By Dominic Carter
Are we getting to the point where the consumer’s freedom of choice is compromised?
The more progressive marketers among us have begun to talk about using consumer “conversations” as a prime source of market information and inspiration. Under this conversational model, somewhat organic, even anarchic communities are set up online. Members are free to swap stories and opinions about the category, the brand and themselves — working with us to enhance a brand that is, self-evidently, a part of their life. Some have even gone as far as to invite members to create their own ads — with mixed results that do not always flatter. It’s part of so-called Web 2.0, and it’s all about enlisting consumers as partners and co- creators. It’s a brave new world where the consumer is king, and marketers have to fight for every moment they give us.
These so-called conversations are, undoubtedly, a positive development in the way we interact with our consumers and our community, and it is technology we have to thank for them. But there is another technology coming over the horizon that doesn’t remotely rely on speaking. Enter the world of neuro-marketing. If, like me, you have ever puzzled over why consumers do the things they do and are, at times, so unpredictable, then this is the technology for you. Why trouble yourself with questioning and listening to people post-rationalize when we are able to hook them up to relatively unobtrusive machines, read the electrical patterns in their brain and infer a decision-making process that they themselves are not even aware of? I write this with my tongue perhaps not fully in my cheek. Make no mistake, this is not a fantasy technology. It is being used here and now in Japan to help the most innovative marketers hone their product offering and advertising appeals.
The applications of direct neural measurement in marketing and communications are many. From fine tuning TV commercials, to choosing the most emotionally (and neurally) harmonious media, articles and programs to put them in, to choosing how to craft a knock-out persuasive message, neurological measurement brings a laser level of insight that translates into real world results.
But are we reaching a point where we are unreasonably intruding into the minds of unwitting research subjects? Have our subjects really thought through how involuntary the yielding of their feedback is? Can they really be giving informed consent when they participate in such an intimate process? Are we getting to the point where the consumer’s freedom of choice is compromised? And is the well-worn but flimsy argument about people being forced to do things they don’t want to do through advertising actually not so flimsy anymore? What are the implications of this beyond marketing, into politics?
If those ethical concerns are valid ones, then this technology will be a marketer’s dream.
The power of the technology concerns me but, as a researcher, I could never argue against progress. At the end of the day, we are looking at a technology that promises unheard of efficiencies in marketing and communication investment. In the current economic climate there is no way this will not be of interest to business. I just hope we can augment our more intrusive, and, I might add, necessary, efforts at consumer intimacy with the respect that comes through conversation.
CarterJMRN is a strategic market research agency that has been helping clients with consumers and businesses in Japan and beyond since 1989.
We believe that, although the terrain you face in building a successful marketing strategy and activation path sometimes seems obscure, the path to success is knowable and that the consumer is the guide who will show you the way.
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