Ethical Practice of Science: Neuromarketing Research Review Principles

On June 28, 2015

Below you can read an article that I wrote for publication for the 12th issue of Neuromarketing Theory & Practice Magazine (published by Neuromarketing Science & Business Association in May 2015).


B_SPR362_2 nero 2012.inddA recently published article by Springer proposes a list of principles that may be implemented in order to allow the development of both neuroethics and neuromarketing under appropriate conditions.
­­Companies increased their interest in neuromarketing studies that measure consumer choices, and therefore commercial, political, philosophical and law implications for the society arise from using these neuroimaging tools. By using technology advances in neuroscience, researchers can obtain information on brain responses to marketing stimuli. Anticipating ethical challenges is crucial in developing methods for effective research, as it also represents the aim of neuroethics.
This field of research is mostly developed in private business areas, this aspect being visible when comparing Figure 1 with Figure 2. The number of neuromarketing research firms has increased significantly in the last few years and this trend continues. This is why it is vital for the correct evolution of this field to discuss ethical issues and establish guidelines for anyone interested in neuromarketing research, either from a scientific point of view (neuromarketing researchers), or from a customer’s for neuromarketing services point of view.

Figure 1. Map of companies that provide neuromarketing research (Olteanu, 2015)

Figure 1. Map of companies that provide neuromarketing research (Olteanu, 2015)

Figure 2. Map of academic locations that offer neuromarketing education (Olteanu, 2015)

In order to act in a responsible manner while employing neuromarketing research and using the insights provided in order to reach the objectives, each party involved in this process needs to respect guidelines and to make sure that ethics is taken into consideration at each step. Companies might not be primary concerned with the best interests of the consumer, as not always their goals are compatible, and there is a need to set out ethical standards that each neuromarketing practitioner should follow and below are a list of guidelines that should be implemented and followed in any market research that uses brain imaging tools, according to a recently published study (Olteanu, 2015):

  1. Ethics laws and committees

Neuromarketing researchers must identify the national and international laws that are relevant for their future study. There are countries that have certain regulations which must be respected. Also, in some cases, there is a national ethics committee whose consent is required, therefore its officials should be contacted and informed about the study in order to proceed with the research.

  1. Commitment to respecting regulations

Researchers have to behave ethically during all phases of a research. Any deviation from this principle might damage the reputation of neuromarketing research.

  1. Subjects reruitment

When recruiting and using a subject pool, researchers have to identify the vulnerable population who should be protected from neuro research.

  1. Consent of subjects to participate to the study

Subjects’ cooperation is voluntary and must be confirmed in documents that they sign after being completely informed about the purpose of the research project and the steps to be followed during the study. The subject must be free to leave the study at any moment. The procedures research participants have to comply with must respect their rights as private individuals.

  1. Consent of subjects to be brain scanned

As research procedures involve brain activity monitoring, after understanding what the effects of participating to such a study are, subjects need to sign agreement papers if they agree, in order to enter the study and permit researchers to use the neuroimaging devices on them.

  1. Children as subjects

Researchers have to respect restrictions when carrying out research on children and any other person contraindicated for medical imaging.

  1. Scientific rigor

While there are companies that have their own models and algorithms developed, refined and validated after years of research, there are others that use methods for analyzing the data that may not be reliable. Researchers need to be careful about reverse inference while analyzing the brain regions involved in their research in order to assure internal validity of the study. Although neuromarketing customers look for insights, results and conclusions, researchers should also provide full information about the scientific procedures undertaken in order to be able to externally validate their results and alow others to replicate the study or to generalise the findings to the target population.

  1. Collected personal data

The personal data collected during a study shall never be used to any other purpose than the research the subjects agreed to participate to. Also, researchers are not allowed to exploit particular neurological traits found in a subgroup of individuals.

  1. Transparency and objectivity

Neuromarketing researchers shall ensure that their project is designed, carried out and documented in a transparent and objective manner. As there is severe information asymmetry between neuromarketing researchers and their clients due to the complex and technical nature of this kind of research, there is a danger of reaching subjective conclusions and blind clients.

  1. Research results and society

Neuromarketing practitioners need to identify cases in which their results may be misused and abused and act in order to protect society and vulnerable populations.

All the points stated above require an external control for quality assurance. Neuromarketing Science & Business Association (NMSBA) may be the appropriate entity to provide this validity and to identify the degree to which a research study measures what intends.
Ethical issues are also raised because advertising pursues commercial gain. Marketers are interested in finding more about consumer choice-making and activation patterns that predict consumer behaviour, in order to better understand what consumers need and better predict it in the future. The “game” takes place between the five senses that engage the consumer and neuroimaging tools offer the opportunity to examine the social behaviors using knowledge about associated brain functions.
As marketers design their activity in order to sell more, neuromarketing research suffers from being accused that its aim is just commercial. Neuromarketing does not involve mind control techniques, it is a field that could advance knowledge in decision making more than any other existing science, being able to measure brain responses to marketing stimuli. Using neuroimaging devices, marketers aim to find what triggers the consumer concerning a certain stimuli. They are not entering their subconscious, but providing information on the brain areas activated against a stimuli (a product, ad, print or package design). So they do not invade their private world and their interests, but create a way to find objective answers to questions involving products and services. And as lie detectors are used to distinguish between truth and lie, fMRI and EEG tools are used for predicting success or failure in marketing actions. The real threat of using neuroimaging for a more effective persuasion in marketing and advertising research is the non-informative or even mis-informative content that can trigger a certain response in consumers, as content is the basis of rational purchasing decisions.
Clear regulations must be stated in order to raise credibility and to allow the development of the field. Also, scientists should find a balance between what they want to accomplish and the rules they should obey in order to conduct an ethical study. Neuromarketing could serve the society and the environment, promoting a healthy life for individuals and ociety. Neuroethics should support consumers’ education in making decisions based on their free will in accordance with accurate information provided. Also, neuroimaging technology can be used in a more positive marketing research area: to help consumers find what they want and guide them in living a healthy life, not just giving them what they want. There should be taken into consideration responsibilities towards subjects participating to studies, consumers and researchers.
The article published in Neuroethics (2014 Impact Factor: 1.311) reviews the neuroethics of neuromarketing research and identifies three dimensions of responsibility that must be considered in such studies: responsibility towards study participants, responsibility towards consumers and responsibility concerning the researchers. There is still much to investigate on understanding human emotions, self-consciousness, reasoning, moral and free will and we are witnessing an increasing number of neuromarketing studies and growing interest in this area which should bring stability and standardization to research. Ethical issues act like a barrier in the development of neuromarketing, but to a certain extent they are regulatory mechanisms for the progress of the field. This is the main potential benefit of neuroethics in neuromarketing, and the reason for which societies and organizations in neuroscience use it. Of course, ethics also needs to be delineated between its limitations and risks.

Olteanu M D (2015) “Neuroethics and Responsibility in Conducting Neuromarketing research”. Neuroethics. DOI: 10.1007/s12152-014-9227-y. Available on:

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