Advertising has a history of employing various tools and tricks to boost sales. Nowadays, thanks to sophisticated technology, “…businesses, marketers, advertisers, and retailers have gotten far craftier, savvier, and more sinister,” writes marketer and consumer advocate Martin Lindstrom in his book Brandwashed: Tricks Companies Use to Manipulate Our Minds and Persuade Us to Buy.
In it, Lindstrom reveals the many ploys companies use to seduce, soothe, tempt and scare us into buying their products. Here are a few tidbits from the book to help you become a smarter, sharper consumer.
1. They mix amusement with ads.
Some food companies disguise their ads as entertainment, which of course is especially appealing to kids. According to a 2009 report from the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University, the biggest cereal companies, General Mills, Kellogg’s and Post used games to peddle their least nutritious cereals.
For instance, Lucky Charms has a game on their website that lets kids track Lucky the Leprechaun’s various adventures, and Honey Nut Cheerios lets kids create a comic strip with the mascot BuzzBee.
Lindstrom says that using games as ads greatly benefits companies in important ways: “They allow marketers to circumvent the regulations on advertising junk food on television”; “they spread virally…[kids] unwittingly become guerrilla brand ambassadors; and “these games are inherently addictive in nature.”
2. To target kids, they hire other kids.
Speaking of guerrilla brand ambassadors, some companies hire the Girls Intelligence Agency to spread the word about their products. Apparently, this group gathers 40,000 girls from across the US to serve as marketers. (Sounds a bit like Mary Kay for kids.)
“The agency gives these girls exclusive offers for products, events, and free online fashion consultations and then sends them into the world to talk up the products to their friends and classmates.” Plus, they host sleepovers called “Slumber Parties in a Box” where girls are given free stuff, and of course, there’s more talk of products.
3. They target babies in the womb.
There’s some research to suggest that newborns develop preferences for specific stimuli when they’re in the womb. For instance, a study from Queen’s University found that babies are partial to theme songs that their pregnant mothers frequently listened to. Among other reactions, when hearing the theme song, the babies seemed more alert, stopped squirming and exhibited a decreased heart rate. When listening to new tunes, the babies didn’t show any reactions.
An Asian mall chain wanted to increase sales among pregnant women and started performing various stealthy strategies to prime these consumers to buy. They sprayed Johnson & Johnson baby powder in stores that sold clothes; they sprayed a cherry scent in spots that sold food. And in order to stir up positive emotions and memories, they played calming music dating back to when the women were born.
Sales did increase, but something even more fascinating happened: A year after the experiment, mothers sent a litany of letters to the mall telling them that their newborns were soothed when entering the shopping mall. Writes Lindstrom: “If they were fussing and crying, they simmered down at once, an effect that 60 percent of these women claimed they’d experienced nowhere else, not even places where they were exposed to equally pleasant smells and sounds.”
4. They capitalize on panic and paranoia.
According to Lindstrom, a large-scale contagion provides “a golden opportunity” for companies to perk up profits. One prime example is antibacterial hand gel, a product that’s everywhere these days. (Lindstrom says that in just five years, antibacterial soap sales in America should surpass $402 million in profits!)
Companies have capitalized on health scares like the swine flu and SARS by connecting their sanitizer products to these outbreaks. Take Lysol as an example. During the swine flu scare, they said on their website that while we don’t know how the virus spreads, “following proper hygiene routines can help prevent the spread of illness.” So they insinuated that using antibacterial soap will prevent people from getting these specific illnesses. (As you’ll see in a few, they’re not the only ones, of course.)
But here’s the kicker: While hand sanitizer sales have amplified, these products actually do nothing to defend against these contagions. “Both viruses are spread via tiny droplets in the air that are sneezed or coughed by people who are already infected (or, though this is far less common, by making contact with an infected surface, then rubbing your eyes or your nose),” Lindstrom writes.
Companies also updated their products or launched new ones to target the panic over these viruses. Kleenex came out with “antiviral tissues,” which are “virucidal against Rhinoviruses Type 1A and 2; Influenza A and B; and Respiratiory Syncytial Virus” or whatever that means.
Websites like Amazon.com started manufacturing swine flu protection kits, which included hand sanitizer, bacterial wipes and surgical masks. These items give us the fantasy of safety and wellbeing, and little else.
Even Kellogg’s decided to feed into the swine flu myth and hysteria. After the first cases of the virus were reported, Kellogg’s launched newer versions of Rice Krispies and Cocoa Krispies, which they claimed contained “antioxidants and nutrients that help the body’s immune system.” Because of increasing criticism, the company removed the words “helps support your child’s immunity.”
Here’s more about Martin Lindstrom and his work.