WASHINGTON - July 12 - Commercial Alert sent letters today to members of the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, requesting an investigation of neuromarketing, the prospect of more potent advertising and its implications for politics and public health.
Following is a copy of the letter to Senator John McCain, chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee.
Dear Chairman McCain:
What would happen in this country if corporate marketers and political consultants could literally peer inside our brains, and chart the neural activity that leads to our selections in the supermarket and the voting booth? What if they then could trigger this neural activity by various means, so as to modify our behavior to serve their own ends?
We Americans may find out sooner than we think. Orwellian is not too strong a term for this prospect. Yet this research is happening right now, conducted by neuroscience and marketing professors affiliated with some of this nations most prestigious universities, such as Harvard, Baylor, CalTech, Penn State and Emory. They are using medical technologies such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) not to heal the sick but rather to probe the human psyche for the purpose of influencing it.
This new field is called neuromarketing, and those involved are near-euphoric in the possibilities for the marketing industry. It gives unprecedented insight into the consumer mind, enthuses Adam Koval, the former chief operating officer at the BrightHouse Institute for Thought Sciences. And it will actually result in higher product sales or in getting customers to behave the way [corporations] want them to behave.
Let that quote linger in your mind. Then change the word corporations to politicians in the last clause and you begin to sense the implications. These may not be far off. Already CalTech neuroscientist Steven Quartz is using an fMRI to help movies studios figure out which movie trailers will attract the most filmgoers. (What if Michael Moore had that capacity?) Ford and DaimlerChrysler have conducted neuromarketing studies to help them understand why people buy cars.
Those with a stake in this new research predictably (and understandably) try to make it sound like nothing special. They simply want to help consumers understand their true desires, they say, as if we were a bunch of ignoramuses who want and need such help. Alternatively, they argue that their research could be used to shut off a buy button as well as turn it on. Leave aside the dubious prospect that corporations are going to pay money for a technology that causes people to buy less. The argument just accentuates the basic question, which is: in a democracy such as ours, should anyone have such power to manipulate the behavior of the rest of us?
The good news is that this new technology of behavior alteration is still nascent. It has not yet established a major beachhead in the political or commercial realms. Your committee has a rare opportunity to investigate a problem while there is still time to prevent it, and we urge that you do that here. Neuromarketing raises several large problems, all of which fall squarely under the jurisdiction and responsibility of the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.
1. Increased incidence of marketing-related diseases. Marketing is deeply implicated in many serious pathologies. That is especially true of children, who are suffering from an epidemic of marketing-related diseases, including obesity, type 2 diabetes, alcoholism, and eating disorders, while millions will eventually die from smoking-related illnesses. The use of neuromarketing by companies that produce tobacco, alcohol, junk food or fast food could be damaging to public health. For example, what if neuromarketing helped tobacco companies to increase the effectiveness of their marketing by a mere 2%? Smoking causes about 440,000 premature deaths in the United States annually. A back of the hand calculation suggests that this could eventually cause approximately an extra nearly 9,000 premature deaths per year.
2. More effective political propaganda. The history of the 20th century is filled with examples of the use of propaganda in service of totalitarianism, hatred and genocide, in Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, Cambodia, Rwanda, Burundi, East Timor and Kosovo, among other places. Neuromarketing could make such propaganda more effective, potentially leading to new totalitarian regimes, civil strife, wars, genocide and countless deaths. According to the New York Times, political consultants have already teamed up with neuroscientists at FKF Research to conduct neuromarketing experiments to gauge the effectiveness of political advertising.
3. More effective promotion of degraded values. Corporations regularly promote especially to children and teenagers degraded values and products including materialism, addiction, violence, gambling, pornography, anti-social behavior, etc. Any increase in the effectiveness in the marketing of these values and products could impact the character of millions of Americans.
This is serious business. It goes to the very nature of our democracy, and the principles of freedom, self-determination and individual responsibility upon which it is based. Only a congressional investigation can flush out answers that the public needs. Neuromarketing research is, for the most part, shrouded in secrecy For example, according to news accounts, BrightHouse has or had a Fortune 500 client for its neuromarketing research. But it refuses to disclose the identity of the client, the nature of the research, or the advice it provided to the client. That is typical. Most of the existing evidence is piecemeal and anecdotal, including that which we have cited. The Senate Commerce Committee can get the whole story, and we urge that it do so.
In particular it should find answers to questions such as these:
1. Which companies are using neuromarketing and how are they using it?
2. Are tobacco, alcohol, junk food or gambling companies using neuromarketing techniques?
3. What are the public health implications of neuromarketing for tobacco, alcohol, junk food, fast food, gambling and violent entertainment?
4. How is neuromarketing being used for political clients?
5. What are the political implications of neuromarketing and the increased effectiveness of political propaganda?
6. What are the implications of neuromarketing for the promotion of values such as materialism, addiction, violence and anti-social behavior?
Finally, the Committee should consider what legal remedies should be enacted to protect individual citizens and consumers, and our democracy, from neuromarketing and more effective political and commercial propaganda. For example, neuromarketing could be included by statute as an unfair or deceptive act or practice under the Federal Trade Commission Act.
Gary Ruskin, Executive Director