This is a very curious book.
Martin Lindstrom, author of six other works on marketing, one of “Time” Magazine’s most influential people in the world (2009), and dispenser of wisdom to top executives at McDonald’s, P&G, and Microsoft, among others, has written a book in which he picks up, as he writes, “where Vance Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders left off” in order to show the new hidden tricks of marketing.
The Hidden Persuaders? It was a million-selling blockbuster in 1957 that addressed the fact that, as Packard wrote:
Large-scale efforts are being made, often with impressive success, to channel our unthinking habits, our purchasing decisions, and our thought processes by the use of insights gleaned from psychiatry and the social sciences.
Fertile ground indeed; the rise of social media and big data alone would make the exercise worthwhile.
Unfortunately, Mr. Lindstrom spends much of Brandwashed making accusations that actually undercut his authority, leaving the reader confused and disappointed.
For example, Mr. Lindstrom makes the point that fear is perhaps our most primal (and deepest) emotion. Okay, I can believe that. Then he berates advertisers for using it. Also fair. But while I agree that playing on people’s fears is not the best path for a brand, his targets of derision are drawn from life insurance, home security, and On-Star – all of which are fear-centric products. That is, fear is not some emotional construct bolted on to these brands in order to suck dollars from the unsuspecting public; it is central to the product offering. Why would you buy a home security system if you weren’t already afraid of something? Because you liked the pretty lights on the control panel?
Or take this: Mr. Lindstrom posits that if you associate your product with a positive experience and do it often enough, eventually the connection will become subliminal and people will look to buy your product whenever they encounter that sort of experience. This is why, Mr. Lindstrom explains, beverage brands associate with summer concerts and parks – because they’re trying to connect the beverage to that particular fun. And, okay, that’s definitely a component. But what about the component that summer concerts and parks are where thirsty people happen to be in large numbers? Is it even remotely possible that this is as much a reason for cola companies to sponsor a concert series as the more nefarious subliminal one?
Mr. Lindstrom also writes – and rightly – that brands include ingredients like sugar because they are highly addictive tools that will bring the consumer back again and again. And I would not dream of arguing that sugar is not addictive, or that there isn’t a ton of it in Red Bull – and in most other “energy” drinks. But it must also be noted that these drinks taste, well, terrible, and anyone who’s been involved in their development – as we must assume someone of Mr. Lindstrom’s stature has – knows that masking the awful taste is the category’s biggest hurdle. Sugar does that easily and cheaply. So isn’t it possible that solving this problem is just as much a reason for the sugar as the addiction?
Packard had obtained most of his information from interested parties… who wanted to spread the gospel; taking their self-promoting claims literally, he therefore exaggerated the extent and importance of Motivational Research…. He thus gave a distorted impression of how typical Motivational Research and the psychological sell were of advertising in the 1950s (p. 186)
All this becomes most frustrating late in the book when Mr. Lindstrom begins to address what the explosion of social media and big data mean to marketing and our privacy. Never before have so many divulged so much information so blindly, to those so willing and able to make money off of it. Mr. Lindstrom makes some curious claims here too, but there is much more that will make marketers drool and customers wary – if not turn their computers and cell phones off for good.
Which, curiously, makes Fox’s observations about Packard again prescient:
The Hidden Persuaders succeeded not by offering a true picture of advertising, but by itself tapping a deep unconscious motive: for freedom-conscious America, a fear of being manipulated by dark, unseen forces. The book revealed more about the public mentality, and about public attitudes toward advertising, than about advertising itself.(pp 186-7)
Ultimately, that is a curious thing for a marketing person of Mr. Lindstrom’s weight to want to achieve. Packard was a small-town journalist looking for an angle. Mr. Lindstrom is much more than that. His book should be as well.