Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Thoughts on Buyology

In Buyology, Martin Lindstrom presents and discusses (and lauds, and practically sings with pride) over the results of his recent neuromarketing studies. The author posits that the contents of the book are invaluable to consumers and producers alike. I wouldn’t say they’re invaluable… interesting, yes, but at times, vague and slippery. The case studies are the most reliable portions of the book, I find, and while the neurological studies themselves are fodder for thought and consideration, I wouldn’t apply them left and right. In fact, the studies themselves don’t carry the bulk of this book and its conclusions, partially due to the soft language used to describe techniques and results that require technical language; some precision and detail is lost in the indistinct language. Furthermore, Lindstrom conducted a large-scale study, but attempts to apply his results on an even larger scale. This produces generalizations and sweeping predictions that badly want to sum up advertising into a science, but simply can’t. That said, the investigation of advertising methods that actually work and those that really don’t is interesting, intriguing even, and probably worth a read for producers… but, again, it should be taken with a grain of salt. 

As for consumers, well, awareness can never hurt… although, if producers actually began employing ‘subliminal messaging’ - advertising by association would probably be more apt terminology - to the extent that Lindstrom predicts, consumers’ knowledge of the tricks would hardly help them fend off the urge to go and buy a 6-pack of Coke, stat. Familiarity with a product is half the battle, and if the advertising is out there, consumers will take it in (consciously or no); this familiarity will inevitably play a role in their choices at the grocery store or clothing boutique. I’m not convinced that this book arms the consumer like it seems to promise… it’s more like Lindstrom’s prophecy, written for people to just read and accept.

Lindstrom dips into both neurological and psychological explanations for some purchasing and advertising trends. However, certain parts of the book could have benefited from a rebalancing of the scales. The portion about cigarettes and subliminal messaging through racecar sponsorship, for instance, drifts slightly too far from the nitty-gritty, scientific end of the scale. Lindstrom says they discovered a “direct emotional relationship” between the sponsors and the qualities associated with NASCAR and Formula 1, and that consumers “subconsciously linked those associations to the brand”. This language seems kind of vague for such significant (and, frankly, frightening) results… how are the emotional relationship and subconscious links built? Dual encoding during memory formation? Simple misattribution? Call me a neuro-nerd, but I would have appreciated more detail – the stakes are too high to rest on the conclusions without detailing the premises.

A particularly important section of the book, in my opinion, discusses the use of SST (steady state typography, which measures and locates brain activity) to predict the success of already-developed products. Yes, this is an innovative and potentially useful method, but it does leave something to be desired. This method answers a yes or no question… will people like my product? It doesn’t answer the bigger questions… why they do or do not like it, and what they do or do not like. Clearly, having some scientific reassurance is better than blindly putting a product into a market and crossing your fingers, and I wouldn’t be surprised if companies began investigating these neuromarketing methods. But Lindstrom’s optimistic vision of a land where producers supply ideal, desired products and consumers buy them happily and willingly won’t surface until someone can put their finger on the ‘why’s and ‘what’s of product reception. Lindstrom would have done well to acknowledge the limits of neuromarketing, beyond just its advantages.

Generally, as far as the content is concerned, I’m a little let down. There are many questions he left unanswered and some areas that could do with more in-depth analysis… and the questions he did answer look to be case-specific, although this book tries stretching them thin to cover as many bases as possible. The actual experiments deserve more air-time than they receive, and the conclusions drawn deserve more of a critical analysis than demonstrated. Still, portions of the book are quite appealing – the role mirror neurons, the influence of anti-smoking images on smoking rates, and the detrimental effects of logos, for instance, are all interesting contributors to this art/science. I almost wish he had chosen one of these contributors and delved fully into it, rather than dabbling across the field. “Jack of all trades…”

Stepping away from the content, I must say that Lindstrom’s style was engaging throughout the book. The easy language makes this book accessible to the masses, despite the watered-down versions of the neurological happenings when we view advertisements. I was, however, slightly put off by what seemed like self-satisfaction. Yes, this is the largest study of its kind, but that fact doesn’t bear repeating umpteen times (I read the back of the book). Indeed, many of these results are surprising, but the reader can figure that out for themselves, without the multiple references to the shocking nature of these revolutionary discoveries. At times, I felt like Lindstrom was advertising neuromarketing at points… the content should have been left to speak for itself.

Another nuance that nagged me a bit was the occasional subtle brand endorsement. Apple is probably thrilled with this book, as well as Volkswagen and Coca-Cola. Microsoft? Not so much. With the apparent impending ubiquity of advertising and brand images, I would prefer not to feel like I’m strolling through these pages with a credit card and shopping cart in hand. Don’t get me wrong – many of the product discussions were necessary to flesh out examples and point out good advertising. The implied opinions were less necessary.

Overall, in spite of the nagging nuances and lingering questions, I think this book is worth a read. There’s some food for thought here, especially in the case studies, and while the content isn’t explored to its fullest potential, it still sparks a reaction and some contemplation on the reader’s part. People won’t walk away from Buyology with Lindstrom’s intended souvenirs, or with a clear picture of the future of advertising… but they may walk away with something.

Posted by Manjula Raman - Intern, Orchard Bangalore

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