Advertisement of the future: the analysis of emotions, a risk of manipulation?

Emotions are the key that will allow advertisers to tailor their messages as finely as possible. To analyze them, facial recognition and neuromarketing techniques are increasingly being used across the Atlantic. With the real risk of washing our brains…


To make their ads more effective, marketing specialists and advertisers have been trying for several years to decipher our emotions. Knowing whether you are happy, surprised, sad, confused, angry or worried when you look at a pub can rework it to correct its impact and strengthen its memorization. Thanks to cognitive neuroscience and the study of how our brains work, advertisers expect to address your emotional system in order to act on your purchases – which are in 80% of the irrational cases .

The weapon of neuromarketing



Faced with an emotional consumer, the advertisers thus unleash a formidable weapon: neuromarketing. This discipline, forbidden in France, which uses neuroscience for marketing and communication purposes, allows us to study the responses of the nervous system to stimuli. For more than 10 years, neuromarketing specialists have been using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and electroencephalography (EEG) for Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Facebook and Disney. observe how the brain of a guinea pig consumer responds to emotions aroused by advertising.

To detect emotions, other techniques are based on biometric technologies or artificial intelligence and Big Data. This “affective computing”, one of MIT’s new research fields, in particular (within the Affective Computing Group), is based on the idea of ​​studying emotions by detecting them, synthesizing them and modeling them. In this context, sensors, facial recognition, natural language processing (NLP) and speech recognition enable us to “capture the physical changes associated with emotional states,” explains Hubert Guillaud of the Actu website.

As we have recently discussed, the detection and analysis of faces allows advertisers to study the “microexpressions” revealing a person’s feelings, in order to then offer an ultra-targeted advertising. Emerging from the Affective Computing Group of MIT, the Affectiva startup, specializing in the measurement of emotion, has for example, since 2015, a software program called Affdex that can analyze (live) the nuances of our facial expressions muscular changes) in order to deduce the emotions of a person filmed by webcam, watching a commercial on TV or on the Internet. Its algorithms, which have trained on more than 4 million face-to-face videos, are used by companies such as Coca Cola and Kellogg’s, as well as by research firms such as Millward Brown and IPG Media Lab.

“Smart” advertising panels with cameras and sensors are currently able to detect (unbeknownst to) the age and sex of a consumer, in order to offer targeted advertising. For the moment, they do not yet know how to “read” the emotions, but with a software like Affectiva, so to say that it will not be long …

Detecting “unconscious reactions”

Other software allows to analyze the emotions on photos – the firm Emotient, bought by Apple in 2016, offers for example a “Google of emotions”, RealEyes, which allows to detect the “unconscious” reactions of the users taken in photograph – because “the more people feel, the more they spend.” The analysis of texts (on social networks and blogs, and more generally all over the Internet) via NLP algorithms also allows to analyze the “feelings” of a client – the French startup Q ° emotion offers for example d ‘analyze consumer opinions, in order to “flush out the emotions that lie behind the words.”

To finish this catalog of examples, know that Facebook, pinned in May 2017 for trying to determine user emotions (via algorithms) to “help marketers understand how people express themselves on the site” , plans to use your smartphone’s or your computer’s camera to analyze your emotions when you are viewing a particular content – in order to then offer targeted ads to its customers, most likely. A “real ethical minefield,” according to CBInsights.

Also note that your connected bracelets, which allow you to monitor your health, could very well be used to “quantify” your emotions – this is what Datakalab, a neuromarketing consulting laboratory, proposes by analyzing heart beats or body temperature. Finally, startups, such as Beyond Verbal, offer voice recognition technologies that can detect the emotional nuances of a voice … in order to analyze the owner’s state of mind, of course.

“The key to all manipulations”

Even though the recognition of emotions by AI and neuroscience is not yet 100% effective, the idea of ​​seeing our emotions analyzed and used by advertisers to adjust their messages raises important ethical questions. The privacy protection arises, first, since the systems used to read our mood – without our consent – collect data necessarily. According to Datakalab, Affectiva and others, the data used are always anonymous, or anonymised, and are not stored.

But beyond privacy, it is the risk of being manipulated that worries the most. “Emotions are the missing link that can allow major platforms to further refine the indexing, sequencing of all our behaviors, in order to further instrumentalize what in our interactions is of the order of instinctual and not rational, “explains Olivier Ertzscheid, senior lecturer in information sciences, in Culture Mobile, addressing the Facebook case. “The key to all manipulations, whether commercial or political, is to be able to play on people’s emotions in order to better influence them,” he adds.

Persuasive and manipulative advertisements have been around us for a long time – but with the analysis of emotions, they are likely to be even more dangerous. “Marketing itself is manipulative, it is necessary to look at the purpose for which these techniques are used, and if a company uses them to communicate more intelligently and meet the consumer’s expectations, this is not a problem,” according to Michel Badoc at HEC and author of “How Neuroscience Informs Consumer Purchasing Decisions”). On the other hand, when the idea is mainly to make money …

Neuromarketing, coupled with emotional advertising, is an extremely powerful weapon, which can be very dangerous: we just have to review the Cash Investigation report on this subject in 2012 that showed us children totally conditioned to love McDonald’s. As the philosopher Bernard Stiegler reminds us, neuromarketing is above all “a business”, serving “the capture of the attention of individuals, to drive their behavior by the most primary mechanisms that exist, those of the reptilian brain” .

Admittedly, marketing has always been about influencing consumers – but with neuroscience, there is only one step towards brainwashing. For the moment, this practice is prohibited in France, and our advertisers ensure not to resort to it. But until when ? And do we have to believe them anyway?