The Amygdala As Sales Tool

The Perils of Pop Neuroscience



November 30, 2011

Many are the tricks that companies use to win our business. As Martin Lindstrom reminds us in "Brandwashed," marketers make sneaky appeals to our fears and desires, leverage our social connections to maximize peer pressure, dazzle us with tinfoil celebrity and lure us with sexual come-ons that would embarrass a bawd.


Mr. Lindstrom has made his living in the business he now proposes to expose. His specialty has been using the tools of brain science to help marketers press subconscious buttons. In 2009, Time magazine named him one of the world's most influential thinkers. But on the evidence of "Brandwashed," influential does not necessarily mean "careful" or "accurate."


Take Mr. Lindstrom's analysis of how memory clouds judgment. After noting that marketers make appeals to nostalgia, he tries to show its addling effects by citing an American woman he knows who grew up in Paris and who loves Mars bars—the ones from France. She believes that "the U.S. version cannot compare with the taste of the Mars bars she snacked on growing up." Mr. Lindstrom has some fun at her expense, mocking her for imagining there is a difference between the two. Her misperception, he claims, is merely a matter of nostalgia, But as the candy cognoscenti might point out, the U.S. version of the Mars bar has always been very different from the one sold in Europe. Shouldn't a branding consultant know that?


Elsewhere Mr. Lindstrom tells us of the addictive power of the Internet auction site Swoopo, which hooks customers by playing psychological tricks gleaned from videogames. "Win or lose, our brains just want to keep on playing." And yet, for all its addictive power, Swoopo shut down months ago.


That's hardly Mr. Lindstrom's most out-of-date claim. He writes that, by exploiting our fears of being exposed to toxic chemicals, green-cleaning-goods company Method "is now the seventh-fastest-growing private company in the United States." Really? Not even close. Facing competition from traditional soap companies rushing out their own green cleaners, Method hasn't exactly enjoyed spectacular growth of late. So what does Mr. Lindstrom mean? Ah, there's a footnote. The author is basing his claim on an "Inc. 500" listing—from 2006.


And then there is the insidious power of McDonald's and its clown. "What's the first word recognized by most kids all over the world?" Mr. Lindstrom asks. "No, it's not 'Mom' or 'Dad.' It's 'McDonald's' (or 'Ronald.')" For this truly preposterous claim Mr. Lindstrom cites a consumer researcher in England named Bryan Urbick. I popped Mr. Urbick a fact-checking email. He denied saying any such thing. "I would never say that a complex word would precede a simply constructed word such as 'ma-ma,' " he responded. "I suspect that the confusion lies in that I have said (and regularly say) that McDonald's logo is one of the first brand icons recognized by young children."


In another burst of guff, Mr. Lindstrom writes: "Today, thanks to technology, never before in the history of our species have contemporary parents had more in common with their teenage or even tween-age children." Adults and teens both like iPhones, for instance. But really—"never before in the history of our species"? (Never mind the millennia in which parents and children worked in the fields together.) Mr. Lindstrom doesn't even believe it himself: In the next chapter he says that the problem with the Levi's brand is that kids don't want anything to do with a brand their parents embrace. In fact, he tells his clients wanting to sell to teens to come up with products "so outrageous, so provocative" that parents will react against them.


Things don't get much better when Mr. Lindstrom puts on his cognitive-science hat. Using various imaging technologies, he looks for what parts of the brain light up when consumers hear product pitches, make buying decisions or interact with goods. But he wildly and repeatedly overstates what can be known from the evidence of localized brain activity. In one of his studies he found that, when a cellphone rings, there is activity in a part of the brain called the insula, "which is connected to feelings of love and compassion." This is proof, he says, that "our study subjects loved their iPhones." Rubbish. The insula is a complicated brain region involved in everything from registering disgust to engaging in social exchanges. Insula action is not some simple signal of that loving feeling.


Equally complicated is the "Brodmann area 10" region of the frontal cortex, which is believed to be involved in planning, initiative and creative thinking. According to Mr. Lindstrom, all you need to know about BA10 is that it is "the region of the brain that's activated when respondents are observing something they perceive as 'cool.' "


Or consider the amygdala. Mr. Lindstrom admits that, in addition to being associated with reactions of fear, the amygdala "serves as a memory storage unit." And yet he concludes of a test subject whose amygdala was active as she worked her way down the supermarket aisle: "Literally every product she touched during her shopping excursion sparked a fear response." This claim isn't just simplistic; it's a fundamental error of logic. As neuroscientist Christopher Chabris tells me: "If it is true that scary things activate the amygdala, it does not follow that anything that activates the amygdala must be scary."



The kind of high-tech phrenology found in "Brandwashed" makes serious cognitive scientists cringe. But there probably aren't many cognitive scientists in the marketing meetings where Mr. Lindstrom offers up his insights. Talk about tricks of the trade.