Advertising as Experimentation on Human Subjects

73 Pages Posted: 31 Jul 2018

See all articles by Tamara R. Piety

Tamara R. Piety

University of Tulsa College of Law

Date Written: July 8, 2018


Within the industry, it is an article of faith that consumers distrust advertising. One reason for that distrust may be that they fear being manipulated. Yet the debate about advertising and manipulation always seems to revolve around how much manipulation is really going on and whether consumer skepticism ensures that manipulation tactics will likely fail. But consumer skepticism is a flimsy defense in the face of decades of research, ever more sophisticated tactics of persuasion, billions of dollars spent, and data mining capabilities that permit increasingly detailed and granular analysis. The persuasion industry’s tactics are tested in the field, by trial and error. If a tactic works, we get more of it. In this practice we are all the guinea pigs. In a university setting, research on human subjects must be approved by an Institutional Review Board (IRB). The IRB process is supposed to ensure that research subjects’ participation is voluntary and informed, and that the potential benefits of the research outweigh the potential harms. Yet there is no IRB for our present-day marketing environment. What if it is bad for our health? More ominously still in light of recent events, what if it is bad for democracy?

Keywords: advertising, advertising and environment, advertising and mental health, commercial speech, First Amendment, human subjects research, IRB, marketing, marketing research, propaganda

Suggested Citation

Piety, Tamara R., Advertising as Experimentation on Human Subjects (July 8, 2018). Available at SSRN: or

Tamara R. Piety (Contact Author)

University of Tulsa College of Law ( email )

3120 E. Fourth Place
Tulsa, OK 74104
United States

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