Mark Bartholomew


On his book Adcreep: The Case Against Modern Marketing

Cover Interview of June 06, 2017

A close-up

Chapter 4, “From Market Share to Mindshare,” is about the new discipline of neuromarketing. The ability to monitor consumers’ biological responses to commercials in real time has led to more effective advertising, but that’s not necessarily a good thing.

Neuromarketing combines emerging insights from neuroscience with the study of consumer behavior. By allowing purchasing motivations to be probed without conscious participation, neuromarketing threatens to reveal and activate inner prejudices that consumers might prefer to keep from view.

A good example is a recent ad campaign for Cheetos. Frito-Lay used the findings of a neuromarketing firm to develop a series of commercials that revolved around acts of vandalism and antisocial behavior, all egged on by the Cheetos mascot. In one ad, the protagonist used the orange snack food to ruin another person’s dryer load of white laundry. In another, a cheese puff is nihilistically mashed into the keyboard of a tidy coworker.

When directly asked, test audiences said that they did not like the ads. An industry commentator described the campaign as “cynical and disgusting.” But Frito-Lay believed that brain scans of prospective Cheetos eaters told a different story. They proceeded with the ads, and credited them with a significant increase in Cheetos sales.

One might shrug off this particular campaign as just an effort to make us laugh. But the key thing to note is that neuromarketing disdains conscious, considered audience feedback in favor of involuntary, biological responses. With brain scans, consumers don’t have a way to screen undesirable or socially unacceptable emotional reactions from marketers. One can envision other campaigns based on neurological data that celebrate some of our worst impulses, ones that we can normally avoid communicating to the outside world.

This isn’t the first time advertisers have threatened to read our minds. In the 1950s, there was a scandal over subliminal advertising. Both government and private regulators reacted swiftly to the prospect of subliminal ads. In the midst of the Cold War, they were concerned about Madison Avenue installing its own Manchurian candidates in the grocery story aisle.

By contrast, today’s neuromarketing techniques are completely unregulated. Likely candidates for restraining the neuromarketers—the Federal Trade Commission and institutional review boards—have abdicated their supervisory role.

Neuroscience offers some wonderful possibilities. In time, fact-finders may be able to assess and compensate pain and suffering in personal injury cases with more accuracy. Neural evidence of the drivers of criminal behavior may counsel different, more humane understandings of criminal responsibility.

But neuroscience, when leveraged in service of commercial appeals, also has the potential to subvert democratic values and aid discriminatory impulses. Long before neural scanning was possible, advertisers came under fire for ad campaigns insensitive to race, gender, and sexual identity. In the absence of an actual dialogue with consumers, there is an even greater likelihood that marketers will tailor their messages to some of our worst, most intolerant instincts.