Book Review: Buyology

Buyology: Truth and Lies About Why We Buy and the New Science of Desire

Martin Lindstrom,Broadway Books 2010, 255 pgs

This book has a lot of hype, no surprise because the author is a brand expert in the marketing industry.  This book itself was subject to a little controversy, Lindstrom gamed the book rankings by using a bulk buying service.  This service artificially bumped his sale ratings. After reading that, I was even more happy that I bought this book used.

This book is premised on a large neuro study that Lindstrom had a part in: scanning, victims, err, participants brains for activity when exposed to different types of advertisements and marketing.  This book explains the results of this, the implications and looks at standard marketing cliches; product placement, sex-sells, etc.

Lindstrom does a decent job. I found it telling that throughout the book Lindstrom has to constantly remind us that he is on our side.    But Lindstrom is a ‘brand marketer’, and his business depends on our willingness to part with money to buy things.

This book suffers a little bit from the corrosiveness of Lindstrom’s over the top descriptions in the book.  But overall I found this book an interesting keyhole peek into advertisement.  His book is the result of a study done on a large amount of people, using fMRI machines to scan brain activity, basically showing people images then seeing where the oxygenated blood goes to in the brain. Is this the ultimate authority on why we buy? No, but it gives us some insights.

Some in-depth examples were well done, Lindstrom takes us to the set of American Idol.  We get to see the myriad of product placement that takes place on the set of the show.  Coke was getting a good bang for their buck, while Ford basically had wasted millions of dollars.  Ford had nothing to do with the show, even though they spent the same as Coke, they only managed to get conventional commercials. Coke got it all though, Coke red walls, chairs that looked like bottles, subtle things that remind us of Coke. In the end though, Coke got it’s worth, while Ford got basically nothing for it’s money.  Follow up research confirmed it.

As an anti-consumer, I see many things wrong with how consumerism operates.  Lindstrom is on the other side of this equation, but his findings make paint a grim picture of how well advertisements work.   Although some ads don’t work nearly as well as we think they would: Time Square, advertisement central, is not that effective. We’ve become saturated with ads, argues Lindstrom. Which gives us on the other side of the table from advertisers, a nice rebuke to their methods.

Lindstrom also tackles common repeated advertising cliches,  such as sex sells .  Lindstrom offers some interesting information on that subject: sex doesn’t really sell.  I also like how Lindstrom compared religion and brand.  Some throw around the claim that Apple is like a religion, Lindstrom suggests this and backs it up with data.  Lindstrom first noticed the similarities between the devout and the brand. At an Apple conference, Steve Jobs declared the Newton (a mobile device, before our times) was discontinued and chucked it into a nearby garbage can for great dramatic effect.  The crowd behaved as if it were just told the second coming wasn’t coming after all (pg. 116).  Lindstrom’s visit to the temple of Apple, a flagship Apple store in New York confirmed such similarities, a larger-than-life structure, like the Vatican.  Lindstrom’s study showed that when subjects were shown brand images, the parts of their brain lit up as if they were shown religious images.  Basically, there is an overlap between cognitive resources vis-a-vis religion and brands.

Lindstrom also gives us a peek to why some government policy has unintended consequences. When the UK decided to ban tobacco advertisement, one UK tobacco company started pairing their ads with a lot of purple.  Once the ban came into effect the tobacco company just put up huge billboards of purple with unrelated messages.  Consumer’s brains instantly light up with nicotine recognition.  This company could still run ads, despite the ban.  Lindstrom offers interesting research on the effects of health warnings on cigarette packages.  The TL;DR, they don’t work, they might even have the opposite effect.

I’ve seen some reviews suggest that Underhill’s book Why We Buy (review here) as superior, I’m not sure that I agree what that.  Underhill’s book is a masturbatory book where Underhill just has a boastful anthem for Envirosell.    I also think  “buyology” deserves the title of “Why We Buy”, but that’s an aside.  Lindstrom and Underhill occupy the same sphere, after all Paco Underhill has a small forward in this book.

In the end, Lindstrom’s buyology is a decent book about the power of advertising.  It offers interesting case studies on our psyche and illustrates the power of brand marketers.  While, I personally don’t have much faith in the masses, the individual, this book shows the bag of tricks that marketers employ.  It also, perhaps to the chagrin of Lindstrom shows why the anti-consumer paradigm is more important than ever. This book isn’t overtly sympathetic to the anti-consumerist, but it conveys enough evidence for someone to employ that philosophy.


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