Why marketers must beware the rise of 'neuro-b*llocks'

It's high time that marketers began to show some scepticism towards neuroscience, argues Jim Powell, managing director of new business consultancy Teeming.

Why marketers must beware the rise of 'neuro-b*llocks'

Don’t tell me that marketers have only just discovered we must tap into the human brain? As my Mum would say, "What have you guys been doing all day?"

I got thinking about the subject after reading an article in Marketing detailing Rory Sutherland’s assertion that marketers must make more use of psychologically-driven solutions to solve problems.

Sutherland makes the point that for advertising to be less defensive and more aggressive in asserting its value, it should tap into the realms of psychologically driven solutions to grow brands.

I agree that marketers must understand human psychology but where it actually takes its understandings from is very important. I am worried that this increasingly likely move for marketing to leap on findings from neuroscience and modern psychology may do the opposite of what Rory hopes.

What does it really even mean to tap into the human brain?  Undoubtedly, the brain is a very important organ and beyond fascinating and maybe even beyond comprehension. "If the human brain were so simple that we could understand it, we would be so simple that we couldn't." Emerson Pugh, The Biological Origin of Human Values.

I feel we have to be careful that marketing doesn’t get entirely swallowed up by neuro-bollocks and we can show some neuro-scepticism here.

Is marketing and advertising even really ready for the end consequence of being seduced by neuroscience’s materialist view of people? Because that is often what it really is. With devastating logic it makes people who were once seen as autonomous sentient beings disappear or become illusionary, our consciousness is, in fact, an illusion, some of of its propenents says.

Illusion of choice

Their reductio ad absurdum goes thus - the mind is a product of the brain (tick), the brain is a material object evolved by random natural selection (tick), all material objects must obey the laws of the physical universe (tick), which are impersonal and fixed (tick) and so people cannot make decisions because there are no choices to be made (err tick), we are simply obeying the rules of a deterministic universe where free will is absent.

And this will help marketing in some way? We want to create advertising to get people to choose a brand’s products but choice is an illusion?

Or we are told that decisions are made emotionally, often citing the work of Nobel prize-winning author Daniel Kahneman. He splits the mind into two systems -  System 1, which is unconscious and ‘automatic’ and System 2, the ‘rational’ mind.

He isn’t the first to spot this. Plato described emotion and reason as two horses pulling us in opposite directions, we really didn’t need neuroscience or modern psychology for that - most of these dilemmas have been at the heart of ancient philosophy. Neuroscience brings a lot less to the table than some would have you believe.

What is disturbing to Kahneman's work is that System 1 always wins. System 2 just provides a rationale for System 1 thinking. What marketers love to call post-rationalising. The problem is it makes conversation close to obsolete. However I answer a question, you can just say I am post-rationalising. Can I ever not be post-rationalising?

Marketing does itself no favours when it says people only really make emotional or irrational choices or there aren’t any choices to be made

The problem is debate is stifled because people are no longer treated as having the ability to reason, make social choices or be rational in their thinking. And yet many great achievements in the world have relied on this.

The reason I think the industry is defensive today is because it is already so full of bunkum. Many agency people who I have met over the years, have under the right situation (beer) acknowledged this.

Marketing’s a soft target when it comes to criticism but it does itself no favours when it says people only really make emotional or irrational choices or there aren’t any choices to be made. Who in the board-room could then make a reasoned, well thought-out argument to elevate the marketing industry to any worthy status?

Imagine a CEO asks, "Why are we choosing agency ABC Inc?" the marketing director replies, "I’d love to give you a reason but they’re really aren’t any choices in a deterministic universe. All decisions are emotional and I can only offer up post-rationalised reasons that you have probably already decided to accept or reject."

The movement towards understanding human psychology more and more as a product of biology and away from a product of society and simultaneously a creator of it, who are autonomous beings that at times really can think rationally and makes choices - causes me some concern.

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