Beyond Black Friday: Neuromarketing, Your Brain and Your Wallet


I never liked the term “Black Friday.” It makes me think of evil and bad things like the Black September terrorist outfit of the 1970s or the “Black Tuesday” stock market crash that ushered in the Great Depression. Moreover, it seems odd to me that marketers would describe a shopping day – nay, actually promote a shopping day – with a term that has to do with retail profits (i.e. “getting into the black”) rather than consumers making out well. Who would buy into that?

Well, many of us do. We might second guess them, but marketers know lots of stuff that we don’t. In fact, with access to the latest in neuroscience, it turns out they know stuff about me that I don’t even know. It even has a name: neuromarketing.

Here’s a good definition of the practice from Neuromarketing, a blog focused on the field, authored by consultant Roger Dooley. (Consider that they make no secret about what they’re up to. They don’t have to. They’re that good.)

“Neuromarketing includes the direct use of brain imaging, scanning, or other brain activity measurement technology to measure a subject’s response to specific products, packaging, advertising, or other marketing elements… neuromarketing also includes the use of neuroscience research in marketing. For example, using fMRI or other techniques, researchers may find that a particular stimulus causes a consistent response in the brain of test subjects, and that this response is correlated with a desired behavior (e.g., trying something new).”

So what does this mean? That Mad Men are busy figuring out how we subconsciously process product and are tapping into parts of our brain through adverting and marketing techniques that we’re unaware of? Well, of course they are. And they’re getting better at it every day.

According to Denise Corcoran, CEO of The Empowered Business, neuromarketing recognizes that there are three “main parts” to the brain. These include, she writes at Business Know-How:

  • “The ‘Human’ (‘New,’ or outer-most) Brain: Most evolved part of the brain known as the cortex. Responsible for logic, learning, language, conscious thoughts and our personalities.
  • The ‘Mammalian’ (Middle) Brain: Also known as the limbic system. Deals with our emotions, moods, memory and hormones.
  • The ‘Reptilian’ (Old) Brain: Also known as the R Complex controls our basic survival functions, such as hunger, breathing, flight-or-fight reactions and staying out of harm’s way.”

“While neuromarketing is still a young field with many unanswered questions, one finding is clear,” Corcoran says. “The reptilian, or ‘old,’ brain drives your customers’ [heads up people. She’s speaking here to marketers] buying decisions.” This part of the brain, now heavily targeted by in-the-know-how marketers includes, she writes, a sophisticated (not!) focus on emotions triggered by sensory stimuli, simple gain versus pain tradeoffs, and “beginnings and endings.” I’d use terms like “knee-jerk” and “super duper impetuous” to describe my reptile brain. Not really that part of me I want in charge of my wallet.

(Keep in mind, by the way, that we’re not just talking about buying product here. Lots of decisions come made by This Old Brain. Anyone around this last election day? The neuromarketers were.)

So, as we round the shopping mall turn into The Season, what are some examples of how they play us during this last month of the year? Here are two classics designed to plug into our neuro(tic?) habits, according to Dooley:

You want it? We got it! At a ridiculously low price! Just come on down and…

A staple of Black Friday promotions is the limited quantity loss leader item,” Dooley explains. This is when a store loudly advertises a known-to-be desirable item (say, a flat-screen TV) at an incredibly low price. In fact, so low the store’s going to lose money.  Sound like a good reason to cue up? After all, the advertisements says, “At least 5,000 available chain-wide!”

A lot for a little? “This pitch is neuroeconomic perfection,” he says. “Consumers see the product, and are shocked by the amazingly low price. At the same time, neuroeconomics research tells us that people aren’t good at translating odds and percentages into real-life probabilities… most consumers wouldn’t have a clue that a particular chain might have, say, a thousand stores. And, if every store gets just a few units, the chance of actually being able to buy one is very low. Still, many make the trek into the store early on Black Friday hoping to do just that.”

What’s left behind when the smoke-and-mirrors-screen clears is what Dooley calls “an atmosphere of savings. If people are lining up at 4 AM to buy stuff, the prices must be incredible, right? This savings frenzy may carry over to other products and even infect shoppers not pursuing the limited-supply items.” Wow. Such language! “Atmosphere of savings!” “Frenzy!” “Infect!” I don’t mean to pick on Dooley, who’s just doing his job, but yikes.

But wait! There’s more!

Buy now, pay… well, who cares when? Just buy now!

Another big end-of-the-year play is to promise no payments until next year. Never mind that that might be just a few weeks away. Oh hell, you know that! How about no payments until, say, next summer? Or maybe, “No interest for a year! You can pay it off by then. Can’t ya?”

This is what Dooley calls the “No Payment, No Pain” approach, another “brain-based technique” that minimizes current cash outflow while maximizing overall cash outflow. “The possibility of immediate gratification with very little in the way of ‘paying pain’ will no doubt close more deals. (The mere enabling factor of these offers is important, too; some consumers simply can’t pay for the product in full.)” Again, note that this marketing consultant is talking to The Man (or Men or Women, or whoever wants you cash) and not to you.

So yeah, buy now, pay later. From the mouths of neuromarketers: “Some of these financing offers make sub-prime mortgage lenders look downright sensible and cautious.”

Enough. We and our oh-so-easy-to-read brains get the drift. Many of us are no match for the cross-fire of high-level sales techniques. (As a cha-ching FYI, an estimated $45 billion was spent at retail stores on Friday and $1 billion was spent online Monday.) I say, though, that a little awareness goes a long way. So heads up out there in the marketing kill zone this season. Consider the value of your own (In the) Black January and opposed to surrendering to your inner reptile.

Image: Oran Viriyincy

Scott Adelson

Scott Adelson is EcoSalon's Senior Editor of HyperKulture, a monthly column that explores opening cultural doors to initiate personal change. He is also the author of InPRINT, which reviews and discusses books, new and old. You can reach him at