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In his latest book Brandwashed, Martin Lindstrom offers up a comprehensive catalogue of shady tactics used by companies to get us to buy more. (Blue Murder Studios/Blue Murder Studios)
In his latest book Brandwashed, Martin Lindstrom offers up a comprehensive catalogue of shady tactics used by companies to get us to buy more. (Blue Murder Studios/Blue Murder Studios)

Repentant marketer Martin Lindstrom confesses his sins Add to ...

Martin Lindstrom is creeped out by the way marketing companies can peer into our psyches by scanning our credit card history. He is appalled by the way they prey on our biologically based fears and passions. He thinks they’re often sneaky, underhanded, cunning. And he accuses them of lying on a regular basis.

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Mr. Lindstrom should know: For more than two decades, he’s trotted around the globe on the dime of marketing companies as a highly paid branding expert, leveraging some of those very techniques to help push the buttons to get us to buy more stuff.

But over the past few years, he’s had a change of heart: Call him the reformed smoker of the advertising world. Because now, though he continues to count multinationals like McDonald’s and Lego as clients, he also fashions himself as a latter-day Ralph Nader, sounding the warning bells about the damages wrought by the marketing industry. His 2008 book, Buyology: Truth and Lies About What We Buy, explored the burgeoning practice of neuromarketing: scanning people’s brains to scientifically understand what stimuli they best respond to (and therefore how best to persuade consumers). It sold 1.5 million copies around the world, and counted many in the industry as its greatest admirers.

With Brandwashed, his new book out this week, Mr. Lindstrom is sharpening his bite of the hand that feeds him. Its no-nonsense, attention-grabbing (which is to say, cannily marketed) subtitle? Tricks Companies Use to Manipulate Our Minds and Persuade Us to Buy.

“If I was to write a book called Ethics in Advertising or something, no one would read it except my mom and dad,” he said this week, on the phone from his room at the Mandarin Oriental in New York. (While his company Buyology Inc. is based in Manhattan, the Danish-born Mr. Lindstrom lives in Sydney, Australia. Though, since he’s on the road by his estimation about 300 days a year, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly where he lives.) In Buyology, his concern over questionable ethics focused most famously on neuromarketing: he argued for industry standards that banned both efforts to find the brain’s “buy buttons” and the potential practice of implanting persuasive suggestions while a subject is under a researcher’s control.

With Brandwashed, Mr. Lindstrom isn’t calling for a ban on any specific marketing practice; rather, he believes that educating people on the darker arts of marketing will make them savvier, more skeptical consumers – who will, if need be, put the screws to companies.

To that end, he offers up a comprehensive catalogue of shady tactics, from the classic and unsurprising (sex sells) to the cutting-edge (forget viral videos; how about marketing to fetuses?). He puts forward evidence that the particular buzz made by a ringing iPhone is calibrated to tap something deep in our brains that makes us feel love. He runs through dozens of examples of marketers inappropriately targeting children with products that sexualize them.

He unfolds endless entertaining tales about double-talking companies, the pull of nostalgia and the seductions of so-called game-based marketing (FourSquare, Groupon). And he includes a marvellous dissection of the beguiling Whole Foods retail experience, from the faux old-timey chalkboards to the fresh flowers at the front of the store, to the Odwalla juice bottles gently sweating away atop a bed of shaved ice.

He hopes, he says, that revealing these tactics will force companies to become more transparent in their operations.

“The only way you make a change in the industry is by talking to those they care most about – at least money-wise – and that happens to be the consumer. So my goal here is to create such a provocative book, or thought-provoking book, that the consumer will start to blog about it and talk about it and the mainstream media will pick it up, and they will then put pressure back to the brands, which then will start to evaluate themselves in a new light.”

There is, it must be said, something odd about Mr. Lindstrom’s working pattern: He helps out marketers, then writes a book about them, then helps out marketers, then writes another book about them. He is not a religious man, but he is almost Roman Catholic in his cycle of sin-confession-sin-confession. (Indeed, his own marketing for Brandwashed plays heavily on fear and hype, even as the book decries marketers’ dependence on fear and hype.) He insists that isn’t the case, that he’s trying to embrace ethical marketing: The work he does for McDonald’s, for example, is restricted to the realm of promoting more healthful menu options (carrots, etc.) to kids.

The question now is how much people care about what he has to say. In a PR stunt for Brandwashed, he conducted a real-time experiment in stealth marketing inspired by The Joneses, a 2009 Hollywood movie starring Demi Moore and David Duchovny about a picture-perfect family that turns out to be a front for marketers. In the summer of 2010, Mr. Lindstrom installed a family of five – the marketing executive Eric Morgenson, his wife Gina, and their three sons – in a Laguna, Calif., house outfitted with dozens of hidden cameras. As the Morgensons insinuated themselves into the community, they hosted a series of parties and events that successfully marketed a bunch of brands to their unsuspecting neighbours – while the cameras rolled.

But movie audiences were evidently indifferent to the premise of The Joneses – the film bombed at the box office – and when Mr. Lindstrom sat down with the Morgensons’ credulous neighbours after a few months to reveal the dark truth about their new friends, nobody seemed to care they’d been duped.

While this presents huge opportunities for marketers – he predicts word-of-mouth “will be the new battleground of companies to use” – he also despairs a little at that fact, just as he is upset by the cavalier attitude so many people seem to have about handing over their personal information to marketers. “People have given up,” he says. “Or let me put it this way: They sold out.” People seem content to trade their privacy for, say, convenient transactions or discount offers.

Perhaps part of the problem is that the bulk of the news media, pressured by advertisers, are also turning a blind eye to the issue. When he and his PR firm reached out to U.S. magazines earlier this year to discuss possible coverage of Brandwashed, he says he was shut out, even by those who had written glowingly of Buyology. “We had magazine editors saying to us: We love the book, we’d love to run it, but we wouldn’t dare do it because we’ll lose our advertisers,” he said. “They were afraid of me criticizing brands.” It was the same, he says, in the U.K., and Scandinavia.

It’s hard to be certain whether that’s true. But Mr. Lindstrom tells a great story.

Follow on Twitter: @simonhoupt

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