Brands were leveraging neural data long before the arrival of implanted microchips. Jonathan Joseph, head of solutions at Ketch, discusses the dawning era of neuromarketing.
In the last few days, a tech leader achieved a technological breakthrough that could one day open a new frontier for data-driven marketing and challenge our understanding of data privacy by letting brands directly access some of our deepest thoughts. I’m not talking about Elon Musk’s revelation that Neuralink has started implanting microchips into human brains, though. I’m talking about Tim Cook finally shipping Apple’s Vision Pro headset, along with the most sophisticated gaze and body-language tracking yet seen on a commercial device.
Now, Apple talks a good game when it comes to data privacy, and I’m not suggesting that Apple is about to start hawking your gaze-data to marketers. But the launch of the Vision Pro does mark a clear before-and-after moment: as other manufacturers rush to catch up, we’ll quickly enter a new era in terms of the power and precision and ubiquity of gaze-tracking hardware, and that will quickly mean that gaze data itself becomes far more widely used to track people and precisely tailor marketing to their specific moods, interests, and responses to stimuli.
That might sound like small potatoes compared to the possibility of downloading someone’s thoughts directly from their cerebral cortex. But I’d argue that when we talk about neuromarketing, it’s precisely these smaller steps that we need to be thinking about – because it’s through these baby steps that we’ll ultimately wind up in a world of ubiquitous and powerful tracking and personalization powered less by stockpiled personal data than by consumers’ immediate biological and neural responses to the world around them.
The rise of neuromarketing
Part of the challenge, when it comes to neural data, is that a generation of sci-fi stories and movies have trained us to think that the big problems only come when we literally plug computers into our brain (thanks, William Gibson). That’s a dangerous line of thought, because it leads us to believe that unless we’ve actually let Elon Musk fit us with a neural lace, we’re essentially immune from having our mental data read, recorded, or used in any way.
The problem is that while nobody’s going to plug chips into your brain without you noticing, there are now a growing number of immersive technologies designed to derive valuable data from the way you experience and interact with the world around you. The Vision Pro’s gaze-tracking is just one particularly potent example – we’re now seeing many different kinds of neuromarketing coming online.
Sentiment analysis, for instance, is already being used to target ads to consumers’ moods or personalities. Digital billboards are using facial recognition and gaze-tracking to target ads to passersby in unprecedented new ways. And the rise of AI-generated ads is making it easier than ever before for new data sources to drive new targeting and custom ad content, often with minimal oversight or public awareness.
On some levels, neuromarketing is nothing new. For decades, marketers have been conducting A/B tests based on gaze tracking, consumer responses to different colours, and even consumers’ brainwave activity. The difference, however, is that such studies were conducted with a handful of consumers under lab conditions, and the results then used to hone the effectiveness of broader marketing campaigns. At no previous point in history have marketers been able to seriously consider customising or targeting ads based on the neural responses of individual consumers.
Today, though, we’re rapidly entering a world where marketers can do just that. New technologies are rapidly making neuromarketing far more powerful as a tool for individual targeting and ad customization – while also making it virtually invisible, and thus far more insidious.
Don’t wait for brain implants
The big takeaway here is that it doesn’t take a brain implant to capture and leverage neural data in meaningful – and unsettling – ways. We might well be heading toward a world where such implants become possible, or even widespread. But we’re already in a world where brands and marketers are able to capture and leverage remarkable new kinds of data that directly reflect the way that people think and feel about the world around them.
That brings two risks. The first is that while we assume most people would never want a brain implant – and perhaps especially not one screwed into their brain by Elon Musk – they are willing to tolerate less threatening tech like gaze-scanning, especially if it comes with the promise of amazing new digital experiences or kinds of content. New devices like the Vision Pro have the potential to shift the Overton window and make neural data capture more broadly acceptable, paving the way for more intrusive tech further down the line.
The second, potentially bigger risk is that technologies and types of data capture that we’d resist if they happened suddenly wind up feeling almost inevitable if they evolve slowly enough. That, in turn, means that regulators and policymakers – whose actions are driven, in large part, by public outrage – could continue to neglect such technologies until it’s much too late to take effective action to manage them and mitigate the risks they bring.
In other words, if we want to have a say in how our neural data is used – by brands, marketers, and everyone else – we can’t afford to wait until brain implants become commonplace. Instead, we need to think seriously now about how to manage data privacy and provide consumers with meaningful control over how their neural data is used. Neuroscientists are already calling for better data governance for brain data. It’s time to bring that debate out of the research lab, and start a serious conversation about the meaning of data privacy in a world of ubiquitous neural marketing.
Next, learn why it’s time marketers move away from vanity metrics.
Cover image attributed to Milad Fakurian via Unsplash.