Brandwashed by Martin Lindstrom: A Book Review

Have you wondered why you're perpetually tethered to your smartphone? Or why you cannot stop eating that packet of potato chips until its all gone? Perhaps you've got a 10 year old boy who has nagged you incessantly about getting him that latest Play Station Portable (PSP) which all his friends in school have.

Well, apparently, you've been "brandwashed", at least according to renowned marketer turned consumer lobbyist Martin Lindstrom. From cradle to grave, at the workplace, in your daily commute or in the palm of your hands, companies are finding insidiously clever ways to worm their brands into your lives.

Their ultimate goal? To get you to buy, buy, buy. And perhaps tell a friend (or 100) about it.

Pushing the frontiers of consumer psychology with state-of-the-art fMRI brain scans and neuromarketing, Brandwashed: Tricks Companies Use to Manipulate Our Minds and Persuade Us to Buy is witty, well researched and illuminating. Touting himself as a marketing consultant turned consumer advocate, Lindstrom reveals in chapter after chapter the strategies that companies use to entice, enchant and ensnare us into opening our wallets.

In the book, the key components of this grand scheme of psychological "manipulation" includes the following main themes:

1) How companies start marketing to us from the womb using research which showed the huge effect which mothers have on their unborn kids, the influence of media, the pushing of tween girls towards precocious sexualisation, and of course, how Apple's iPhone "becomes the most effective tool in human history to mollify a fussy toddller".

2) The marketing of fear - from pharmaceutical companies capitalising on epidemics and pandemics like H1N1 and SARS to insurance companies producing tear jerking commercials (like this one by Thai Life Insurace). And interestingly, fear does give us a kick by activating our adrenaline and epinephrine hormones.

3) Addictions and how companies deploy various ways to get us hooked. From the shot of dopamine we all get from an email/Facebook message/Twitter response on our smartphones, to the habit forming chemicals in the food we eat, to the advent of gaming - not just for teenaged boys, but adults (especially with e-coupons like Groupon).

4) Sex sells, and don't companies know it. Other than the overtly sexual advertising that penetrates our public and private spaces, marketing psychologists have done complex psycho-behavioural segmentation for Axe clients and deployed homoerotic ads (those famous Abercrombine and Fitch ones) to target both males and females.

5) The pernicious power of peers, particularly kids, tweens and teens. By triggering social contagion, Cepia managed to make its Zhu Zhu pets a huge hit, while retail websites from to Apple's iTune shop use the power of their Top 10 lists, recommendations (What others are reading), and "New and Noteworthy" to engineer collective consumption.

6) Oldies are not spared, with the huge push towards nostalgia and authenticity as a marketing tool. Retro-iconic brands like Heinz ("Beans Meanz Heinz"), Hershey's, and Coca-Cola deploy 70s or 80s tunes in their advertising or even resurrect favourite commercials, while Whole Foods deck their entire store in an "authentic" looking natural decor, down to "imperfect" fruits that look au naturel.

7) Celebrities are in on the act too, with a huge multi-billion dollar endorsements of everything under the sun - from shampoos, cars, iPods, clothes to drinks. Product placements featuring Hollywood stars, politicians, sportsmen and even preachers have influenced our decisions to buy as we pretend to assume their alter-ego when using these products. Oh, and do check out Morgan Spurlock's movie on this too.

8) Spirituality, healing and health also comes to the fore, as marketers sell us "anti-cancer" goji (wolfberry) juice purportedly harvested from the Himalayas (when in actual fact, they were farmed in the US), P&G's well conceived "Loads of Hope" campaign, and how even religions are getting in on the act with Megachurches and the sale of holy relics.

9) Perhaps the most scary chapter is the one on data mining, and how every single move we make from doing a search on google, downloading an App on our smartphones, to making a purchase with our loyalty cards at the supermarket, can be traced and tracked. Armed with a complex consumer intelligence system that rivals the CIA, companies can determine one's likes, dislikes and demographic details so precisely that we're perhaps now living in a "post privacy society". Of course, Facebook plays a huge part in that.

Lindstrom ends the book by describing an US$3 million social experiment which he conducted by implanting a real family called the Morgenson's in an upscale California neighbourhood and getting them to subtly push brands over a period of a month (see trailer below). The outcomes of the research (with fancy brain scans and all) show that we (ie consumers) are the greatest brandwashers of all.

As a marketer, a use of brands and a consumer myself, I found Brandwashed rather educational. Although Lindstrom's chief intent is to help consumers make better choices for themselves, the book has many lessons for marketers too. While we cannot avoid deploying some of these "tricks" to reach our targeted customers, what we can do is perhaps to be more transparent and honest rather than covert with these tactics. Truth be told, however, that this may be more easily said than done.

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