Core Misrepresentation Issues for Neuromarketing

This is excerpted from a critical, peer-reviewed study of online dating but the challenges are the same.  Like neuromarketing, online dating pretends to be evidence and science based but is not.  So if you look at the online dating companies they make similar unsupported statements and refuse to test their claims – just like neuromarketers.

Secrecy of this sort is standard in the for-profit sector. The formula for Coca-Cola is famously clandestine, and Apple reveals the inner workings of its operating systems only to software developers who sign nondisclosure agreements.  Nevertheless, firms like Coca-Cola and Apple rarely make explicit reference to a scientific basis for their marketing claims, perhaps in part because the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Act:“prohibits unfair or deceptive advertising in any medium. . . . Advertising must tell the truth and not mislead consumers. . . . Claims must be substantiated, especially when they concern health, safety, or performance. . . . If your ad specifies a certain level of support for a claim—“tests show X”—you must have at least that level of support” (Bureau of Consumer Protection, 2011a[4], paras. 2–4).

Moreover, the FTC enjoins companies from using consumer testimonials (a common tactic used by online dating sites in their advertisements) as a means of bypassing scientific substantiation:

By “competent and reliable scientific evidence,” the FTC means tests, studies or other research based on the expertise of professionals in the field who have been objectively conducted and evaluated by qualified people using procedures that give accurate and reliable results. . . . Claims made through consumer testimonials also require scientific evidence. Some advertisers mistakenly think they can get around the substantiation requirement by couching efficacy claims as consumer testimonials— “My arthritis pain vanished!” or “This product relieved my allergy symptoms!” They’re wrong. Testimonials aren’t “competent and reliable scientific evidence.” If you don’t have solid science to prove the underlying representation, don’t try to “back door” it through a testimonial. Furthermore, don’t forget that by using a testimonial, you’ve made an efficacy claim that has to be substantiated” (Bureau of Consumer Protection, 2011b[5], paras. 2–3; emphasis in the original).

These and similar rules have fostered legal action when the research does not actually support claimed benefits of a product (e.g., the 2007 Coca-Cola/Nestlé Enviga calorie-burning controversy, in which these firms were prohibited from making weight-loss claims for certain products; Casewatch, 2011[6]). Indeed, at least one online dating firm has demanded that another firm cease making claims it deems unsubstantiated about the number of dates and relationships it has produced and the number of members it has (Gigaom, 2011[7]). In several other instances, online dating firms have formally objected to one another’s advertised claims of effectiveness through the self-regulatory program of the National Advertising Review Council, objections that the Council has upheld (NARC, 2011[8]).

It may be instructive to draw an analogy to the pharmaceutical and medical-device industries, two other industries in which a product may have substantial implications for the health and well-being of its users (much as online dating may have, as discussed earlier). These companies also assert that the benefits of their products are based on substantial scientific research. In fact, such evidence is a prerequisite for receiving approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), consistent with this organization’s responsibility to protect the public’s welfare. Nevertheless, the sponsor of an investigative drug or device must submit detailed information about its chemical or mechanical properties and the underlying manufacturing process before being allowed to conduct a study on humans. Furthermore, although the FDA keeps certain proprietary information confidential, patent applications, which are public documents, must disclose key details. Thus, by the time a drug or device becomes available to the public, key information about its central components is accessible to scientists and other interested people. To our knowledge, no dating site has provided information of this sort to any regulatory agency.

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