Buy Buy Baby: When Companies Start Marketing to Us in the Womb

To see how the cycle of influence works, take, for example, Tropicana orange juice, a staple of many children’s households. The child who observes his parents buying bottle after bottle of the stuff grows up believing Tropicana is the only orange juice in the universe. So when that kid goes with Mom to the grocery store, guess what brand of juice he or she will pester Mom to put in her cart? So Mom keeps buying Tropicana, and by the time that kid is older and doing her own grocery shopping, she just grabs that brand out of sheer habit. Thus a lifelong preference is born (by the way, since it’s usually the mother who takes the kid grocery shopping, mothers tend to influence adolescents’ purchases more strongly than fathers do, particularly for household products like soaps, condiments, cleaners, and laundry detergents).

Oftentimes, our adult preference for a brand we used as a child is about nostalgia—often planted in our brains by the subtle yet clever manipulations of marketers, as we’ll read more about later on. Marketers see to it that we subconsciously link the brand with warm memories of home and family, so that using that brand becomes a way to reconnect both with our past and with our loved ones. I have a friend who insists on using Crest toothpaste and Crest toothpaste only. When I asked him why, he thought for a moment. “Because,” he said, “I feel somehow as though I would be betraying my parents if I used another toothpaste.

The point is that one of the main reasons all these strategies targeting children are so effective is that they pack a one-two punch: not only do our earliest preferences and impressions as children stay with us for life, but we’re also drawn to products that capture and allow us to relive the feeling of being young. In fact, as you’ll read later on, nostalgia is one of the most powerful hidden persuasions around, and it’s being used in all kinds of ways to brandwash us.

 

Peddling Panic and Paranoia: Why Fear Sells

We all have some version of a future self we’d take great pains to avoid. Do most of us go to the gym because we want to be healthy, or because we’re scared of getting flabby or out of shape? Do we bathe, shampoo, and brush and floss our teeth out of reverence for the rules of hygiene, or are we imagining the “feared self” we might resemble if we smelled bad, our hair were scraggly and unwashed, and our teeth were rotted and yellow? I can’t help but think back to a classic L’Oréal ad in which an older man is walking down the street. To our eyes, he looks great—dapper and distinguished. The camera then cuts to a beautiful younger woman passing him by. And through her eyes we see him as old, decrepit, and repulsive—his worst-feared self realized.

Sometimes, advertisers prey on our fears of our worst selves by activating insecurities that we didn’t even know we had—like about the appearance of our armpits. This is exactly what Dove’s recent “Go Sleeveless” ad campaign was doing; by claiming that their new special moisturizing formula will make our underarms “not only odor free but prettier

So whether it’s germs or disease or some feared version of a future self, marketers are amazingly adept at identifying a fear out of the zeitgeist, activating it, amplifying it, and preying on it in ways that hit us at the deepest subconscious level.

 

I Can’t Quit You: Brand Addicts and Why We can’t Live Without Our Smartphones

Marketing and advertising entreaties that play on emotions like fear, insecurity, and the universal need for acceptance are incredibly persuasive. Well, it turns out that if we’re already predisposed to compulsively shop or buy, their seductive powers become that much more magnified. One four-year-long German study has even found that a critical factor in shopping addiction is the boost of self-esteem shoppers get from interacting with store clerks! “We discovered that shopping addicts get a real kick out of the interaction they have with store personnel. Their fragile egos are given a tremendous boost by sales people who fawn over them and smile and treat them like royalty,” says Astrid Mueller, who wrote the study findings. “Their conscious minds know, of course, that these people only want to make a commission on a sale. But their subconscious minds enjoy being treated as a special somebody.”

it all goes back to dopamine, that feel-good neurotransmitter our brain’s limbic system spurts out to give us a “high” or “rush” so pleasurable that we can’t help but repeat the behavior as soon as the dopamine drops back to normal levels. The catch is, the more we experience the object or behavior of our addiction—whether it’s cigarettes, a drink, a drug, or new Manolo Blahnik pumps—the greater a tolerance we build up, meaning we need more and more of the substance or the behavior to get back that dopamine high.

 

Buy It, Get Laid: The New Face of Sex (And the Sexes) in Advertising

Sure enough, sex in advertising is still everywhere we look. Abercrombie & Fitch has recently reinstated its soft-porn in-store catalog, American Apparel still showcases its pouty, scantily clad models in giant store windows, footballer David Beckham still sprawls across a Times Square billboard in his skivvies (at the time of writing, at least), and the 420 million Web sites spawned by the $4.9 billion global pornography industry still carry ads for everything from “sexual enhancement” products to escort services to, well, more pornography (by the way, in case you’re wondering, the average age a child stumbles across a porn site? I hate to say it, but it’s eleven).1 And though it may not work all the time, there is evidence to suggest that a sexed-up ad campaign can be persuasive, if it’s done in the right way; as Dr. Geoffrey Miller, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of New Mexico, found, people are more likely to expend money and effort on products and activities if they’re first primed with photographs of the opposite sex or stories about dating.

Sure, sex in advertising may be one of the oldest tricks in the book, but from what I’ve seen in my work, one thing couldn’t be more clear: whether it’s by probing our deepest and darkest sexual fantasies, by engineering nostalgia for the sexual heyday of our youth, or by covertly selling the promise to make us more sexually attractive, today’s marketers and advertisers have all kinds of new ways of tapping into our most basic and primal human desire—and making a whole lot of money in the process.

 

Under Pressure: The Power of Peers

To see just how powerfully complete strangers’ preferences and purchases can sway our decisions, consider the phenomenon of best-seller lists. Imagine that you’re entering a big chain bookstore, where you’re confronted by square footage that rivals a football field. Given the sheer number of choices, the risk of shelling out $27.99 for a novel or a memoir that you will later deem unreadable is considerable. But wait, what’s on that stand-alone shelf directly to your right? This week’s “New York Times Bestsellers,” both fiction and nonfiction, perhaps two dozen books in all. Subconsciously you think, If so many people are buying this book, then it must be good. Followed shortly by If so many people are reading this book, won’t I be left out if I don’t read it, too? Now not only are you spared the ordeal of wading through the four floors of books and the anxiety of confronting all that choice, but you have a solid endorsement from your book-buying peers.

Best-seller lists work so well in persuading us that they’ve migrated well beyond book publishing to other products and industries—from Sephora’s list of best-selling cosmetics to Entertainment Weekly’s Ten Most Popular TV shows to Variety’s list of the ten highest-grossing movies of the week to the Apple iTunes music store’s list of best-selling or recommended (which, as we’ll see in a minute, eventually become one and the same) singles, albums, movies, and music videos. Let’s talk for a moment about the latter. Not unlike a Barnes & Noble superstore, the iTunes start page is a cluttered, chaotic place teeming with choices. Luckily for the overwhelmed shopper, however, these endless offerings are organized into tidy recommended categories like “What We’re Watching,” “What’s Hot,” “What We’re Listening To,” “New and Noteworthy,” and, of course, “Top Songs” and “Top Albums.

 

Oh, Sweet Memories: The New (But also Old) Face of Nostalgia Marketing

Nostalgia marketing is a perennial—and, I should add, wildly successful—strategy by which advertisers resurrect the sights, sounds, and feel of a previous decade to sell us a brand or product of today.

Our tendency to romanticize bygone eras helps explain why nostalgia marketing is especially potent during uncertain economic times. When the stock market is down, personal debt is up, climate change is in the news, and job security is a thing of the past, anxious consumers seek nothing more than the retail equivalent of comfort food: the sounds, the smells, the appearance, and hence the memories and familiar fonts of the best-loved brands from our childhoods. In other words, an era before we were plagued with these grown-up worries

Perhaps we “remember” a time when grocery shopping meant stopping with our parents at a roadside fruit and vegetable stand, where we sniffed and unpeeled ears of corn harvested just that morning, filled a basket with apples picked from a nearby orchard, or grabbed a bunch of flowers whose prices were hand-scribbled on a small slate board. Or was that in a movie we once saw? Doesn’t matter.

 

Marketers’ Royal Flush: The Hidden Powers of Celebrity and Fame

It’s not just actors, rock stars, and basketball players, like it used to be in the old days of celebrity marketing. Today’s product sponsors and spokespeople include talk show hosts (Kelly Ripa for Electrolux), TV chefs (Gordon Ramsay for Gordon’s Gin), former boxers (George Foreman hawking his best-selling grill), politicians (Bob Dole for Viagra), business moguls (Twitter co founder Biz Stone for Stoli vodka), celebrity spawn (Billy Joel and Christie Brinkley’s daughter Alexa Ray Joel for Prell), and homewreckers (golfer Tiger Woods’s alleged mistresses for the auction site Bidhere.com).

To better understand just how companies prey on this fundamental aspect of our psychology, let’s look at Vitaminwater, a brand (now owned by Coke) that would be nothing without celebrities. A few years back, the marketers of Vitaminwater came up with a very clever plan. Why not give celebrities shares in the company in return for endorsing the brand? This shrewd arrangement accomplished two things. First, it got Vitaminwater an all-star team of celebrity endorsers (including rapper 50 Cent, who’s made a fortune from the shares he owns in the company) fairly cheaply. Second, and perhaps more important, now that these celebrities had some stake in the company, it gave them the motivation to position themselves on camera, whenever possible, sipping the sugary drink. Most recently, Ellen DeGeneres conducted a live commercial for noncaloric Vitaminwater Zero, right in the middle of her popular TV talk show. After taking a few sips, Ellen, or rather, a very athletic stand-in, did backflips across the stage to show how much energy the stuff gave her. Quite an endorsement indeed.

 

Every Breath You Take, They’ll Be Watching You: The End of Privacy

Being able to predict what a consumer is likely to buy next—and being the first company in line to perfectly target the offering to the consumer in question—is of paramount importance to companies of all stripes. Why? Because based on marketers’ data, consumers who try a new product are likely to stick with it for an average of a year and a half. So if a store can figure out what new product you might like and offer a free sample or coupon or promotion persuading you to try it, it’s potentially locked up your dollars for the next eighteen months.

Thanks to data-mining companies, or as I like to call them, Big Brother, every time we do a Google search, write on a friend’s Facebook wall, swipe our credit card, download an iTunes song, look up directions on our cell phone, or shop at the local grocery store, an unseen data collector is shadowing us, recording every last bit of information, crunching and analyzing it, and then turning around and reselling it to retailers and marketing firms.

The loyalty card is another sneaky yet powerful tool companies use to turn every intimate detail about our lives into marketing gold. Today the average person carries around fifteen so-called loyalty cards, now being issued by every retailer under the sun, from your local drugstore to Staples to Best Buy to Starbucks. Yet most of us forget we’ve even signed up for all these loyalty schemes. In a study I once conducted in the UK, when I asked a group of middle-aged females how many loyalty programs they belonged to, most were able to recall only half (and when, to jog their memories, I asked them to empty their wallets, most were shocked by the number of cards that fell out). So what’s so bad about loyalty cards, you might be wondering? Isn’t the whole point of them to save me money? No, not exactly. Sure, the language and terminology that retailers use in talking about these programs—“reward card,” “loyalty program,” “preferred customer savings”—may make you feel sort of special, or may even lead you to believe that these programs are about rewarding you, loyal customer, with money-saving offers. Well, they aren’t. The reason these clever programs exist isn’t to save you fifty cents here, fifty cents there, as their marketers and advertisers would have you believe. Loyalty programs exist for one simple and rather shifty purpose: to try to persuade you to buy more. In fact, each time you sign up for a store’s loyalty program, what you are actually doing is giving the store explicit permission to collect, aggregate, summarize, and crunch unparalleled amounts of information about you, your family, your habits, and your interests—all of which data miners then turn around and use to craft marketing and advertising entreaties too perfect, too persuasive, and too uncannily targeted to your individual psychology and lifestyle to resist. One study about Safeway, the supermarket chain, sums up the technique neatly: “Safeway . . . has turned itself into an information broker. The supermarket purchases demographic data directly from its customers by offering them discounts in return for using a Safeway savings club card. In order to obtain the card, shoppers voluntarily divulge personal information that is later used in predictive modeling.”24 In other words, each time we hand the clerk that colorful little card we keep on our key ring, we’re swapping our privacy for a twenty-five-cent savings here, a dollar off there, maybe the occasional buy-two-get-one-free deal.


Kyaw Wai Yan Tun

Hi, I'm Wai Yan. I love designing visuals and writing insightful articles online. I see it as my way of making the world a more beautiful and insightful place.