Marketing must tap into the brain. Is that news?

Marketing recently ran a piece titled ‘Marketers must tap into the human brain here’.

This is my response that was recently published in Marketing.

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?

Rory 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.

No really, what have you been doing all day?

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

I feel we have to be careful that marketing doesn’t get entirely swallowed up by neuro-bollocks and we can show some neuro-skepticism 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 they make people who were once seen as autonomous sentient beings disappear or become illusionary, our consciousness is in fact an illusion, some of them say.

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 our client’s products but choice is an illusion? We run pitches to help clients choose agencies but there is no such thing as choice?  We attempt to persuade talented people to join the industry but they can’t really choose at all?

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 one, which is unconscious and “automatic” and system two, 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 and 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 1s 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?

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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