Today’s efficient methods of marketing grounded in Neuroaesthetics and Neuromarketing making it practically impossible for consumers to make sound judgment demands new updated ethical frameworks with supporting strong legal systems.
The digital revolution and social media have democratised marketing and to some extent equalised the playing field between billion-dollar brands and even a one-person start-up.
Digital marketing which now has surpassed traditional ad-spending (Adage.com, 2018) have enabled businesses with yearly marketing budgets in the ten-thousands to compete with the world’s largest corporations and almost anyone with a computer and a few dollars to spend on AdWords; as discussed in Chris Anderson’s seminal book Longtail (2014), in a matter of minutes can launch a targeted global marketing campaign.
Tools like Adobe Marketing Cloud (2018), Oracle Cloud (2018) and Optimizely (2018) now also makes it possible to tailor design and marketing messages to the preference model of individual customers as discussed by Horling (2009), Hicks (2010) and Hogg (2017), and visionary researchers in marketing and design are establishing methods which are grounded in the brains biological underpinnings that drive aesthetic experiences. The new scientific fields of Neuroaesthetics and Neuromarketing which just ten 10-years ago was practically unknown now have grown into two respected, diversified and interdisciplinary fields incorporating research of art (Vartanian and Goel, 2004; Kontson, 2015; Kawabata and Zeki, 2004), advertising and marketing (Bellman et al., 2016; Chang et al., 2016; Mostafa, 2013) and package design (Hubert et al., 2013; Reimann et al., 2010).
These new methods of marketing and design, however, opens a number of ethical dilemmas. Marketing ultimately is about manipulating a target audience to perform a certain behaviour; often buying a certain product or service. The problem with many of these new marketing methods is that they have made it practically impossible for consumers to make sound judgments which some marketers and organisations have come to exploit to influence customers to buy products that might be a serious influence to their health, to vote for a political candidate whose agenda is to tear apart the social security system they rely on, or to buy stuff that they do not need nor can afford without realizing that they are being manipulated. This; however, does not mean that all marketing is bad. Without marketing, it would be impossible for consumers to navigate today’s crowded marketplaces and to make informed decisions, and it is not individual marketing methods per se that is the problem but how these methods are used.
Social-science research is regulated by law in all developed countries (HHS.gov, 2018) and with the ‘Economic and Social Research Councils framework for Research Ethics’ [ESRC] (Esrc.ukri.org, 2018) being the most relevant ethical framework for researchers in the UK. The general underpinnings of these and other ethical research frameworks go back to two essential landmarks; The Nuremberg Code established in 1947 as a response to the Nazis horrifying human experimentations during the Second World War (Shuster, 2018, The Nuremberg Code, 1947), and The Belmont Report (1979) resulting from raising voices against many of the criticised social science studies performed in the 1950s, 1960s; notably by early critics including Erikson (1967) and Denzin (1968). While these frameworks do a good job of protecting study participants from psychological and physiological harm, they do not restrict research with the goal to create marketing tools and assets that will trick the same participants that were so well taken care of in the study to, for example, buy food that will kill them.
Social scientists and marketers will continue to push the boundaries which is a good thing. New discoveries are what drives society forward and a discovery in one area always leads to new discoveries in another. What is desperately needed, though, is updated ethical frameworks with supporting strong legal systems that account for today’s new methods.
Before regulators have established such frameworks, though; the relevant question which all designers and marketers need to ask themselves when working on communication projects, is not primarily if specific communication methods are ethical or not, but whether the underlying objective of their work is morally defendable.
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