Topic: Science & Technology

Neuromarketing and the Limiting of Knowledge
(2/11/2004)

Neuromarketing is the study of how the brain responds to imagery, sounds, words and other stimuli designed to make its owner want to buy particular products. Now a group called Commercial Alert is attacking Emory University researchers for their work in this field.

The complaint was sent to University President James W. Wagner in December.

"It is wrong to use medical technology for marketing and not for healing," said Gary Ruskin, executive director of Commercial Alert.

The new filed of study merges medical technology with the study of economic marketing to help companies boost their sales. Using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging to reveal how consumers actually evaluate products, objects or advertisements, the theory of neuromarketing posits that marketing analysts will be able to measure consumer preference and design more effective marketing campaigns.

Ruskin fears that the research, which is being done for an undisclosed Fortune 500 company, might allow marketing companies to manipulate the preferences of shoppers, giving a dangerous weapon to tobacco and alcohol producers.

Of course, the same research could be used to promote tofu, yoga, or Commercial Alert. Scientific research is seldom good or bad; the good or bad comes from how it is used. Constricting the search for knowledge, however, out of fear of how it might be used, is wrong. It is a misuse of ethical principles. Ruskin's statement shows some skill in this, by using the term "medical research" rather than "scientific research" to anchor his argument.

Let's condemn public speaking courses, lest persuasive techniques be put in the hands of dangerous demagogues. Let's curtail advances in film editing, so that effective propaganda doesn't warp public opinion. Commercial Alert's campaign is an affront to logic as well as freedom. Who will determine what future research poses similar "dangers"? Presumable Consumer Alert; I'm sure they'd like that.

Cloaking the attack on legitimate inquiry in ethical terms can't disguise a basic truth: suppressing knowledge poses far greater dangers than expanding it. Those who disagree stand in opposition to the values of a democracy.

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