'Brandwashed': Self-Referential Expose Of Marketing Tactics

How's this for a sales pitch: "From the bestselling author of Buyology comes a shocking insider's look at how today's global giants conspire to obscure the truth and manipulate our minds, all in service of persuading us to buy." So quoth the Random House home page for Brandwashed, Tricks Companies Use to Manipulate Our Minds and Persuade Us to Buy,the new book by Martin Lindstrom.

Snake oil, you can almost hear Henry Mance snarling in Financial Times this morning. Lindstrom's book doesn't tell us anything new, nor does it offer any decent solutions to the problems it identifies. "Indeed, with its jazzy title, endorsements and gimmicks, one could even argue that it is marketed as sneakily as any of the products it criticizes," writes Mance.

Those endorsements include a foreword by Morgan Spurlock, who says Lindstrom picks up where Vance Packard left off in his 1957 expose, The Hidden Persuaders. Among other things, Spurlock evidently reveals that marketers are targeting children in the womb. Gotta admit, that's a new one on me, as is "the shocking reality of cell phone addiction -- it can be harder to shake than addictions to drugs and alcohol."



I had not realized my BlackBerry was changing the structure of my brain quite the way that Jack Daniel's did in its day. There's certainly no mute switch for people who are chemically dependent. And maybe it's a good thing that I haven't succumbed to the siren call of an iPhone, whose ring purportedly is calibrated to tap a part of our brain that makes us feel love.

But Freakonomics author Steven Levitt, a professor of economics at the University of Chicago, says right there on Amazon that Brandwashed is one of only two books he's read cover to cover in the last five years -- and the other was also written by Lindstrom (Buyology). And the 41 folks who have weighed in with reviews since the official publication last week are overwhelmingly positive.

Writing in the [Toronto] Globe and Mail, Simon Haupt calls Lindstrom a "reformed smoker of the advertising world" who is "creeped out by the way marketing companies can peer into our psyches by scanning our credit card history" and "appalled by the way they prey on our biologically based fears and passions." Bottom line: "He thinks they're often sneaky, underhanded, cunning." Not that he doesn't, admittedly, still sneak a puff here and there himself.

"If I was to write a book called Ethics in Advertising or something, no one would read it except my mom and dad," Lindstrom tells Haupt.

One of the recurring themes of his book tour, it seems, is Lindstrom's story about how he started his own advertising agency at age 11 (or 12, depending on the day the story is told) revolving around the "Legoland" he'd built in his own backyard. It's all related on a promotional video, and he tells Salon's Emma Mustich that with a lifetime spent in the industry he decided to "draw a line in the sand" because the "industry and corporations are getting more and more greedy."

Lindstrom would have us believe that Philip Morris pulled $120 million worth of sponsorship from Formula One racing last year due to the pressure he brought (which, evidently, doesn't extend to Ferrari), but is a bit more modest about the new, more graphic health warnings on cigarette packs. "I'm not sure it's 100% my fault," he says, "but certainly I had a strong influence."

He also makes the incredulous statement that the tobacco industry has contacted him "18 times in the last year to ask if I wanted to work with them." He declines, of course, as he does when food companies come a-knockin' unless "I'm allowed to change the food, and make it healthy."

Fast Company ran a Lindstrom piece about Whole Foods a couple of weeks ago that borrows from the book. It's a pretty fascinating peek into just how orchestrated that "rustic, aw-shucks touch" actually is at the retailer. Those cantaloupes that look so fresh because they haven't even made it out of the box yet? Look closely.

"It's one humongous cardboard box with fissures cut carefully down the side that faces consumers (most likely by some industrial machinery at a factory in China) to make it appear as though this one giant cardboard box is made up of multiple stacked boxes," Lindstrom writes.

One gets the feeling his book has some tasty fruit but has been artfully constructed in much the same way.

2 comments about "'Brandwashed': Self-Referential Expose Of Marketing Tactics ".
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  1. Bruce May from Bizperity, September 29, 2011 at 10:54 a.m.

    What’s wrong with a little ethics in advertising? I would never work for a tobacco company either. We should all be prepared to question the growing power of our technology. On the other hand, we all know how hard it is to get a response in the first place so a balanced view must recognize that no matter how powerful our influence, the average buyer is heavily influenced by many other factors, including their inherent desires/needs/beliefs/attitudes not to mention limited budgets, competing offers/products, and the opinions of friends and colleagues. Personally, whenever I am swept away by beautiful packaging, wonderful promotions and seductive store environments I always pause before I make a purchase and think to myself, “wouldn’t I rather just have another cold beer down at the pub on my way home?” The pub usually wins… and they don’t do any advertising.

  2. Peter Clinton from Neilson , September 29, 2011 at 2:15 p.m.

    Martin's last book 'Buyology' put Lindstrom on the radar - by nature of an exhaustive three year Neuromarketing study that refined our collective understanding of the power of the subconscious (when used adroitly) by marketers. 'Brandwashed' expands on many of the themes in Buyology but sadly offers little in the way of new information or insight.

    The other shortfall here is that there are so many people (like Martin) espousing to know what's really going on that people want to see it in action. Meaning don't 'tell' me you know, rather 'show' me you know - and when one then looks at Martin's own branding efforts, he seems woefully ignorant of the modern branding paradigm (i.e. social, mobile, etc) branding. Just look at his laughable website and social media platform. It may be a case of the 'Shoe makers children' but would you purchase a book on branding from such an entity. I think you'll see my point.

    Other then a few interesting factoids you may be able to work into dinner conversation, I'm a definite pass on 'Brandwashed'.

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