marketing ethics

Marketing Ethics: Free Will, Trust and Autonomy

Marketing is the exchange of value between consumers and the brand. Marketing ethics, then, pertains to transparency—how the brand is giving value to the consumer while also getting value from the consumer. 

WARNING: Cigarettes cause cancer.

For the last 35 years, laws have mandated warnings on cigarette packets. The logic, based on many behavioral and survey-based studies by the World Health Organization, is that true-to-life, gory, graphic warnings deter cigarette consumption. Yet, 18 billion cigarettes are sold every day—12 million cigarettes every minute.

By Matt Johnson, Phd., and Prince Ghuman

To get to the bottom of this mystery, Martin Lindstrom, author of Buyology, conducted a neuromarketing study. Upon interviewing participants, the consensus that cigarette warnings had an impact on their smoking habits was crystal clear. But, interviewing the consumer’s brain revealed otherwise.

When Lindstrom studied participants in fMRI machines, the results were startling: the warnings had no effect on dissuading the smokers from reaching for a pack of cigarettes. Instead, they stimulated the brain’s reward region, encouraging the smokers to fulfill their craving one cigarette at a time.

The gruesome warnings turned out to be a killer—pun intended!—neuromarketing tactic for the tobacco industry.

Cigarette packaging is just one example of the immense potential of bridging neuroscientific techniques and marketing. But, with great power comes great responsibility. Let’s explore how the relationship between free will and trust influences neuromarketing.


With Neuromarketing, Is Free Will an Illusion?

Marketing is the exchange of value between consumers and the brand. Marketing ethics, then, pertains to transparency—how the brand is giving value to the consumer while also getting value from the consumer.

Neuromarketing, on the other hand, is the study of the brain on brands—it’s how the brain is influenced by marketing and consumerism. To learn how the brain reacts to consumption decisions, brands often turn to neuroscientific techniques, which have led people to question free will.

Studies have found that brain-imaging techniques allow neuroscientists to predict the decisions of a consumer before the consumer is aware of their own decisions. Scientists Danil Razeev and Benjamin Libet have brought up interesting questions connecting neuroscience and free will, which are surprisingly allegorical to consumer behavior:

  • Do we, as humans, have free will if our decisions are pre-programmed by the brain?

  • Do we truly understand the reasons behind the decisions we make?

  • Do we rationally make decisions or do we rationalize our decisions after making them?

Libet conducted research using eye-tracking and brain-imaging technology and found a clear progression of events when people are given a stimulus and must make a choice. More recent experiments with fMRI have shown an even longer gap (up to 10 seconds), between detectable neural activity, and the conscious realization of that decision. In simpler words, your brain makes a decision and then, makes you consciously aware of that decision. Here’s a visual that helps explain this:


While the implications of these results for free will remain controversial and hotly debated, they propose an interesting possibility for consumer behavior. When brands have access to the brain activity level of the decision-making process, they have access to what the consumers are thinking before they even make the decision. This (potentially money-making) gap in time—a marketer’s playground—is dangerous and gives brands commanding power over consumers. We can see how this plays out in face-based, personalized marketing, wherein the persuasive, and attention-grabbing element of social media advertising could potentially be your own face—without your consent.

Knowing the decision-making loop now, let’s circle back to Lindstrom’s telling cigarette study. We know, from above, that the labels act as a stimulant rather than a deterrent for buying behavior even though participants admit labels and graphic warnings dissuade them from buying cigarettes. Applying the decision cascade to this scenario, they were consciously aware that they were noticing the label (stimulus) but didn’t know what decision the brain made (brain activity) before they consciously made the decision (conscious awareness) to buy yet another pack of cigarettes (taking action).

This fundamentally tells us that trust is a paramount quality that must be instilled in marketers, and most importantly, neuromarketers. As humans, we enjoy novelty and in turn gravitate toward the coolest, newest, and best product in the market. The influence of technology in marketing helps spread the word faster than ever before. Hence, marketers need to be better at bridging the gap of trust between marketing techniques and consumers. With neuromarketing involved, this is an even more pressing requirement. Perhaps public policy and innovation need to go hand in hand? For now, let’s understand how a neuromarketer can build this trust ethically.

How Ethics and Transparency Influence Consumer Behavior

How should marketers think about ethics? Two of the primary values of high ethical concern are consequences and autonomy.

Consequentialism, or utilitarianism, is results-based philosophy and states that the morally right action from a set of choices is the one with the best overall consequences. It’s often difficult to come to a consensus about what the “best” consequences are because it would depend on one’s personal definition of best, the context, as well as the people involved.

The ethics of autonomy is also worthy of consideration in forging an ethical consumer environment. Autonomy, in the marketing world, is the preservation of a consumer’s independence when making consumption decisions. When they give back governance to a consumer, the consumer bears the responsibility for and consequences of their decisions. If a marketer is transparent and deemed trustworthy, they automatically provide the consumer with autonomy.

A company that’s given its consumers autonomy through trust and transparency is venture-backed fashion retailer Everlane. The company prides itself on “exceptional quality, ethical factories, radical transparency”. Operating in an industry that’s one of the most polluting in the world, it stands to make a positive impact by being transparent about its production process and costs. In order to give consumers credible data points to help them make an informed decision, Everlane includes the following information about each product item on their website: factory of origin, environmental initiatives of the corresponding factory, and a cost breakdown that compares their prices with those of traditional retailers.

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Some may argue that the e-commerce “features” are merely nudging techniques used to subconsciously push consumers to buy, think, and feel a certain way about the brand. That may or may not be true in Everlane’s case, but generally, nudging has its limitations. It’s effective for one-time or short-term behavioral changes such as getting people to show up to court dates, pay their taxes on time, or negotiate a bigger raise, but it’s not a sustainable way to alter behavior over a longer time frame. To build sustainable growth, the brand must acquire values and form a strong identity that we as individuals or society can relate to.

Everlane’s display of fairness and justice is radical compared to the prevalently exploitative nature of many fashion brands. But transparency goes beyond the essence of trust—it’s a pillar of Everlane’s brand identity. When a brand’s values align with a consumer’s, and the marketer can convey this overlap effectively, that’s when trust is built and a lasting change in consumption patterns reflect as a result. This trust takes years to build, but just seconds to break. As of mid-2020, Everlane has entangled itself with allegations of greenwashing, union-busting, and a racist company culture.

Another clothing company, held to a much higher standard than Everlane given its long-standing strong convictions, has proven its worth by putting its money where its mouth is. Born in 1973, Patagonia has not shied away from expressing its values and identity. Given its strong anti-consumerism, capitalism, materialism stances, and establishment of an anti-growth strategy, its consumers, ironically, can’t get enough.

Patagonia’s brand value of “building the best product” and “being in business to save our home planet” is backed by its long history of campaigns against eco-system destroying dams, oil drilling, deforestation, and governments that deny climate change. 88% of today’s consumers want their money to go to companies that will make the world a better place, and Patagonia serves that need with air-tight and relatable values, a strong identity, and marketing campaigns that connect the dots. In 2017, it reached over $750 million in revenue all without running a single TV ad. In 2018, Patagonia reached a valuation of $1 billion.

Ethical Neuromarketing Is Here

As consumption continues to play a large role in daily life, many of the biggest challenges we consumers face are increasingly becoming marketing problems. The study of neuromarketing can bring about impactful, research-backed, positive change. Taking a more scientific and research approach, the FDA changed the law regarding cigarette warnings in 2020. Cigarette companies now have to create messaging as per the stipulated area of the image, text, font, and other visual changes on the box in the hopes that these changes are in favor of the consumer.

To ensure companies make use of the advancements in neuroscientific technology while building trust and sticking to positive values, will a version of the Hippocratic oath be necessary for aspiring neuromarketers?

⚠️ WARNING: Ethical neuromarketing is here.

Johnson and Ghuman are founders of “PopNeuro – a Neuromarketing Blog for the masses” and co-author of “Blindsight – The (mostly) hidden ways marketing reshapes our brains”.  You can check out more of their writing here.

This article originally appeared in PopNeuro. Photo by Mohamad Rashidi on Unsplash.

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