Scary MOOC

Illustration by Jacek Yerka from Course PDF

Illustration by Jacek Yerka from Course PDF

Course: An Introduction to Consumer Neuroscience & Neuromarketing
School: Copenhagen Business School via Coursera (free)
Instructors: Thomas Zoëga Ramsøy
      How do we make decisions as consumers? What do we pay attention to, and how do our initial responses predict our final choices? To what extent are these processes unconscious and cannot be reflected in overt reports? This course will provide you with an introduction to some of the most basic methods in the emerging fields of consumer neuroscience and neuromarketing. You will learn about the methods employed and what they mean. You will learn about the basic brain mechanisms in consumer choice, and how to stay updated on these topics. The course will give an overview of the current and future uses of neuroscience in business.
Course Syllabus

Week 1: PROLOGUE – What is neuromarketing all about?
Week 2: Senses, attention and consciousness
Week 3: Sensory neuromarketing
Week 4: Emotions & feelings, wanting & liking
Week 5: Learning & memory
Week 6: Neuroethics and consumer aberrations

[Addendum: This course has been converted to the new Coursera platform; content may have changed, and the experience is likely to be different]

I took this course because just the title scared the hell out of me. Isn’t this something Saunders’ Persuasion Nation warned us about? But in fact, I didn’t see anything any scarier than I saw in the “Irrational Behavior” course from the Behavioral Economics faculty at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business last year. In fact, several articles used in the course referenced Dan Ariely’s work.

But that’s scary enough.

The methodology – the increasing sophistication of the science used in marketing – isn’t the problem: it’s the rampant consumerism that’s scary, confirming that people, whether they be employees or consumers, are now mere fodder for the Corporate Machine, and our value to the planet is measurable in how much we can produce, and how much we can buy – or for whom we cast our vote. /end rant. For now.

As for the course, it was quite good, in fact; I enjoyed the science. Each of the six weeks featured a topical lecture (attention, emotion, memory, etc), as well as a “studies and methods” segment detailing one or two studies and a description of various methods, either technical (fMRIs and EEGs) or theoretical (sensory load parameters). An interview with a neuromarketer or researcher added more perspective on various techniques and their implementation. Course readings were provided in a PDF of academic studies on the topics included (and featured a nice collection of contemporary art such as Polish surrealist Jacek Yerka pictured above; I’m not sure who added the art or how it was chosen, but it was fun). While the ubiquitous weekly multiple choice quiz provided half the grade for the course, the peer-assessed final exam making up the other half of the grade was quite well-planned: a case study requiring synthesis of the material in relation to a proposed ad campaign, a sort of play-neuromarketer-for-a-day experience that allowed – required – working use of the course material.

Some of the marketing methods studied were remarkably low-tech: a sign advertising a particular brand of paint is placed in a store in a location where shoppers don’t even recall seeing it, yet that brand was chosen more often than when the sign was not in place. Watch out for what you don’t see.

For the high-tech sizzle, bring in the machines: not only are there wearable eye-tracking devices to determine what people actually look at (not necessarily what they remember looking at) in a store, but there’s software that analyzes photos – such as shelf displays – to predict what will catch the eye – again, not necessarily what they remember seeing, but what they unconsciously see before looking at what they consciously look at. Selling a particular brand of potato chips might be just a matter of placing a light colored bag next to something dark colored. Use Neurovision (“Bringing Brains to Business” – I kid you not, that’s their slogan) and be sure. And if you think this is all academic claptrap: Pizza Hut launched their “mind-reading menu” just this December.

It turns out decisions aren’t made by those who show up: decisions are made by your brain before you realize it. This isn’t the product of neuromarketing; they’re merely exploiting it to figure out how to get you to want what the corporation paying the bills wants you to want.

Are you scared yet?

I am, but not of the science; it’s just amplifying what marketing has done for centuries. I’m scared of what people, who come with a full complement of nasty things like greed and ego, are going to do with this science.

I now know what it’s like to be the Creationist in the science class, now that I’ve been the liberal humanist in the business class. Even the course logo was kind of scary (not to mention ugly): shopping carts flying into a brain. Really? I need to go read some George Saunders or Seth Fried. But, I have to admit, the science was interesting and the course was put together well. Of course it was. And that makes it even scarier.

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