The Economist did a fantastic special report on obesity a few issues back. I highly recommend reading it. You may see the obesity debate in a whole new light. However, I was a bit disappointed in the closing paragraph of one of their opening articles in that issue:
There is a limit, however, to what the state can or should do. In the end, the responsibility and power to change lie primarily with individuals. Whether people go on eating till they pop, or whether they opt for the healthier, slimmer life, will have a bigger effect on the future of the species than most of the weighty decisions that governments make.
I can totally understand where this perspective is coming from, but I don’t think that this perspective accounts for neuromarketing.
The technical definition:
In recent times, ‘neuromarketing’ has come to mean the application of neuroimaging techniques to sell products.
Meaning, marketers hook you up to a machine while you watch images/video of product and then notice when certain areas of your brain light up. With this information, they’re able to tell when your brain is active and — theoretically — determine that it’s because of what you’re watching. [Is that frightening to anyone?] So, as the title of this post asks, with regard to the obesity crisis, why isn’t anyone talking about neuromarketing? Let me make the connection a little clearer.
We know that through neuromarketing, it’s possible to determine how our brains react to certain advertisements and products. With this information, companies can then use the advertisements that are most successful in getting consumers to buy their products. If we apply what we know from this abstract scenario to the food industry (is it weird to anyone else that it’s called the food industry?) we can posit that there are probably companies out there who use neuromarketing techniques to convince consumers to buy their product. Isn’t it possible (probable?) that companies who are in the business of selling us over-the-top sugary drinks or unnecessarily sweet-tooth-inducing treats also in the business of using neuromarketing techniques to convince us that we need to be drinking these drinks or eating these treats?
Getting back to the opening quote from The Economist, my response would have to be — in part — no. While I agree that personal responsibility is important, sometimes, the environment is too compelling. In this case, the environment is neuromarketing. How can a consumer make an informed choice if her/his brain is being manipulated?
I’m not sure of the solution to the obesity epidemic (though I have an idea that I’ll talk about in the coming days!), but I know that we most certainly need to include neuromarketing in that discussion.