December 8th, 2002
Nader Group Slams Emory for Brain Research
By Jim Lovel
Atlanta Business Chronicle
A national watchdog group founded by Ralph Nader is asking Emory University to stop a controversial research project or risk losing millions in federal funding.
The organization, Commercial Alert, made the request in a Dec. 1 letter to Emory’s president, James Wagner.
Commercial Alert objects to Emory allowing BrightHouse, an Atlanta marketing consultancy headed by veteran advertising executive Joey Reiman, to use the university’s neuroscience facilities for “neuromarketing” research.
Neuromarketing research uses a magnetic resonance imaging machine, or MRI, to determine which parts of the brain react to different types of advertising in an effort to help marketers develop more effective marketing techniques for selling their products or services. The emerging field of study has raised questions of medical ethics among some scientists and university professors.
Commercial Alert has given Emory until Dec. 15 to stop the project or the organization will ask the federal Office for Human Research Protections, a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, to investigate whether the project violates federal guidelines for medical research. If it does, Emory could lose its federal funding, said Gary Ruskin, executive director of the organization.
“It is wrong to use medical research for marketing instead of healing,” Ruskin said. “If Emory University doesn’t stop this immediately, we will do everything in our power to shut down Emory’s federal funding.”
Commercial Alert has been successful in other efforts to limit corporate advertising and marketing. The organization helped stop the Smithsonian Institution from selling corporate sponsorships for exhibits, the city of Boston from selling the naming rights to its subway system, and AOL Time Warner Inc. from selling advertising on its CNN Student News daily broadcasts to about 18,000 schools. The group also led a fight to ban marketing and distribution of junk food in schools.
Both the Emory official responsible for overseeing research at the university and Reiman said they aren’t doing anything wrong and will continue the research.
“I think the letter is a complete distortion of the research and research agenda,” said Dr. Robert Rich, executive associate dean for research at the Emory School of Medicine. “I don’t think we have a problem.”
The research has been reviewed and approved by the university, Rich said. The studies are making an important contribution to science, and the findings were presented at an international conference of the Society for Neuroscience in November, Rich said. They eventually will be published in scientific journals.
The university will reply to the letter from Commercial Alert, but has no plans to stop the research, he said.
Reiman, who has been an adjunct professor at Emory’s Goizueta Business School for the past three years, said his company no longer conducts neuromarketing research at the university. Instead, the company studies how the brain reacts to preferences, then provides the information to companies that hire his company as a consultant.
‘A new perspective’
“We don’t sell data,” Reiman said. “We sell a new perspective.”
Reiman also has changed the name of the division of the company conducting the research to BrightHouse Neurostrategies Group from the original name of BrightHouse Institute for Thought Sciences. When Reiman announced that he was doing the studies about 18 months ago, he described neuromarketing as the future of marketing.
The objections from Commercial Alert are “ludicrous” and “absurd” and based on “misinformation,” he said.
“It’s one thing to be leftist,” he said of the organization. “It’s another thing to be in left field.”
His research performs a social service by helping companies develop more useful products, which eliminates waste, and market them with fewer commercials, which will save billions of dollars and reduce the daily intrusion of advertising.
“It’s about improving public life,” Reiman said. “It’s about companies becoming better.”
Justine Meaux, a research scientist who works for Reiman, calls the research common and said she plans to publish the findings in scientific journals.
“Neuroscientists have been using this technology for over a decade,” Meaux said.
Reiman also relies on work from Clinton Kilts, an assistant professor at Emory and vice chairman for research in the university’s psychiatry and behavioral sciences program.
Two Harvard professors, one of them a specialist in medical ethics, share Commercial Alert’s concerns about the ethics of the research project.
“Emory may have a problem with this,” said Dr. David Steinberg, an assistant clinical professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. Steinberg also runs the medical ethics program at the Lahey Clinic Medical Center in Burlington, Mass., and edits a journal on medical ethics.
The research is acceptable, even common, but selling the information to corporations that want to use it to increase sales is a “dubious enterprise,” Steinberg said.
“For a medical institution to acquire knowledge about how people’s behavior can be manipulated is not a bad thing, but that knowledge can be put to good or bad use,” Steinberg said. “In this case, it seems very obvious that the purpose of this work is to manipulate people in a way that is not for their own good.”
Susan Linn, a Harvard psychologist and instructor at the university, agreed. Linn was one of the six people who signed the letter to Emory’s president.
The only valid use of medical research is to “improve the well-being of humankind,” Linn said.
“They are selling this information to companies whose job is to manipulate people for profit,” she said. “The notion of using neuroscience for some company’s profit is diabolical.”
Linn rejects Reiman’s claim that his research provides a public service.
“They can call it whatever they want, but they are using science for profit,” she said. “That’s not a social service.”
Emory’s Rich said he doesn’t believe there is an ethical violation in BrightHouse selling the information to marketers.
“There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with learning about the application of science to the rest of our culture and environment,” Rich said. “Without corporate sponsorship of research, we would be hampered in making scientific advances.”
Ruskin also disputes Reiman’s characterization of his research as a public and social service.
“That argument is as weak as it gets,” Ruskin said.