In "Brandwashed," Martin Lindstrom gives a shocking behind-the-scenes account of just how deceptive, tenacious and indefatigable companies have been with their marketing ploys. Here's an excerpt.
I'll Have What Mrs. Morgenson Is Having
The most powerful hidden persuader of them all: Us
It was close to midnight, Pacific Standard Time, as one truck after another crept down a quiet, gated village road in the heart of Laguna Beach, one of the most beautiful oceanside communities in Southern California (as well as one of the most afﬂuent and most expensive: the median income for a family is $146,562, and the average home price easily tops $1 million). Most of the ornate, sprawling stucco houses were in shadows, their owners asleep—with the exception of the very last house on the block. Considering the time of night, it was unusual to see one, let alone several, vehicles on the road. Yet ﬁve or six trucks stood silhouetted in the driveway and along the front curb, as workers silently unloaded camera equipment and cardboard boxes, then carried them inside the house.
What was about to take place over the next eight weeks was among the most risky and unconventional operations my team and I had ever concocted. If a single person in the neighborhood had found out what we were up to, the entire project (which we’d been planning and preparing over the past six months) would be jeopardized. Why? Because the families in this upscale neighborhood could have no idea they were about to become unwitting participants in a massive, $3 million social experiment whose results would reveal a side of consumer behavior few of them would have believed.
Inspired by the 2010 Hollywood movie "The Joneses," about a family of stealth marketers who move into an upper-middle-class neighborhood to peddle their wares to their unsuspecting neighbors, my scheme was both simple and ambitious: to test the power of word-of- mouth marketing. I would create a real-life version of the ﬁlm, taking a real-life California family, dropping them in a real-life California neighborhood, and then ﬁlm them in every waking moment as they went about covertly persuading friends, colleagues, and loved ones to buy a number of carefully selected brands.
First step: I hired one of America’s top reality-show casting directors (Marcy Tishk, who has worked on shows ranging from "Jersey Shore" to "Paris Hilton’s My New BFF") and producer Andy McEntee (whose credits include "The Millionaire Matchmaker" and "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition") to narrow a large ﬁeld of candidates to select our perfect all-American family. If our experiment was to succeed, the Morgenson family had to represent a perfect mix of ages, styles, interests, and aspirational values. After a lengthy search, Marcy and Andy found their ideal candidates in Eric and Gina Morgenson and their three sons, Jack, Sam, and Max—a successful, good-looking, picture-perfect Southern California family who agreed to make it their life’s mission (well, for at least a month) to discreetly persuade their neighbors to buy a broad array of products.
Let’s meet them.
Eric Morgenson: In his midforties, with a degree from an East Coast college, Eric is a successful, compassionate, funny, sports-obsessed, and involved father (with a latent party-hearty streak).
Gina Morgenson: Sophisticated, charming, and popular, Gina is politically and environmentally aware, as well as a fashion trendsetter among her friends.
Jack, Sam, and Max Morgenson: As sports-crazy and outdoorsy as their father, Jack, Sam, and Max are hip, handsome Justin Bieber– esque Southern California adolescents (ages sixteen, fourteen, and twelve), smitten with music, skateboarding, technology, and, like most teens and tweens, the latest brands and styles.
Now I want you to picture the scene that took place several days later.
In the Morgensons’ spacious yard (complete with heated in-ground swimming pool, Toro- mowed and impeccably landscaped lawn, and three-car garage housing a 2005 Ford Expedition Eddie Bauer edition, a 2008 BMW 750Li, and a 2008 Nissan Altima coupe), Eric Morgenson shows off his grilling techniques and new Frontgate and T.J.Maxx barbecue tools to a handful of male buddies. Two hundred feet away, Gina Morgenson is entertaining a group of female friends in her state-of-the-art kitchen (containing an array of top-of-the-line KitchenAid appliances, including a combination microwave-oven, induction cooktop, ice maker, trash compactor, toaster, immersion blender, and water ﬁlter), gushing about how hard she’s fallen for a beautiful new jewelry line. Upstairs, Jack, Sam, Max, and a few school friends play the newest game on Xbox while showing off the hip new Vans and etnie sneakers they’ve recently picked up on a family shopping spree.
The point of this multimillion-dollar experiment was to test the seductive power of word-of- mouth marketing. By ﬁlming a “real” family in spontaneous, unscripted situations and scenarios like these, from barbecues to champagne brunches to shopping expeditions, we would document how the Morgensons’ circle of friends responded to specific brands and products the Morgensons brought into their lives. When put face-to-face with another family’s “enviable” lifestyle—and the brands and products that sustain it—would they want all the things that family has? And more important, would this inﬂuence be so powerful as to make them actually go out and buy those things?
With the help of thirty-ﬁve video cameras (seventeen hidden from view) and twenty-ﬁve microphones tucked away inside the furniture and ﬁxtures, providing us with a 360-degree view of every room in the house, so we could follow the Morgensons wherever they went, the results of this clandestine operation would ultimately reveal something shocking: that the most powerful hidden persuader of them all isn’t in your television set or on the shelves of your supermarket or even lurking in your smart phone. It’s a far more pervasive inﬂuence that’s around you virtually every waking moment, brandwashing you in ways you don’t even realize: your very own friends and neighbors.
You Run Your Mouth and I’ll Run My Business
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Over these past pages, we’ve learned that few, if any, accidents take place in the marketing and advertising world. We’ve looked at many of the tricks, machinations, untruths, and manipulations that marketers and advertisers use to pressure, cajole, and entice us. We’ve seen how they use fear, sex, celebrity, New Age promises, insecurity, nostalgia, data mining, and more to prey on our most deeply rooted fears, dreams, and desires in the service of selling us their products. We’ve witnessed up close the alarmingly young age—often before we’ve even left our mothers’ wombs—at which they begin to target us and the sometimes surreal lengths they’ll go to in order to secure us as lifelong customers. We’ve even looked at the role peer pressure can play in shaping our buying habits. But this chapter goes well beyond that.
In a world where roughly 60 percent of all Americans are members of Facebook (and some 175 million people worldwide log in to Facebook each day) and Twitter has around 190 million users (who tweet approximately 65 million times during a twenty-four-hour period), I believe I’ve only just scratched the surface in exploring how vulnerable and susceptible we are to the advice, recommendations, and subconscious inﬂuence of our friends, neighbors, and peers.
The seed of the idea for the reality TV show we dubbed The Morgensons occurred to me almost eighteen months before I started writing this book, when I’d been unknowingly lured into a covert marketing ploy that prompted me to doubt my own ability to separate reality from advertising spin. As I pulled up to a gas station in Sydney, Australia, the guy across from me, who’d just ﬁnished ﬁlling up his own tank, approached me. “Hey, mate, love your car,” he said. “Oh, thanks,” I said politely. “But mate,” he went on (yes, Australian men do love to use this endearing term), “you really should consider using superoctane ninety-eight gas.” He proceeded to tell me he had the same model of car as mine at home in his garage, adding, “You can’t believe the difference in your car’s performance—it’s amazing.”
I thanked him, then promptly forgot his advice. Yet over the next few weeks, every time I needed to gas up my car, I couldn’t get his words out of my mind. Whenever I drove into a gas station, the same internal dialogue— Should I buy the octane or the superoctane 98?—rolled around in my brain. What the hell? I’d begun thinking. It couldn’t hurt, and it costs less than ten cents more. And sure enough, from then on, each time I needed gas, I’d ﬁll up with the superoctane 98. Then, a few months later, with the needle of my gas gauge close to empty, I pulled into the very same gas station. I was ﬁlling up when I heard an extremely familiar voice.
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It was him, the superoctane 98 man! This time, though, he wasn’t addressing me but another car owner who was ﬁlling his tank with the cheapest brand of gas. “Hey, mate,” he called over, “love your car.” “Thanks,” the guy replied in the same polite tone as I had. “But mate,” the man went on, “you really should consider using superoctane ninety-eight. Thing is, I have the same model of car at home, and once you’ve tried it, you won’t believe the difference—it’s amazing.”
I’d been completely punked. Either this guy owned every brand of car ever manufactured and knew only two sentences in the English language, or the gas station had planted him to ramp up sales of its higher-priced gas. At the same time, I couldn’t help wondering, Martin, how could you fall for it? You—who work day in and day out in the marketing industry—have been duped into changing your whole buying behavior thanks to ﬁve seconds of covert marketing?
But it wasn’t until a year later, when the ﬁlm The Joneses hit the big screen, that I was inspired to hatch my own marketing experiment—to test the effects, over an eight-week period, of that same tactic I had succumbed to in the suburbs of Sydney.
A month later, after screening literally hundreds of hours of videotape, the results from The Morgensons came in. But anecdotal evidence like this, no matter how many hours of it, isn’t always the most scientiﬁc, which is why I decided to conduct an additional fMRI study to conﬁrm our ﬁndings. The results proved beyond any doubt whatsoever that marketers, advertisers, and big businesses have nothing at all compared to the inﬂuence we consumers have on one another.
Reprinted from "Brandwashed: Tricks Companies Use to Manipulate Our Minds and Persuade Us to Buy" by Martin Lindstrom. Copyright © 2011. Published by Crown Business, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, division of Random House, Inc.
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