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Neuromarketing: Capitalism’s Mindfuck. Maybe.

Marketers are always looking for new ways to get you to buy their useless shit. It’s no surprise then that the average consumer receives, on average, over 10,000 selling messages a day. But marketing, which was once an art of intuition, guessing and half-assed test groups, is becoming notably creepier.

Enter neuromarketing, a rapidly growing field of study in neuroscience and marketing. Neuromarketing is the terrifying intersection between neuroscience’s continued exploration of the brain and advertising’s lust to exploit said exploration for profit. Neuromarketers use brain scans and neuroimaging to figure out which of those 10,000 messages will actually make us buy shit without thinking or questioning.

In short, it’s like if “1984” and “They Live” had a baby and named it “exactly this.”

they live consume

The emerging field began in 1997 with an article written by Wolfram Shultz on the physiology of prediction and reward. It was Schultz’s work, in conjunction with other pioneering neuroscientists, that framed the future of cognitive neurosciences. Since the late 90’s the neurosciences have made physiological claims of behaviorism that were previously only studied in actual behavior, not the brain. With this new understanding, we know what specific areas of the brain respond to rewards, and thus future reward behavior was then physiologically predictable. In essence, it’s Pavlov’s dog on steroids. In your brain.

Neuromarketing, which has since flourished in the last 15 years, has been criticized for being both invasive and unethical because it presses the —mostly— uninformed consumers  brain’s “buy button.”

What’s the brain’s buy button?

The “buy button,” if it even exists,  is in our amygdala (our lizard brain) where our primitive emotions are created. The amygdala regulates fear, anxiety, aggression, sex, and a bunch of other shit we  probably don’t want advertisers tapping into. Neuromarketers are also interested in the VMF (ventromedial frontal cortex), which is a region in our brain that supposedly weighs value and decision-making.

New neuromarketing research says decision-making is widely influenced by emotions, often the same emotions regulated by our amygdala. By having participants watch advertisements and preform cognitive tasks under fMRI, the amygdala then ‘lights up’ like a Christmas tree. Thus, an effective advertisement will excite this part of our brain to the best of its ability.

Neuromarketing research has a goal: create ads that act as a hypodermic syringe, injecting the message to hit our subconscious thinking, by-passing what little conscious thought we actually have. Neuromarketing research understands, refines, and predicts consumer behavior by reducing consumers to nothing-but an object: a neural system to hack.

But wait, there’s more.

Luckily for humanity, neuromarketing might be a raging crock of shit.

Colin Klein, in an article published in The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, writes that neuroimages are nonsense, sort of. That is not to say that neuroimages are bullshit in a vacuum, but when they attempt to make functional claims about highly complex systems, things get fuzzy. Klein wants us to note that these regions of the brain that ‘light-up’ only indicate that future understanding is needed in that specific area. What Klein argues against is this understanding that functions of the brain can be reduced to a simple area, in some sort of A=B equation. The problem is not dissimilar from Hume’s Problem of Induction.

Or, there was that time that a neuroscientist decided to run a dead salmon through an fMRI scanner for shits and giggles. Craig Bennet, the UC Santa Barbara neuroscientist, found that the dead salmon showed activity in both the brain and spinal column, not entirely different from the activity neuromarketers look out for. So, maybe dead salmon also like to eat Cheeto’s? Very big deal.

The essence of the argument then is not then whether neuromarketing can actually make zombies out of consumers to buy boatloads of meaningless shit to fill their apartments with—we have already seen this been done (see: Skymall)— but what is really at stake is the future of neuroscience and neuroimaging.

Mommy, why does capitalism make me feel warm and fuzzy inside?
Mommy, why does capitalism make me feel warm and fuzzy inside?

One can imagine the potential dystopia of companies like Frito-Lay (who already use neuromarketing) using this invasive technology to get us to buy all sorts of meaningless shit, without questioning what and why we’re buying it. The faster an ad campaign can light up our reptilian brain, producing an emotional reaction, the more likely we are to consume these bogus objects they’re selling.

Some companies who publicly use neuromarketing: CBS, Frito-Lay (as if marijuana-induced Cheetos sales weren’t enough), Yahoo, Microsoft, Mercedes-Benz, Facebook, Coca-Cola, and eBay.

Luckily, there is resistance to this game. Is it meaningful? Who knows.

Thinkers like Jean Baudrillard and J.M.G Le Clezio are writing about the meaning(s)—or lack there of—behind consumption and consumerism. Also, Dr. Keith Moser, a professor at University of Mississippi’s Classical and Modern Languages & Literatures Department, authored a startling article published in the International Journal of Baudrillard Studies. In it, he highlights the overwhelming state of consumerism in the hyper-modern world. As consumers buy more and more meaningless shit that claim to relieve stress and invoke happiness we actually are becoming more existentially frustrated, essentially turning the consumer into an object of frustration that needs relief. This is precisely what neuromarketing is up to insofar as it attempts to bypass our conscious thought and produce an emotional response that we’re supposedly powerless over.