Neuromarketing & the Illusion of Free Choice

Neuromarketing & the Illusion of Free Choice

“It’s all about money, not freedom. Nothing to do with freedom. If you think you’re free, try going somewhere without money.”

” Go back to bed, America. Your government is in control again… You are free to do what we tell you!”
-Both quotes from Bill Hicks

I recently watched the documentary “Neuromarketing: How Brands are Manipulating Your Brain | Consumer Decisions Documentary” on Java Discover. One of the training modules I have used in my coaching practice is titled, “Humans Are Emotional Creatures” because, well, we are. Even though people might love to think they make business and financial decisions using cold, pure logic… ❌ nope!

In this documentary, they use the dictionary definition of manipulation as “shrewd or devious management, especially for one’s own advantage,” particularly when the other person does not know that’s what you’re doing.

So what happens and what are the ethics involved when companies intentionally use neuroscience as neuromarketing? In other words: is it ethical when you are manipulated into making certain decisions without the knowledge that you are being manipulated?

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Transcription by  Please forgive any typos!

Welcome to the Causey Consulting Podcast. You can find us online anytime at And now, here’s your host Sara Causey. Hello, Hello, and thanks for tuning in. In today’s episode, I want to talk about neuro marketing and the illusion of free choice. In other words, if a marketing team has figured out how to interfere with your so called lizard brain without you knowing it without you giving consent to that activity, how much freedom of choice do you actually have in set activity? How much is the illusion of choice? If someone is inside your brain manipulating you and hijacking this very primitive part of you, to the point where you don’t even know that it’s happening? How much is your responsibility? And how much isn’t it I’ve been back on Java discover that is such a treasure trove of cool documentaries that you can watch completely free of charge, about a wide variety of topics. And there’s a fringe based documentary titled, neuro marketing, how brands are manipulating your brain. Really interesting stuff. Also a bit terrifying. To be honest, I want to read from the blurb now, more and more companies are turning to neuro marketing. This controversial practice involves studying consumers brains, analyzing how and why we respond to certain stimuli in order to influence our decisions. It’s based on the idea that 90% of the decisions we make are taken at a subconscious level. If a brand can speak directly to our gut instinct, bypassing reason, they will sell more products. One company that has used neuro marketing is McDonald’s, they developed a perfume which was subtly diffused in restaurants to increase brand association and boost sales. Procter and Gamble also tried a similar trick. Sales of aerial washing powder increased by 70%, after an artificial perfume was placed under the lid, but is playing with our subconscious to encourage us to buy more things, marketing, or manipulation. Where do we draw the line? This documentary was first released in 2012. And quote, could you even make it today? Maybe you could in France, but I don’t know. I feel like the The seas are getting so choppy and it’s so scary anymore about what you can and cannot say in Saturday broadcast 16. I said, I feel like Russell Brand is teetering on the edge. He’s probably going to get censored soon. And then the next thing I know he’s making the announcement that he’s going to rumble because YouTube is making it very, very difficult for his videos to stay up. So could you even make a documentary like this A decade later? I’m not so sure. That claim about McDonald’s utilizing a perfume reminded me of a story that Michael Pollan tells about his son going to McDonald’s. There’s a good summary of it in the Sydney Morning Herald and of course, I’ll drop a link to it so you can see it for yourself. I’ll read now, is he never tempted these days to splurge with a McDonald’s say, about three years ago, I was with my son Isaac driving by McDonald’s we used to eat at when he was little. They stopped by Isaac his old favorite chicken nuggets, Pollan hoping that Isaac would be disappointed. In fact, the teenager love them. You have to realize we now have a generation for whom these are the Proustian smells and tastes of childhood pollen explained phlegmatic Glee and quote. Yeah, I think it’s probably a fool’s errand if you’re taking a kid into a fast food restaurant with all of the sights and sounds and smells, to imagine that they’re going to turn their nose up at it like a gore mug. Now, it is interesting, I will say that in this documentary on Java discover, the moms say, Well, typically the kids want to go into the fast food joint and enjoy the toy and the environment, but they actually don’t eat that much of the food. And I’m like, well, that’s interesting, and perhaps very French. I don’t think that’s necessarily the case, here in America. And I don’t know that it’s still the case. Now, if we bear in mind that this documentary came out 10 years ago, I think when we look at the obesity epidemic, not just in America, okay, we tend to get the brunt of it. Everyone tends to look over in this direction and say, Well, I mean, America is like the obesity cow. but it’s as though no other nation on the planet is struggling with it, when that’s just simply not the case. It’s really impacting the entire Western world at this point, so I would be interested to know, are these kids still going into the fast food joints and just enjoying the toy and kind of leaving the food to the side? Or are they not drinking way too much soda pop filled with sugar? Are they not eating the food and the salt and the sugar and the fat? I would find it hard to believe that they’re not. And I think that really gets to the heart of this documentary and the types of questions that these filmmakers want to ask. If you go into a place like this, it has been designed to make you want to eat and drink. I mean, that’s the whole raison d’être. People can say, well, yeah, but it’s not meant to be something you have every day. And I’m not opposed to that line of thinking, I’m very pro personal freedom. If you haven’t figured that out by now, I’m not really sure what to tell you. I don’t believe in the state or corporate America or anyone telling you the ins and outs of how you should be living your life day to day, nor am I going to sit here and act like I am some complete food saint. I mean, what what what would that even look like? I’m not sure someone who only eats lettuce leaves and celery stalks. When you be terribly anemic and sick all the time. If that’s all you weigh. I think, from my perspective, not a doctor, nurse, health coach, anything like that. So this is not advice. It’s just my personal opinion. I think that having a balanced diet is usually a good way to go. And a balanced diet, in my opinion, doesn’t mean binge eating fast food every day, or drinking soda pops every day. With that being said, Do I think that going and getting the occasional hamburger or the occasional pizza is going to cause your head to explode? Probably not. Unless you have some kind of underlying health problem. And your doctor has told you hey, look, no more. Literally one more cheeseburger or one more pizza could be the thing that sends your body over the edge. In the absence of something like that. The average healthy person on occasion saying, You know what, I want to have a banana split. Or you know what? I’m too tired to cook, let’s just go out and have some pizza. Is that going to be life altering and life threatening for most average healthy people? Probably not. Would it be healthy to eat that way every day? No, I can’t imagine that it would be. And I think that that’s part of their argument is well, hey, look, we’re providing a service. But we’re not telling anybody this is health food. We’re not telling anybody that you need to be in here three meals a day, eating lots and lots of greasy fast food and drinking a lot of fizzy drinks. We’ve never we’ve never said that to anybody this is this should be an occasional treat. This should be something where you only go through the drive thru when you really don’t have time to make anything is that reality for a lot of people? long pause. So you can think about the individuals that you know, or maybe even yourself, I can’t think of a single episode of my 600 pound life that I’ve watched that didn’t involve copious amounts of processed foods. And sometimes like grocery bag, amounts of fast food coming out of the drive thru window for one meal. I mean, you know, on some level, you have to know that that’s not health food, you have to know that you’re not doing your body in a great favor. So then we come back to neuro marketing, and the experience that Michael Pollan had taking his son to the McDonald’s thinking that he’s going to be repulsed, thinking that he’s going to be like some elite fringe chef, that’s judging someone for a Michelin star. Oh, this was just so so poor. And then the kid gets there and loves the food. I mean, hello. That’s part of the whole shtick here. Over on Harvard Business Review, they have an excellent summary of neuro marketing. So if this is a term that you’re not familiar with, they have a very handy definition and I want to read some of that for you. Now. The field of neuro marketing, sometimes known as consumer neuroscience, studies the brain to predict and potentially even manipulate consumer behavior and decision making. Over the past five years, several groundbreaking studies have demonstrated its potential to create value for marketers, but those interested in using its tools must still determine whether it’s worth the investment and how to do it well. Neuro marketing loosely refers to the measurement of physiological and neural signals to gain insight into customers motivations, preferences and decisions. Its most common methods are brain scanning, which measures neural activity and physiological tracking, which measures eye movement and other proxies for that activity. This article explores some of the research into those methods and discusses their benefits and drawbacks, potential users of neuro marketing should be cautious about partnering with specialist consulting firms. Experts warn that the field is plagued by vendors who oversell what neuro marketing can deliver. One neuroscience and business professors suggest using a checklist and quote, I think we also really have to look at the ethics of this. Not that I expect corporate America to do that. Let’s get real. What a pipe dream. But I think I think also as educated consumers, I hope as educated consumers, we have to be able to take a step back and go, am I not being manipulated? Am I not being played for a fool here? Sometimes avoidance is the best way, I rarely will actually go in a fast food place because I know it’s going to be engineered for me to want to eat. Again, I’m not a food saint, I’m not going to sit here and tell you that I don’t ever go out for a greasy cheeseburger and fries. I would say on average, that’s something that we probably do. Maybe once every three months or so. Because I don’t feel like eating that type of food, three or four times in a year is going to be that detrimental to my personal health. What I eat it every day, hell no. Hell no, I absolutely would not. I know the way that I feel when I eat things that make me feel bloated, and slow, and sluggish. One of the great things about Dr. Aamodt’s book, why diets make us fat is that once you get off that cycle of yo yo dieting, it really frees you up. To figure out, here’s how I feel when I eat different foods. You’re not on some prescribed regimen. Now, again, to be emphatically clear, this is not advice of any kind. I am not a doctor, a nurse, a health coach, a personal trainer, dietitian, etc. Always consult your doctor. And if your doctor has you on a prescribed plan for health reasons, you need to stay on that plan. Some people have issues with their internal organs, they have issues with long term disease, and there’s just certain things they can’t eat, or certain variability that they’re not allowed to have for health reasons. I’m talking about people in the absence of those things, being able to really experiment and say, okay, when I eat like this, I feel like pure trash. My body is bloated, and sluggish. I don’t sleep well at night, or conversely, I sleep too much and have no energy. Or I eat and I feel really full at first. But then two hours later, I have like the carb crash and I’m have the hangry is again. Whereas when I eat like this, I feel better. That’s one of the reasons why I just i to me, avoidance is the best way. If I avoid the source of temptation. If I avoid going into a pizza parlor when I’m really hungry, then I’m not going to eat the pizza. But we think back to people that don’t know they’re being manipulated, especially when we talk about children, young children walk into these places, and it smells good. And the colors are inviting. I mean, where do we draw the line on people getting into that reptilian part of the brain to manipulate you to buy more stuff. And in this documentary on Java discover, they show this simulated supermarket. And the people who go into the simulation like they’re wearing all kinds of different contraptions, including these goggles that I think they said were worth like 20,000 euros a piece, something like that with inflation, who knows how much the word mouth, but it tracks your eye movement down to like all of these millimeters like the tiniest slightest variation in your eye movement and in your physiological responses can tell them this type of packaging seems to do well. And it tends to go in the shopping cart. Whereas this kind of packaging doesn’t. This kind of site registers. Well, this kind of smell registers well and tends to go in the cart. So I think for me, it’s like, well, how do you have free choice? I mean, seriously, I feel like there are so many gurus out there that want to shove this message down our throat of everything that happens in your life is your own damn fault. There’s no such thing as bad luck. There’s no such thing as a bad break. If you are obese, it’s your own fault. If you lose your job, it’s your own fault. If you get a flat tire on the highway in the morning trying to go to work. It’s your own fault. And it’s like, wait a minute what? And I’m not just to be super clear, I’m not anti personal responsibility. I think the freer society is the more individually responsible we have to be so no, please make no mistake about it. I’m not one of these people that thinks we need to legislate the hell out of everything and everyone. Do I really strike you as someone who trust the state emphatically no. My point is I don’t trust corporate America either. We do, in my opinion, have crony capitalism, we do have this collusion between these massive powers. And it’s like, how do you as the little guy, how do you as the person whose reptile brain is being manipulated, figure out the best way to make good choices for yourself and your family. When they freaking done these eye scans, like they literally know what kind of packaging is going to catch your eye and go in the shopping cart. And you have you don’t even know you, a game is being played against you. And you don’t even know what’s happening. That is scary to me, I’m sorry, but it is. Also, in this documentary, they talk about product placements in schools, and, and sponsoring school field trips and games, sort of getting your hooks into the younger generation. So that way, you have a lifelong consumer, instead of worrying too much about trying to get your hooks into adults, and convince them, if you start with the younger generations, then you’re just going to have a life cycle of a consumer. That, to me is also scary. I mean, I remember watching this documentary once about the little бабушки и дедушки, who were still living in Chernobyl with these little grandmas and grandpas that were like this is our homeland, and we’re not leaving, we can take care of ourselves. And they had made their own little village, their own little society in the ruins. And they had chickens, they had vegetable gardens, if they had any kind of medical or dental problem, they just handled it on their own. And to me, it’s just such an interesting juxtaposition to think about the little grandmas and grandpas of Chernobyl like this is our home and we’re not leaving, we will grow our own food, we will be self sufficient, we’ll do whatever it takes to stay here, sort of cloistered away in this little village. That’s all we’ve ever known. And then I think about little kids, to me was kind of like that rope was all over the medical. Meanwhile, over here in America, you know, we have these brands that are manipulating kids, so that from the time they’re toddlers, they want to eat fast food and drink soda pops. I mean, sometimes it’s difficult for me to wrap my mind around that. And I guess that’s the thing, in the same way that the little бабушки и дедушки want to stay and be at home be in the place that they’ve always known eat the food that they can provide for themselves. I think about Michael Pollan’s quote of the Proustian smells like for the average American young person that smell of walking in a fast food joint and smelling the burgers and the French fries or smelling the pizza. That for them is that sense of home. And it’s been created as such. It’s it’s been neuro marketed, and cleverly designed to be like, Ah, here you go. This is the smell of childhood. This is the smell of not having any bills to pay and not having a mortgage and not having to worry about inflation and crime. Just come on in here and have a cheeseburger and a soda pop and everything’s going to be better. At about minute 37 In this documentary, they show one of the worst corporate rap videos ever seen. If you don’t watch anything else, just take a couple of minutes to watch and listen to this ghastly corporate rap video. It’s really awful. They’re like, pay attention to your brain. It’s horrible. Oh, it’s horrible. But they show this like stylized, 1950s esque looking cartoon. Apparently inside this ghastly rap video about here’s a company whose sales have plummeted. So they decided to go do this neuro marketing research to hijack people’s emotions, and then they watch sales go through the roof. Meanwhile, the narrator is like there’s a lot of dubious ethical activities involved here. And it’s like, yeah, I would say, I would say it is pretty dubious as to the ethics of all this. And speaking of which, one of the things that the filmmakers find is that a lot of people involved in the industry are reluctant to go on camera with them and actually talk about here’s what we do, here’s how it works. Here’s the purpose behind it. You know, I think about someone like Kevin O’Leary, for example, not saying that he’s into neuro marketing. I’m saying that he has a very like overt, cutthroat, capitalist attitude, take it behind the barn and shoot it. It’s not working. I only care about money. I’m Mr. Wonderful. I was surprised not to see anybody behaving like that. Because I really expected that I would instead of it being this furtive secret of behind closed doors. I really thought that somebody In the documentary would be like, yeah, hell yeah. We’re manipulating the hell out of your brain. And what are you going to do about it? We’re more powerful than you are. But there was a lot of cloak and dagger like. We don’t want to actually admit what’s, what’s going on here, or we’re going to try to talk around it. We’ll talk in circles without actually telling you exactly what’s going on here. Or we will deny using it or we will say, Yes, we did use a manipulated fragrance. But we were doing it for hygiene reasons, or we were doing it as an air freshener. But we weren’t doing it to make you buy more fast food, burgers and fries. And it’s like, yeah, sure, sure. So to me, how does this play in to free choice? I really thought a lot about Bill Hicks, saying if you think that we live in a free society, try going somewhere without money. Because that’s what so much of it boils down to. And I think where these people that push so hard with the everything is your fault message, where they miss the boat is that I’m so sorry to tell you this, but not everything that happens to you in life is your own fault. You don’t have that kind of control over everything that goes on in the world Would that it were so we wouldn’t have these economic meltdowns and recessions. Everybody could control everything that goes on around them. People wouldn’t suffer, there would be no pain, there would be no sickness, but sometimes in life crap happens. Sometimes in life, you are driving down the road minding your own business, and you run over a nail and get a flat tire. Sometimes you wake up in the morning, and you feel like your body has betrayed you by giving you a case of strep throat or some stomach flu. Maybe you ate something that disagreed with you, everything tasted fine. And then a few hours later, you realize that you shouldn’t have those things are going to happen in life. And I think there’s something really insidious, in my opinion, about deliberately getting into someone’s subconscious deliberately getting into someone’s reptile brain, to make them buy stuff, potentially things that are harmful things that could decrease their lifespan, things that could decrease their quality of life. I feel like it’s so easy for people to sit back in arrogant judgment and say, Well, you just shouldn’t do this, you shouldn’t do that. You’re you should just have the utmost self control like some Buddhist monk living in a completely controlled environment where they literally have no temptations anyway, how practical is that in the real everyday workaday world, and we were bombarded with temptation all the time. I’m not going to tell anybody not to cultivate a sense of self control and not to avoid unnecessary temptation when you can. I just think this begs the bigger question of when we live in an age where everything can be measured about your brain. How much free choice do you actually still have? I’ve mentioned this article from The Guardian before and I will read from it again. I won’t offer any commentary, I will let you decide for yourself what you want to think. But I want to read from this article that was written by Yuval Noah Harare in 2018. Unfortunately, freewill isn’t a scientific reality. It is a myth inherited from Christian theology. Theologians develop the idea of freewill to explain why God is right to punish sinners for their bad choices and reward saints for their good choices. If our choices aren’t made freely, why should God punish or reward us for them? According to the theologians, it is reasonable for God to do so because our choices reflect the freewill of our eternal souls, which are independent of all physical and biological constraints. This myth has little to do with what science now teaches us about Homo sapiens and other animals. Humans certainly have a will, but it isn’t free. You cannot decide what desires you have. You don’t decide to be introvert or extrovert, easygoing, or anxious gay or straight. Humans make choices, but they are never independent choices. Every choice depends on a lot of biological, social and personal conditions that you cannot determine for yourself. I can choose what to eat, whom to marry, who and whom to vote for. But these choices are determined in part by my genes, my biochemistry, my gender, my family background, my national culture, etc. And I didn’t choose which genes or family to have and quote, now, so let’s assume that somebody can hack in to that will. Let’s assume that somebody can get in whether through actual bio hacking with a chip or through neuro marketing and hijack your system. I mean, this is no longer the realm of science fiction. In fact, he goes on to elaborate about that exact thing in this article. I’ll continue to read just a bit more. Though freewill was always is a myth in previous centuries, it was a helpful one, it emboldened people who had to fight against the Inquisition, the divine right of kings, the KGB and the kk k. The myth also carried a few costs in 1776, or 1945, there was relatively little harm in believing that your feelings and choices are the product of some free will, rather than the result of biochemistry and neurology. But now the belief in free will suddenly becomes dangerous. If governments and corporations succeed in hacking the human animal, the easiest people to manipulate will be those who believe in free will. In order to successfully hack humans, you need two things, a good understanding of biology and a lot of computing power. The inquisition and the KGB lacked this knowledge and power. But soon, corporations and governments might have both. And once they can hack you, they can not only predict your choices, but also reengineer your feelings to do so corporations and governments need not know you perfectly, that is impossible, they will just have to know you a little bit better than you know yourself. And that is not impossible, because most people don’t know themselves very well. And quote, wow. So let’s juxtapose that an article written in 2018. With a documentary from 2012. And here we are, here we are. Again, I’m not going to offer any additional comments. I’ll let you make decisions for yourself about that. But I do find it disturbing to think about the amount of time and energy that has gone into making sure that you select certain products out of the grocery store, making sure that you go into a fast food place and you don’t leave empty handed. How much more is out there that we don’t know about how much more could be used to influence your decision making? No pun intended, just some food for thought. Stay safe, stay sane, and I’ll see in the next episode. Thanks for tuning in. If you enjoyed this episode, please take a quick second to subscribe to this podcast and share it with your friends. We’ll see you next time.

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