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Brandwashed, Martin Lindstrom

2011/11/20

There is an oft-cited study of children in which they were offered identical meals — a hamburger, carrot sticks, a beverage — but one wrapped in plain packaging and one wrapped in McDonald’s packaging. The children chose the branded items over the plainly packaged items, claiming that they tasted better, despite the fact that the items were identical. In his book, “Brandwashed: Tricks Companies Use to Manipulate Our Minds and Persuade Us to Buy,” industry expert Martin Lindstrom, who has been involved in many a marketing campaign, examines the subtle and not-so-subtle ways that marketers and companies trick consumers into thinking they are making choices on their own and subverting “the man.” He begins with a well-used tactic for books on consumer culture — a “detox” in which he swears off all branded items for a certain period of time, and, predictably, fails. As is par for this type of book, Lindstrom segments his topic into chapters on marketing to children, using sex as a selling point, target markets and customized ads, online advertising and data mining, and so forth. Other topics that Lindstrom address include that of nostalgia marketing and the creation of addictive properties in products. One of the most interesting sections in the book details an experiment that Lindstrom conducted; he chose a young woman who worked behind the scenes at NBC’s Today, outfitted her with the trappings of a celebrity, including make-up, hair, a designer handbag and a fluffy dog, and put her outside Saks Fifth Avenue with a fake entourage. Almost immediately, a crowd was drawn to her, asking for her autograph and talking about having seen her perform — despite the fact that she had never been on stage, performed, or done any of the things which they claimed for her. Along these same lines, Lindstrom plants a family in a southern California community for the express purpose of seeing how much they can influence the buying and consuming habits of those around them — and in conclusion, makes the argument that the path to a more educated, responsible consumption can only come about through peer pressure and setting good examples in the community.

Although most of what he writes about has been covered in individual books already, Lindstrom writes in witty and engaging prose, not blaming the consumer for having bought into the marketers’ tricks, but rather in an attempt to educate and enlighten. As someone who does not often buy branded merchandise anyway, I found this to be a fascinating look at how marketers and corporations manipulate even the most savvy consumers — myself included. The concluding remarks do come up rather abruptly, with the argument about responsible consumption seeming rather broad, and really needing an entire book to unpack. This book, with its many references to current and prominent campaigns, companies, and celebrities, may not age well, although its overarching points should remain relevant for some time.

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