ZOMBIE-LAND: THE FUTURE OF CONSUMPTION?

Nick Lee

Earlier this week, through a bizarre set of unplanned coincidences, I found myself sitting around a dining table eating toasted scones with the European director of the world’s biggest ‘neuromarketing’ consultancy. As our conversation evolved to take in the various work he did, and its overlap with my own, I was struck by just how far apart the views of academics and practitioners were, and at the same time how different both of our understandings of ‘neuromarketing’ were from its portrayal in the popular media, and also from some of the ridiculous pseudo-scientific claims  made by those more interested in money making and self-publicity than real understanding.

While in the past I have been pretty skeptical of the sorts of things ‘neuromarketing’ consultants get up to, I was refreshed to hear my companion talk about how his firm viewed the application of neuroscientific research methods to marketing problems to be simply a new and more accurate way of getting to the heart of issues which marketers have been interested in for at least a century. In other words – do marketing campaigns work the way they are expected to? For  years market researchers have tried to tap this information by simply asking you, the consumer. But, of course, the very act of thinking about what you feel may change those feelings. Incorporating neuroscientific methods into this research helps to uncover more accurate answers, and in many ways we as consumers should welcome this. After all, it should lead to better products being marketed in better ways.

But therein lies the rub. We don’t seem to like the idea that companies might be able to ‘get better’ at marketing their products. For some reason, we fear ultimately that we will become easily controllable by marketers, like consumer zombies – that there is a magic ‘buy button’ in our brains which can simply be pushed to make us purchase. However, nothing can ‘force’ you to purchase. Companies are interested in making products that WE want to buy. Of course, the fact that we seem to want to buy a number of things which are not very good for us or the world around us is an unfortunate situation, but is this the company’s fault? It’s certainly an issue worth thinking about – in fact, sometimes I wonder if the loud complaints about the potential of neuromarketing are yet another way for us to absolve ourselves of responsibility for our own actions – just like that hoary old chestnut ‘subliminal advertising’. Google it if you don’t know what I mean!

At this year’s Festival, I will be delivering the Joseph Lister Award Lecture on ‘Neuromarketing’, taking in these basic issues. At the same time, I’ll try to illustrate in a simple way how neuroscientists currently believe the brain works, and how this relates to public fears about neuromarketing – illustrating what it can and can not do. Personally, I’m all for understanding a little bit more about why and how I make decisions, but this doesn’t mean that I think such knowledge will make me a zombie. When I bought those new trainers last week, it really was my own decision. Even though the ad was just so cool….

Nick Lee

Nick presents his Award Lecture ‘Fact and fiction about neuromarketing from 12 .00 – 13.00 on Tuesday 14 September.  For more information click here http://www.britishscienceassociation.org/forms/festival/events/showevent2.asp?EventID=24

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