Brandwashed airs the advertising industry’s dirty laundry. Written as an exposé, Martin Lindstrom cites example after example of the manipulative ways marketers use to persuade unwitting consumers to buy. He reveals the psychological, emotional, and rational tricks that advertisers employ, such as using sex, fear, peer pressure, and nostalgia. Interestingly, both consumers and marketers can gain significant value from the book’s lessons.
Knowledge is Power
“This now-legendary Axe campaign […] is a fascinating example of just how deeply companies and marketers probe the depths of our inner psyches – our hopes, dreams, and daydreams.”
Brandwashed, page 93
Most of us are aware of those Axe commercials – an awkward teenage boy uses Axe and suddenly becomes an irresistible target for a hoard of scantily clad women. It’s a heterosexual male’s fantasy come to life. Literally.
To pull off this advertising campaign, Unilever conducted an extensive online survey of 12,000 boys and men, aged 15 to 50, from around the world. They asked deeply personal questions about self-confidence, rejection, relationships, and sex. Then, they followed 100 participants of the aforementioned demographic and recorded their activities and behaviour while they were out at the bar. This data was analyzed and segmented into psychological profiles, which were used to determine a target audience and a corresponding marketing strategy. Is it any wonder that the campaign was such a huge success? To the tune of $71M in 2006 and a whopping $186M in 2007, in fact.
The more companies know about you, the better they can sell you. That’s why they spend so much time, money, and effort to conduct such elaborate consumer research and glean valuable knowledge. With this information, they’re able to sell to you without you realizing that you’ve been sold. That’s pretty powerful… and scary!
Caveat Emptor (Let the Buyer Beware)
“Our brains are prone to forming mental shortcuts […] known as somatic markers, that link cues from our physical world to specific emotional states […] Shrewd companies are able to actually plant these somatic markers in our minds by creating associations between some positive emotion and their product.”
Brandwashed, page 199
Take Lindstrom’s example of the “goji berry” – a magical fruit purported to have any number of health-boosting and healing qualities. Magic is certainly expensive – a 32oz. bottle of its juice retails anywhere from $30 to $50 at American health food and organic stores. Yet there is no concrete scientific research to prove that goji berries live up to their hype, and no such health claims have been endorsed by the Food and Drug Administration.
This is where we, as consumers, can turn the tide. We have power too, in the form of free-flowing information. We currently live in the ultimate information age. There’s no such thing as an unanswered question thanks to Google and Wikipedia. We can probe, question, detect, reveal, and investigate to our heart’s content.
Unbiased, democratic information is the best shield against manipulative marketing. And although not every source is created equally (in terms of legitimacy), the fact that we can access information created and disseminated by parties other than the one selling us, makes a huge difference. This makes it much more difficult to advertisers to hide the ugly truth. After all, it’s much easier to defend against manipulation, when we’re aware of the myriad ways that we can be manipulated.
Try it yourself. Google some of your favourite brands, and see if you like what you find. Make sure to look past the first few pages, as those companies use search engine optimization to hide any unsavoury details. Easier still, have a gander at the nutritional label of your favourite health bar. Does it have a “healthy” sugar and saturated fat content? Is it loaded with unpronounceable chemical ingredients?
With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility
“Studies have shown that when tweens ask for a pair of Hollister jeans or the latest hot Wii game for Christmas, they’re asking for more than the latest, hippest product; what they’re really asking for is a dose of self-esteem.”
Brandwashed, page 133
Persuasive advertising can have far-reaching and long-lasting effects. They can be tremendous for the profiting companies or detrimental for adversely affected individuals. These days, children are socialized to believe that their peers will like them as long as they wear the latest fashion trends and own the newest gadgets. Their self-worth is measured by the brands they are associated with.
So what about the children/tweens/teens who can’t afford to have the trendiest stuff? At best, they nag their parents until they give in and buy it for them. At worst, they become bullied and ostracized, which can lead to low self-esteem, depression, or self-harm. There is a startling and increasing trend of teenage suicide due to peer pressure and bullying, so this isn’t unfounded; this is the frightening reality.
As marketers, we need to look beyond the dollar signs. We need to take responsibility over the reach and effect of our actions. It took a global financial crisis and subsequent recession to tighten controls and develop protective legislation for the financial industry. I wonder if and when something similar will happen to the advertising industry, and I hate to think of what will trigger it.
Brandwashed is a must-read for every consumer, and that’s just about everyone on the planet. Lindstrom will help you become a savvy and informed consumer who thinks twice about your brand and product choices. After reading this book, you will never look at another billboard, commercial, or magazine ad the same way again.