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Looking for the "buy button" inside our heads
on 27 October 2008
On one level this is about advertising and persuasion through neuromarketing. World class branding guru Martin Lindstrom commissioned a couple of top researchers, Dr. Gemma Calvert using fMRI technology, and Professor Richard Silberstein using SST technology, to look inside the heads of consumers to see why we buy what we buy. Lindstrom, who makes a living advising international corporations on what works and what doesn't work in advertizing and marketing, was led to this approach because of an unshakable unease within the corporate world about the effectiveness of their research and advertising methods, an unease due primarily to the fact that "80 percent of all product launches fail in the first three months." (p. 167, and Chapter 1)
What he found out is that people themselves often do not know which commercials or advertisements are effective, and so asking them is a waste of time and money. To put it bluntly, we often do not know why we buy what we buy. There are subconscious factors at work that go directly to various brain centers and modules governing fear, greed, sex, power, status, etc. that not only override our conscious, rational minds, but actually operate independent of our consciousness. Lindstrom writes, "...most of our buying decisions aren't remotely conscious. Our brain makes the decision and most of the time we aren't aware of it." (p. 199)
On another level "Buyology" goes beyond advertizing and persuasion. On this level Lindstrom's book is about corporations and perhaps ultimately our governments going directly into the minds of consumers and citizens to exercise control over people in order to get them to do what they want them to do. In a sense this amounts to a postmodernist fusion of Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World" and Vance Packard's "The Hidden Persuaders."
Unlike Huxley and Packard, however, Lindstrom is optimistic about where this research will lead. He argues that if we have "a better understanding of what drives and motivates" us, "what attracts and repels," we "can escape all the tricks and traps that companies use to seduce us...and get us to buy and [we will therefore be able to] take back our rational minds." (pp. 204-205).
I have my misgivings. I see neuromarketing being used to package political candidates to appeal to our limbic systems and ultimately being used to stifle unpopular views and behaviors contrary to what the power structure desires. Lindstrom is aware of this trend and writes, "I predict that the 2008 American presidential showdown will be the last-ever election to be governed by traditional surveys, and that by 2012, neuroscience will begin to dominate all election predictions." (p. 30) This is after recalling on the previous page that the famous 1964 "Daisy" ad showing "a young girl frolicking with a daisy as a nuclear explosion detonates" and "the September 11 imagery" in 2004 "triggered a noticeable, across-the-board increase in activity in voters' amygdalas." The amygdala "governs, among other things, fear, anxiety, and dread." The unmistakable conclusion is that fear helped Lyndon Baines Johnson and George W. Bush win elections.
One of the reasons I am not as optimistic as Lindstrom stems from one of the striking discoveries in the book, namely that smokers are not deterred in the slightest from having horrific words and pictures on their packs of cigarettes. Instead those words and images merely serve to remind them of what it is they want: to light up! (see especially page 82). Consequently we might know that a candidate is using fear or hate to get inside our heads and persuade us to vote for him but still be unable to vote otherwise. In fact, what usually happens when we do something for a reptilian brain inspired reason is that we use our rational minds merely to justify the behavior.
Some interesting conclusions that Lindstrom came to after evaluating the research:
Product placement doesn't work. The product needs to be tied to the entertainment vehicle itself in some way. He shows this by comparing how little Ford got for its ads on TV's "American Idol" compared to what Coca -Cola got. See Chapter 2: "This Must Be the Place: Product Placement, American Idol, and Ford's Multimillion-Dollar Mistake." No he wasn't talking about the Edsel. That's another story.
Sex may get your attention, but it doesn't sell, in fact it distracts--unless of course the ad promises more sex for you! If the advertiser can persuade you that buying the product is going to make you sexier, then it works.
Celebrity endorsements? "Well, evidence suggests that just as sex hijacks our attention away from the crucial information in an advertisement, so, too, can extreme beauty or celebrity." (p. 186)
Brand logos may not be important as the aurora surrounding them. Lindstrom shows how even a fish can become a brand and by becoming a brand be much more valuable than its nearly identical cousins. (See pages 200-203). He also shows how the colors and the atmosphere associated with a brand, such as the rugged Western outdoor-ness of the Marlboro brand, can be more effective in selling the product than the brand logo itself. Lindstrom concludes, "...when we brand things, our brains perceive them as more special and valuable than they actually are." (p. 203) To really bring home the significance of this, he reports that Dr. Calvert "discovered that when people viewed images associated with...strong brands...their brains registered the exact same patterns of activity as they did when they viewed...religious images." (p. 124)
All I can say is that neuromarketing may turn out to be a more powerful and more frightening tool than, say, bioengineering or replicating nanobots.