use such techniques to promote sustainable behaviour change, does that make any difference to the ethics of manipulation?
The examples in this column are taken from Martin Lindstrom’s excellent book Buyology
Mallen Baker is managing director of Daisywheel Interactive and a contributing editor to Ethical Corporation.communications Ethics Mallen Baker marketing reporting