At the Marketers' Mercy

I'm in the middle of a thrilling read (more on that in a moment), which I had to lay aside temporarily to:

  1. Pay the bills;
  2. Vacuum the water out of the dishwasher because it's not draining properly; and,
  3. Write this post.

I don't mind Item #3 on the list because my thrilling read will probably interest you as well. You might remember a post I did some time back, based on a Martin Lindstrom article in Fast Company, on how stores like Whole Foods "prime" us to open our wallets. Intrigued by Lindstrom's claims, I picked up the book from which the article was excerpted, Brandwashed: Tricks Companies Use to Manipulate Our Minds and Persuade Us to Buy. Quite the eye-opener!

Who knew, for example, that we can have our tastes formed from gestation onward? Not just our taste buds, but what kinds of music we find appealing, what environments we find comforting, what smells draw us in??? Lindstrom recounts one mall in Asia where the owners assaulted shoppers, particularly pregnant moms, with baby powder smells and specially chosen mall music and so on. After the babies were born, many of the moms continued to patronize the mall because they found it had an instantly soothing effect on their infants. We form our affinities early and marketers are well aware of this. The average American child sees 42,000 television advertisements per year, and those clever children have their methods for encouraging parents to buy. Once brands become fixtures in childhood, we are loath to shed them. One study found teens and adults still use over 50% of the brands they used in childhood.

Not only are we swayed before we have the wherewithal to choose for ourselves, we have troubled, addictive little brains. One Stanford University study estimates "roughly 6 percent of the population, or seventeen million Americans, suffers from a shopping addiction, a condition that, according to the authors of the study, typically coincides with other disorders ranging from mood and anxiety to eating disorders to substance abuse." How do we recognize when shopping becomes an addiction? It's just like any other addiction: there's the anticipation of shopping, the shopping, the release of dopamine when we purchase, the crash of guilt and remorse afterward. Lindstrom might also have added, as with other addictions, the toll it takes on our finances and often in family peace.

Then there's the addictive quality of high-fat junk food, spiked by those wily food companies with "addictive quantities of habit-forming substances like MSG, caffeine, corn syrup, and sugar." Addictions within addictions! In fact, lab rats hooked on junk food not only became obese, but it took their dopamine receptors two weeks to return to normal after quitting cold turkey, versus two days of reverting to their baseline when researches took them off heroin or cocaine. (If I could feel pity for rats, I would here. What a life.)

Nor is the desire to hook us just about food. Lindstrom finds the menthol added to many lip glosses and cigarettes is "habit-forming." And if the menthol doesn't do it, try adding ingredients to lip balm that actually irritate or dry out lips, so that the user has to keep applying lip balm. Gasp. Watch out for that phenol in your Carmex.

If marketers can't tap our addictive natures, they appeal to nostalgia or the use of peer pressure or the endorsements of celebrities. We may think we're smart cookies and know when we're being manipulated, but Lindstrom marshals loads of disturbing data to back his claims. We really do want to buy something because, deep down, whether we admit it or not, we want to be that person in the ad.

I'm only to the 52% mark on my Kindle edition of Brandwashed, but I'm ready to recommend it. Nothing like a little awareness before we reach for the credit card. The human race comes off as a little sad and lemming-like, but self-awareness is one of the Twelve Steps, isn't it? Yep--there it is at #4: "Make a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves."

I'll go first. I'm the UrbanFarmJunkie, and I buy certain foods and products because they remind me of my youth, feed my addictions to fat and sugar, or make me think I'll look like JLo.