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Buyology – Martin Lindstrom ****

Although there are some concerns about how this book is written – and worries too about the way the conclusions are drawn from the science – this is an engaging study of how modern imaging techniques can be used to start to answer that age-old worry about advertising and branding – we think it works, but we don’t know why, when or even if it really does.
Brand guru Martin Lindstrom sets off on a voyage of discovery using an fMRI scanner and an SST (brainwaves) monitor to see how individuals react to advertising and branding in a systematic fashion that has never before been tried. Advertising has to be one of the most unscientific ventures that billions of dollars gets spent on. Everyone thinks it influences buyers – but no one is sure how much, or exactly what a particular advert will achieve. Much of it is probably a waste of time and money. The idea of neuromarketing is to more scientifically target advertising and promotion to achieve effects.
Stated like that it sounds scary, like something out of a dystopian science fiction movie – the reality is much less intrusive. It’s really just a more scientific extension of the focus group, a way of trying to get some idea how people react to advertising to fine tune it. Along the way we can learn some interesting lessons about ourselves and the way we make decisions.
But there are problems. I’d recommend not reading the foreword, which is sycophantic to the point of sick-making. And Lindstrom himself has something of a tendency to be irritating in his writing, which is very much of the ‘aren’t I clever, doing this, and look at all the money I’m spending on it,’ school. However, my main concern is with the science, or at least what we’re not told. In almost every example there are obvious questions, doubts raised, that don’t get answered.
Early on, for instance, we hear that when people see the nasty warnings on cigarette packets this triggers feeling of craving. We’re led to believe it’s the negative message that somehow does this – yet we aren’t told why the much more obvious explanation – that these warnings simply remind people of packets of cigarettes, because that’s where they see them, and it’s the cigarettes that cause the craving – isn’t considered.
Then we hear how before seeing the product placement in the American Idol TV show, people don’t have any particular memory for the products pushed in the show. But after seeing the show they did. Wow, it works. Yet, presumably these people had seen the show before. So the effect must be very short-lived, or they would already remember the products. Is it still valuable? Don’t know. (And can you really tell me no one already remembers Coca Cola?)
Next, Lindstrom goes onto mirror neurons, and how the firing of the neurons is associated with an action when we just see something. Fair enough. And there’s certainly some pretty obvious stuff in here – but no mention of recent research casting doubt on the way mirror neurons work, which makes the presentation of the data a touch selective. (To be fair, the research may have emerged after the book was written, so the author might not have known about it.)
All in all, a fascinating subject and one that influences all our lives, but the book itself isn’t great, and there seems to be too much selectivity (getting the message the author wanted) in the way the science is interpreted.

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Review by Brian Clegg

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