The Brain Cell Sell

Buyology: The Truth and Lies
About Why We Buy

By Martin Lindstrom
Doubleday, 256 pages, $24.95

Danish marketing guru Martin Lindstrom’s Buyology is about why, neurologically speaking, we buy some things and not others, leading some brands to fail while others conquer the known universe. Mr. Lindstrom reminds us throughout that he’s advised international corporations on the selling of everything from feminine hygiene products to sore-throat lozenges, so it’s perhaps to be expected that he expends considerable ink selling his book, too, even as he writes it. His is “the largest, most revolutionary neuromarketing experiment in history,” he boasts—a project he hopes will “sculpt the future of advertising” and “revolutionize the way all of us think and behave as consumers.”

Well, not quite. Mr. Lindstrom has some interesting things to say about what attracts us to iPods over PCs, but he doesn’t sound particularly revolutionary or even scientific. Actually, he sounds like someone giving a Power Point presentation in a 10th-floor conference room, with a spread of stale sandwiches off to one side. He favors a casual, snappy vernacular—peppy—as though he were trying to keep us from nodding off. He uses words like “heck” and starts sentences with “Point is …” At one point he admits that “the notion of a science that can peer into the human mind gives a lot of people the willies.” One can imagine a mesmerized audience of eager M.B.A. students.

The author’s basic premise is that as consumers, we are at a loss to explain our purchasing decisions—unaware, for example, that we bought the new iPod because it was so cool-looking we thought merely owning it would get us laid, thereby increasing our reproductive advantage. Only the brain itself can reveal that our visit to the Apple Store was actually a matter of survival of the fittest (meaning we should all buy more iPods immediately), so Mr. Lindstrom set out to “interview” our gray matter. He submitted 2,081 volunteers to machines like the fMRI and the SST (which measures electrical activity inside the brain). He calls his research “neuromarketing,” because it blends science and marketing.

“Market research” and focus groups are dead, he proclaims. Companies are wasting millions of dollars on ads that either don’t work or are turning customers off. Anyone who wasn’t raised on TiVo is bound to agree.

Mr. Lindstrom boldly asserts that car commercials are ineffective because they’re all basically the same and don’t engage us emotionally. He also lets us know that “for its millions of fervent constituents, Apple wasn’t just a brand, it was a religion.” And product placement in movies only works if the product in question is an integral, seamless part of the story, like the Ray-Ban Wayfarers in Risky Business. On the other hand, cigarette warning labels actually enhance cigarette sales, as they stimulate an area of the brain called the “craving spot.” Of course, smokers don’t realize this, which is why Mr. Lindstrom believes we need to scan their brains to find out why they insist on killing themselves. (And, less pressingly, to find out whether we think the ubiquitous Nokia phone ring is annoying. We do.)

He also proclaims, rather grandly, that “by uncovering the brain’s deepest secrets, I wasn’t interested in helping companies manipulate consumers—far from it.” But though he displays genuine ire at the sinister-yet-genius marketing tactics of cigarette companies (which are by his account the most evolved marketers on the planet), he cops to giving hens in Saudi Arabia a “vitamin” to make their egg yolks a more pleasing color of yellow. In other words, it’s a fine line.

Mr. Lindstrom says his research cost $7 million and consumed seven years of his life. He adds, without further explanation, that it was sponsored by eight multinational corporations. (He identifies them in the acknowledgements; they include Glaxo-Smithkline.)

So much for his consumer advocate’s credentials. This is a business book.

 

NOT THAT THERE ISN’T some amusing trivia in Buyology for the casual reader. For example: Did you know Steven Spielberg initially approached M&M’s about being in E.T., and only when they refused did he seek out Reese’s Pieces, causing sales of the candy to triple in the week after the movie’s debut? Or that Bang & Olufsen remote controls are “stuffed with a completely useless wad of aluminum” to make them feel heavy and expensive?

We’re also given a peek into the crystal ball. Martin Lindstrom predicts where the new technology will take us: “Although using brain-scanning technology to sway political decisions is in its infancy, I predict that the 2008 presidential showdown will be the last-ever election to be governed by traditional surveys, and that by 2012, neuroscience will begin to dominate all election predictions.” In other words, no more talk of the “Bradley effect.” Pollsters will just interview our brains to find out whom we’ll be voting for!

Meredith Bryan is a reporter at The Observer. She can be reached at mbryan@observer.com.