Edmund Rice Centre brands invasive market research unethical

Advertisers must be scrutinised for increasingly sophisticated techniques that invade the brains of consumers and rendering the poor and 'rationally disadvantaged' more vulnerable to manipulation, according to an analysis in the Edmund Rice Centre's Good Business newsletter.

Dr John Sweeney, of the Sydney-based advocacy centre run by the Christian Brothers, analyses the implications of researchers' use of MRI x-ray imaging technology to determine how different advertising elements such as packaging stimulate emotions of self-identification with the product.

A summary on the Edmund Rice Online website says the technology allows the researchers to track the emotional attachment to products which consumers develop as they associate a particular product with good past experiences. The response tells the companies which products consumers are likely to favour.

Saatchi & Saatchi CEO Kevin Roberts justifies the technique, arguing that it simply puts words in the mouth of inarticulate consumers desiring to express their preferences.

But Dr Sweeney sees a less benevolent motivation: "Even though Roberts' spin attempts to make this look like empowering consumers, it attempts to reduce the rational element of decision making to a minimum. It is difficult to see how a principles based ethic could not call this a lack of respect for the human subject and in that case ethically wrong."

He suggests that such brain-scanning can be unethical, and a further source of disadvantage for the poor.

"Rational people attempting to be ethical persons know that they must inform and fortify their capacity to read reality correctly and in the market that means interpret hyperbole, especially of the emotional variety," he says. "However, not everyone can do this very successfully. There are segments of any population that are vulnerable because of poverty, lack of education, psychological trauma or simply, as in the case of children, lack of development."

Meanwhile yesterday's Sydney Morning Herald published an article from the New York Times which reported that brain scans are being used to argue that romance is actually a drug operating in the context of human relationships.

"The research helps explain why love can make someone feel euphoria one minute then anger and anxiety the next, or prompt out-of-character behaviour, such as compulsive phone calling, serenades and yelling from the roof," says the article. "It also helps explain why someone can contemplate stalking, murder or suicide when they are rejected by their lover."

'Rationality deficit' as further source of disadvantage for poor (Edmund Rice Online 2/6/05)
Crazy for you - here's the scan to prove it (Sydney Morning Herald 1/6/05)

LINKS (not necessarily endorsed by Church Resources)
John Sweeney: The ethics of the search for the "buy button" (Good Business May 2005)

2 Jun 2005