Putting the Neuron to Work 1 of 4

1 of 4

Two Questions Concerning Legitimate Practices and Subjectivation in Neuropersuasion.

Question One: What is, and what isn’t, considered a legitimate partnership between the business enterprise and brain science.

Toward the latter part of Virality I begin to follow Tarde’s microsociological trajectory into present-day consumerist models of society. I am interested in how the once over hyped ambitions of viral marketing are perhaps more successfully achieved through so-called neuromarketing practices. Forget the power of the meme as a malleable unit of imitation able to spread itself through a population of consumers, indeed, forgot the meme’s neo-Darwinian theoretical underpinning (more on that in the book). Tardean virality is better realized, it would seem, in the practices of the neuromarketer, that is, practices informed by neuroscience and cognitive psychology which probe the neurological unconscious and tap into the volatility of the relation established between emotions, affect and cognition. Following on from contributions in the field of affect research from Antonio Damasio, and to some extent, Robert Zajonc, what is established here, in a nutshell, is that affect and emotions are not independent of, or interfering in, rationale cognitive process. They are instead enmeshed in the very networks that lead to reflective thoughts and decisions. Zajonc goes as far to say that affect and feelings may in fact have a mind of their own which bypasses cognitive processes altogether.

It is this type of thinking that supports the claims made by the neuromarketing enterprise. Watch this video from the company Neurofocus.

So as to understand consumer behaviour these neuroscience-PhDs-turned-marketers triangulate the consumer experience in terms of attention, emotions and memory. Their research intends to (a) grab the ever thinning slice of consumer attention, (b) stimulate the senses and emotional responses to brands and products, and (c) move marketing messages straight to memory in order to trigger decisions. These are their claims further supported by research into attention deficit and obsessive compulsive disorders, manias and Alzheimer disease.

I think Tarde would take a rather disdainful view on this incursion into the brain of the consumer. Similarly, my approach here is not intended as a guide to the potential of future marketing success. It is a social and cultural theory of epidemic spreading which encompasses the contagions of affects, feelings and emotions. It is supposed to adopt a critical distance between itself and the claims of mememarketers and neuromarketers. It is not the case however that all of academia keeps its distance. Indeed, there are lines of defence already being drawn up by those neuroscience departments looking to justify their excursions into a business-led exploitation of medical brain science intended to sell more Cornflakes and Cadillacs. Neuromarketers are, as such, pushing ahead with research into brainwave frequencies under the logic that “in hard times ads must work harder to move the merchandise.” The discourse of the age of austerity effortlessly, it seems, oils the wheels for such commercial thinking to slide in and get a discursive grip on what is, and what isn’t, a legitimate partnership between the business enterprise and scientific research.

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About Virality

Tony D. Sampson is Reader in Digital Culture and Communications at the University of East London. A former musician, he studied computer technology and cultural theory before receiving a PhD in sociology from the University of Essex. His publications include The Spam Book, coedited with Jussi Parikka (Hampton Press, 2009), Virality: Contagion Theory in the Age of Networks (University of Minnesota Press, 2012), The Assemblage Brain: Sense Making in Neuroculture (University of Minnesota Press, 2016) and Affect and Social Media (Rowman and Littlefield, due 2018). He is organizer and host of the Affect and Social Media conferences in the UK, a co-founder of Club Critical Theory and Director of the EmotionUX Lab at UEL. He occasionally blogs at: https://viralcontagion.wordpress.com/ Full academic profile: https://www.uel.ac.uk/Staff/s/tony-sampson
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