Review: Brandwashed

Every Sunday, The Simple Dollar reviews a personal finance or other book of interest. Also available is a complete list of the hundreds of book reviews that have appeared on The Simple Dollar over the years.

BrandwashedOne element of personal finance that has always fascinated me is the psychology of why we buy things. The push and pull between clever marketing and branding and the desire to not completely empty my wallet is a struggle I’ve dealt with throughout my life and witnessed countless others struggling with as well.

It’s also a topic that I’ve read quite a bit about, particularly concerning marketing to children.

The challenge with this topic is that the sophistication of the techniques used tends to grow over time. Yes, many of the principles remain the same, but the implementations change. Technology is a big factor in that, but so is the wider acceptance of marketing toward progressively younger children. The internet is a big factor, but so is the use of surveillance in tracking what you do.

Martin Lindstrom’s book focuses on all of these factors, creating a pretty clear picture of how powerfully marketing can reach into our day to day lives, particularly those who think they’re immune to or above the reach of marketing. That marketing shapes what we buy, how we buy it, and how much we buy and spend.

Buy Buy Baby
Lindstrom opens with a look at the huge rush toward marketing to very young children. Many of the basic ideas we have about living are formed in the first five years of life, so marketers are now targeting the very young in order to set many of their ideas and buying preferences that will stick with them throughout life. There are several effective ways of doing this, but perhaps the most interesting is marketing to parents by making kid-oriented versions of the things we buy as adults (like kid-targeted yogurts and the like) and also doing things like making kid-friendly apps on electronic devices such as the iPhone.

Peddling Panic and Paranoia
Anti-bacterial soaps and other such products sell well because marketers have created the impression that germs are everywhere and can harm you, when in fact the evidence shows that using a lot of antibacterial products actually makes you more susceptible to illnesses because your body hasn’t built up resistances. Fear sells this product, and fear is a powerful salesperson. A similar logic applies in the produce aisle, where companies focus far more on the appearance of freshness than that of actual freshness, because vegetables and fruits that don’t appear perfectly fresh might make you ill or have other ill effects. Never mind whether or not they’re actually fresh, of course.

I Can’t Quit You
Companies have become much more sophisticated at encouraging cravings and consistently brand loyal behavior. The most powerful tool at their disposal is the microreward. If you engage in a behavior repeatedly, you receive some small reward for your effort, often one of negligible cost for the manufacturer but perhaps of great reward for you. A new crop type in Farmville, for example, or the instant taste of new information from a smartphone. These microrewards can be incredibly addictive and can keep you using a product over a long period of time. Such microrewards are often paired with micropayments – $0.99 for a new app, $8.99 for a monthly subscription fee, and so forth.

Buy It, Get Laid
It’s not simply about being attractive to the opposite sex any more. Instead, it’s often about associating the product with someone who is attractive to the opposite sex. Sometimes, it’s an Adonis-type figure – someone who is obviously attractive and of your gender simply using a product. At other times, someone who is seemingly normal – or, in some cases, of a socially awkward class – using a product and suddenly becoming very attractive. It’s progressed beyond just showing someone attractive holding a product and pitching it. It’s now a clever method of aspirational roleplaying for the viewer, as they want to visualize themselves as the person on the screen who is incredibly attractive to the opposite gender. Sometimes, it’s not even someone who is attractive – instead, it’s what that gender thinks is attractive to the opposite sex.

Under Pressure
Whenever you see someone you identify as a peer doing something, there’s a subtle pressure for you to do the same. It’s a pressure that often manifests itself on a subconscious level so that you are scarcely even aware you’re doing it. Buying habits are just one example of this (and it’s one big reason I encourage people to find frugal friends). What your friends buy and use rubs off on you, and it’s the reason that established brands are often very entrenched and hard to knock down without a huge amount of effort with the other techniques described in this book.

Oh, Sweet Memories
The sweet smell of nostalgia is a powerful one. Marketers constantly try to tap into our happiest memories, particularly from our childhood, and utilize those good feelings to convince us to buy (or at least associate those feelings with their product). Why do marketers so often repackage their products the way that they looked twenty or thirty years ago? It will often be enough to generate warm memories in a shopper’s mind, and that’s often enough to get the product into the cart. This is the end result of all of that effort marketing to young children – they set the hook of nostalgia then, and then pull the line when you’re older and have disposable income.

Marketers’ Royal Flush
Celebrities are marketed just like products. They’re marketed so that you’ll want to pay attention to what they’re doing, so that you’ll watch their movies and television shows and attend their concerts and so forth. They hire public relations firms to promote them just like a company would promote a product, and if they’re well-promoted, they can charge people for their films, their books, their albums, and so forth. In the end, famous people make more money if they’re promoted well, the products that famous people associate themselves with make more money, and everyone wins except for the average consumer.

Hope in a Jar
Whenever a trend exists, companies will hop on board to associate their products with it. When breast cancer awareness was a large trend a few years ago, products couldn’t wait to have that pink ribbon on the label so that buyers could feel like they were making a difference when it came to breast cancer. When the economic downturn happened and people became more concerned about simplicity, “simple” versions of products began popping up all over the place. Buzzwords like “wellness” and “natural” are all over the place, which is just a way to sell more or less the same old product by connecting it to the “new” way of thinking.

Every Breath You Take, They’ll Be Watching You
Technology has played a huge role in all of this. The internet, through services like Twitter and Facebook and Google, makes it very easy to identify cultural trends and demographic groups and market directly to them. If you search for something on Google, you’ll find ads related to whatever you’re searching. If you “like” something on Facebook, you’ve given marketers a clue as to what you like, making it easy for them to tailor their marketing straight toward you, tempting you in conjunction with the things you already like.

I’ll Have What Mrs. Morgenson Is Having
All of these tactics are amplified through the world around us. You might be wise to all of these tricks, but many of the people in your social network are not, and they’re often prone to speaking candidly in ways that amount to repeating the marketing material they’ve been given. This is true regarding everything from product reviews to political opinions. The people you’re closest to are the best marketing tools because you implicitly trust them.

Is Brandwashed Worth Reading?
While the book is light on solutions, Brandwashed does a very powerful job of revealing how deep the rabbit hole goes when it comes to marketing products, information, and people to us in the digital age. It’s a story I’ve read before, but the specific implementations change every time I hear the story, and it’s those specific changes that provide the real eye-opener and bring the message back home again.

For me, Brandwashed is the current standard-bearer I would point to when encouraging people to read a book on how pervasive and powerful marketing is, and I think everyone should read such a book at some point in their life.

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Trent Hamm
Trent Hamm
Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.

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