BU Today


Student spotlight: an essay by Jennifer Ziegenfuss

Neuromarketing: Evolution of advertising or unethical use of medical technology?

Jennifer Ziegenfuss (CAS '05)

Throughout August, BU Today will publish pieces of student scholarship and creative work. Jennifer Ziegenfuss (CAS ’05) majored in Biology with a specialization in Neuroscience. During her time as a BU undergrad, she spent two years working in the lab of Dr. Mary Erskine through the UROP program.  She is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, in the lab of Marc Freeman.

Research at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, initiated by Dr. Clinton Kilts has unearthed some interesting results stemming from MRI studies in cognitive neuroscience. The scientists conducting the study discovered a biological cue to what may be driving personal preference. When the study volunteers saw a picture presented to them while undergoing an MRI brain scan they liked, their brains showed increased activity in the medial prefrontal cortex (AJC). When the brain’s medial prefrontal cortex lights up, is can be discerned that the image displayed is strongly liked by the subject (Fig 1). The medial prefrontal cortex is an area in the brain that has been associated with preference and sense of self. Advertisers say that the quality which makes us loyal customers is a brand that reflects our self-image, not by just taste, size, or color alone (AJC).

The Emory study, funded through Atlanta consulting firm BrightHouse and by a Fortune 500 client (either Coca-Cola, Delta Air Lines, Georgia-Pacific, or Met-Life), has created controversy over the emerging field of, "neuromarketing". Neuromarketing is a commercial offshoot of the growing field of the medical and scientific research known as cognitive neuroscience. In cognitive neuroscience, researchers use high technological brain-imaging devices such as MRI and fMRI scanners to uncover biological explanations for mental illness, neurogenitive diseases, chemical imbalances, and why we love, hate, envy, or cooperate (AJC). Marketers now want to use such tools as MRI scanners to find out which product images cause response in the medial prefrontal cortex in order to bolster their product sales (Cranston).

Neuromarketing has stirred up ethical questions surrounding the validity of using such devices for marketing purposes. Is it a manipulative way of selling unneeded products to unsuspecting people, and ultimately distorting the marketplace relationship? Or, is it just a new, more scientific and evolved form of consumer interest research?

Critics of neuromarketing say that MRI research, which allows better understanding of depression, addiction, and schizophrenia, should not be used by companies such as Ford, McDonalds, or Budweiser to unconsciously entice people to buy more of their product. Gary Ruskin, executive director of Commercial Alert has stated that, "It’s wrong to use medical technology for marketing and not for healing…we have epidemics of irresponsible spending, dept, obesity, diabetes, alcoholism, gambling, and smoking – all tied into marketing, and any increase in the effectiveness of advertising can be devastating to the public" (AJC). Proponents say in contrast that consumers’ responses have always been carefully observed as a means of gauging the effectiveness of targeting the audience. Focus groups are a type of social science and have been use for a long time, and neuromarketing techniques do not deviate much from this type of method. They state that the technology used for cognitive neuroscience and neuromarketing does not exclusively belong to medicine, rather, is an application of physics and biology and is essentially neutral. Although, with any type of technology, it may be used or abused as critics point out (Cranston).

Vulnerability of the public is a major bioethical concern. Proponents of neuromarketing say that people are not and will not be vulnerable to the power of suggestion, and if the consumer really does not want to buy something, they won’t. Contrary to this statement, it has been indicated that people may actually be quite vulnerable to the power of suggestion, especially with the media. Studies have shown that in countries which do not receive television and western media, there is a considerable lack of anorexia and bulimia in the population (Irving, NAMI). On a social level, much of society is driven by fads and what seems "hot" in the marketplace. By suggesting the notion of being happy and self-actualized with buying a certain product, could this be a mode of unconscious suggestion that could possibly lead to more social problems? Although this question is valid, as advertisers say, the marketplace relationship has never been a level playing field. Neuromarketing is just another method to try and trick the buyer into purchasing, and that only the most naïve could believe that the seller ever gives the buyer all necessary information. There should be the assumption, proponents say, that the sellers are spinning their products, and that the general public has enough self responsibility to say that they aren’t going to buy it (Cranston).

Ethical use of the MRI technology is also an issue. Currently, it takes thousands of dollars to run a single MRI scan, not to mention a great deal more to purchase the machine itself. Universities and hospitals use funds and grants to procure MRI scanners and to run experiments. Comparatively, monies from large corporations such as Coca-Cola or Microsoft are in much higher quantity than scientific research funds. This may tip the scales for future MRI research. More studies may be conducted for advertising purposes rather than for medical uses, which helps humanity and facilitates science and should be the top priority.

Whenever new applications for technologies emerge, as with neuromarketing, the bioethical question needs to be addressed whether the application is detrimental toward individuals and society as a whole. Questions of whether neuromarketing is just a benign method to help companies better understand customers’ true desires while giving customers the power to influence companies should be addressed as well as determining whether this method is a way of unconsciously suggesting the purchase of an otherwise unwanted item. The issue surrounding what should and should not be considered facilitative research for the benefit of humanity also needs to be addressed as to whether marketing MRI studies are justified or would seize intensity away from medical research.


Cranston, Robert. "Neuromarketing: Unethical Advertising?" The Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity. 13, Feburary 2004.
Irving, L.M. and Neumark-Sztainer, D. (2002) “Integrating the prevention of eating disorders and obesity: Feasible or futile?” Preventive Medicine 34, 299-309.
National Alliance for the Mentally Ill. NAMI HelpLine fact sheet: Anorexia nervosa.
Wahlberg, David. "Advertisers Probe Brains, Raise Fears." The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. 2 February 2004.