Corporations may no longer have to guess which marketing campaigns will click with our brainwaves. They may know—because science will tell them.

A controversial new field called “neuromarketing” is attracting the attention of consumer rights advocates, who want the government to take a hard look at what they think is—or could be—a type of brain control.

Portland-based Commercial Alert, co-founded by Ralph Nader and Gary Ruskin, sent a letter to the Senate Commerce Committee July 12 asking it to investigate the practice.

“What would happen in this country if corporate marketers and political consultants could literally peer inside our brains, and chart the neural activity that leads to our selections in the supermarket and the voting booth?” Ruskin wrote in the letter to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who chairs the committee. “What if they then could trigger this neural activity by various means, so as to modify our behavior to serve their own ends?”

Emory, Harvard, Baylor, California Institute of Technology and other universities are using new technologies like functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, to track the brain’s blood flow and active nerve cells—and its likes and dislikes.

Ruskin fingered CalTech neuroscientist Steven Quartz in particular. Quartz is using fMRI to determine which kinds of movie trailers are most effective. (Click here for a Guardian article about Quartz’s research.)

Ruskin, who described neuromarketing experimentation as “Orwellian,” listed three potential problems: “increased incidence of marketing-related diseases”; “more effective political propaganda”; and “more effective promotion of degraded values.”

“Your committee has a rare opportunity to investigate a problem while there is still time to prevent it, and we urge that you do that here,” Ruskin wrote. “Neuromarketing raises several large problems, all of which fall squarely under the jurisdiction—and responsibility—of the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.”

Ruskin said the committee should consider legal actions necessary to protect citizens, and American democracy, from the ill effects of neuromarketing. He suggested the practice might fall under the unfair and deceptive acts and practices prohibited by the Federal Trade Commission Act.

“Those with a stake in this new research predictably (and understandably) try to make it sound like nothing special,” Ruskin said in the letter to McCain. “They simply want to help consumers understand their true desires, they say, as if we were a bunch of ignoramuses who want and need such help.”

“Alternatively, they argue that their research could be used to shut off a ‘buy button’ as well as turn it on,” he continued. “Leave aside the dubious prospect that corporations are going to pay money for a technology that causes people to buy less.”

Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for

More information on neuromarketing is available at Commercial Alert’s background page.

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