Book Review
Title: "Brandwashed: Tricks Companies Use to Manipulate Our Minds and Persuade Us to Buy"
Author: Martin Lindstrom
Publisher: Crown Business, 2011; 304 pages; $25

Who doesn’t love an insider secret? That’s why you ask around to find out if anyone you know knows a guy/gal who does plumbing, works on your type of car, or sells real estate, when you’re in the market to buy or sell yourself.

It’s comforting to know that you have insider access to the tricks up the sleeve of your opponent. And it’s precisely that comfort and insider access you’ll get from master marketer-turned-consumer advocate Martin Lindstrom’s latest work, "Brandwashed: Tricks Companies Use to Manipulate Our Minds and Persuade Us to Buy."

At the outset, Lindstrom tells his own personal tale of trying to take a yearlong diet from all name brands. He could still buy things, and could still use the things he already owned, but he could not buy anything new — not even food — that was associated with or touted as having a brand name.

All went well, despite the occasional withdrawal pang when he couldn’t buy a round of anything at friends’ birthday celebrations, as was his wont — until, that is, he found himself in Cyprus, with no luggage (blasted airlines!).

Not only did he break his brand fast with the purchase of a hokey "I Love Cyprus" T-shirt, he completely relapsed, backsliding into a veritable brand-buying frenzy on the next stop of his trip: the fashion capital of the world, Milan.

"Brandwashed" takes a deep dive into the insider secrets of brand marketing, uncovering the hypnotic techniques that companies are using in this digital age to get us to buy what they want us to buy.

The general effect of this book is to make you second-guess why you like the things you like and buy the things you buy and, depending on how you answer those questions, to begin to view your relationships with brands, with things, with purchases and even with your social networks and electronic gadgets (from which marketers glean much of the data that helps them manipulate us into buying) in an entirely new light.

A short list of the marketing manipulations Lindstrom exposes in "Brandwashed" includes:

1. Start marketing in utero. Lindstrom tells of a Filipino coffee company that distributed candies to obstetricians to give to their pregnant patients, in anticipation of launching a coffee line with the same flavors. The coffee launched to great success: among newborns. The moms who had habitually consumed the candies while pregnant found that their fussy babies would instantly calm down with just a sip of the candy-flavored coffee.

And this is not an isolated incident: Lindstrom points out that children under 3 are a $20 billion market. With 90 percent of babies watching some sort of screen (i.e., television, iPad, etc.) by the time they are 2, and recognizing logos by the time they are 18 months old, brands now find success marketing everything from fragrances and unhealthy foods to bizarrely inappropriate items like a pole-dancing kit for girls under 10 and sweet, alcoholic sodas to young teenagers.

Even less objectionable adult brands and items are getting a head start by marketing to children, like Shell Oil putting its logo on Legos and Audi’s stuffed animal line.

2. Cultivating addictions. We’ve all heard of various tobacco industry high jinks that have created physical and psychological addictions to their products. But did you know that the menthol in your lip balm and the salt and sugar in your snack foods can be just as addictive? Well, you might not have known, but Lindstrom says the brands that put them there did.

3. Peddling hope. Lindstrom points to the example of how brands market and sell the juice of the goji berry with packaging that implies or expressly says the products are Himalayan in origin, evoking associations of Buddhism, enlightenment and wellness. In fact, the berries come from China and some of the products so packaged are actually produced in decidedly less exotic locales like Arizona, Georgia and Pennsylvania.

Lindstrom shows that this aggressive (and misleading) association of products with abstract aspirations and values people so desperately crave to have in their lives is not limited to nutritional products; the cosmetics industry is equally guilty, as are all the major brands that seek to showcase their good corporate deeds or create faux spiritually targeted product lines for marketing purposes.

"Brandwashed" is vast in range and powerful in its ability to entertain and enlighten, simultaneously. This book will find a ready audience in those who have already cut back on their consumerism or are highly skeptical by nature; but those who need to read it the most are those who engage in retail therapy frequently or have a problem with consumer debting or spending.

(Also, parents will be shocked and concerned, and perhaps smarter about allowing their kids to engage with brands, after reading "Brandwashed.")

You will absolutely recognize many of the marketing campaigns it calls out — and many of the reactions you have personally had to them — as precisely what the brands/marketers intended.

Having a conversation about the book with a colleague, I kept trying to point out mediocre products that have succeeded in "brandwashing" our circle of peers; she kept responding, "Well, but that’s an amazing (product/service/website)." My response was: "Friend, you’ve been ‘Brandwashed.’ "

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