Why do we buy things?  As the economy melts around us, many are re-evaluating their purchase decisions — but are we able to resist the impulse to buy — or is the need to gather things innately us?  Researcher Martin Lindstrom spent $7 million looking into the brains of 2,000 people with an fMRI machine to help him understand our impulse to buy one brand over another.


Lindstrom argues our brains want what they want even if it is bad for our bodies:  Sugar over sugarless, nicotine over clear lungs, caffeine over decaf and faith over facts — because we are hardwired to feed our wants and needs and wishes even if we publicly deny them and privately denounce them.

Successful branding, Lindstrom claims, understands that animal need and then provides a socially acceptable stimulus for satisfaction. 

McDonald’s isn’t about great food:  It’s about re-creating childhood memories of inclusion and love.  Buying a Ford over a Chevy is as much about reflexive feelings of safety and convenience embedded in our subconscious by direct exposure to the product, imagined experience, repeated exposure to advertising and an internal aesthetic that determines “purchasing taste.”

The most successful international brands like Coke, Nike and Harley-Davidson, are able to touch emotional centers of belonging in the brain — just as religious ecstasy does — in order to make the entire body feel better in the process of buying or “buying in.”

The question now becomes:  “Why did Barack Obama win the world?” 

Did Obama purposefully make himself the next messiah to win the election? 

Did Obama try to create a brand as powerful as McDonald’s?

Did we vote for the best president — or did we merely, reactively, uncontrollably — buy the most convenient and effective advertising campaign packaging that pressed the right emotional buttons in our brains?

18 Comments

  1. Hi David,
    Very interesting book!
    While most popular brands try to tap into our urges and instincts and wants to increase their marketshare Obama did the same by doing the unthinkable – he appealed to the voter’s better sense.
    Just as a brand he was a no-go from the start. If an advertising agency had presented the marketing team of their client, with three options for branding, packaging and advertising their new product as Hillary, McCain and Obama. Then Obama would have been the first to be dropped followed by a terse email later that day from the marketing head to the agency about shoddy work and lack of focus.

  2. The Republicans were furious, Dananjay, that Obama was selling himself as the “new messiah.” They didn’t like having that sort of religious fervor brought into a presidential campaign that they did not own.
    The Obama campaign never denied the religious ecstasy angle. Many felt Obama’s public speeches were in appropriately messianic. He used “hope” as a totem of faith. The last week of the campaign he repeatedly said, “we have righteous wind at our back” — and looking back through the lens of Buyology — I can’t help but wonder if we bought a cynical religious packaging instead of a hardcore intellectual willing to fix difficult things instead of just mooning over them.

  3. The reports are saying now that soon to be President Obama will very likely use his executive power to overturn a handful of the things that President Bush put into effect during his eight years to immediately start the important changes that we need – such as allowing California to regulate emissions, and blocking unnecessary drilling; sounds pretty intellectual and hardcore to me! 🙂

  4. Let’s hope so, Gordon! I heard the “short list” was over 200 things that Bush tried to make “law” by using executive orders and signing statements. Bush is trying to create some sort of positive legacy now and is creating even more “things” that Obama will have to undo in a few months.

  5. David,
    I don’t hold Obama’s message of hope against him. It was pretty much all he was living on himself for most of his campaign.
    But I agree the “righteous wind” talk is reminiscent of Bush’s ugly war-mongering days.

  6. I, too, loved the Hope message, Dananjay and I also loved it when, last February, he said the people we were waiting for were finally here: Us.
    I do think he loves to tweak the Republicans. He stole Reagan from them in that smart interview with the local newspaper that was broadcast around the world, and he also happily took God and the “righteous wind” for his side. It’s good in the end it provided, I guess, but it still rubs me as being cynical.

  7. Hi David,
    I understand your skepticism but the brands you mentioned – their success was not a fluke.
    I understand it was a very calculative and clever marketing but it touched the right chrod. The consumer can’t be fooled for long.
    If I were a customer, I would buy a Ford over a Chevy because Chevy couldn’t come up with one Lee Iacocca in their lifetime.
    Obama’s packaging was superb, I know a good packaging doesn’t give you a guarantee of a good product but somehow I think Obama magic is not a coincidence. It’s substancial.
    I still remember the relaunching ad of Coke in India, I was a kid back then.
    The stunningly fascinating tune of “share my dream” couldn’t be missed…
    Well we know “soda” is not good for health; we have two choices – enjoy the ad, or go buy it…

  8. Katha —
    Yes, the point of the Buyology book is that you cannot deny your hardwired cravings — and so advertising cannot, and will not, work on you unless you are predisposed to want to buy something — and the most successful brands somehow know how to connect in with those genetic yearnings and wants and that’s what Obama did. He sensed an aimless drifting in America and built an entire campaign around the fuzzy ideas of hope and change and won the world. It’s a little scary how little he had to say to the masses other than offering hope and change because everyone has a different viewpoint and definition of those terms.

  9. Yes, David, that was a smart turn of phrase that happily also meant something.
    I believe you’re right, he may have co-opted “God” into his narrative for a purpose. He probably figured, if the other side uses “God” to spread hate then it’s alright for him to use “God” for something else for a change.
    I don’t remember reading about the the Reagan incident.

  10. Dananjay —
    I agree Obama taking God and Jesus Christ on his side was important for him in order to deter the “Muslim” slurs the right was perpetuating against him and it helped quiet down the fury over the Rev. Wright debacle. The Clintons and the Republicans could not believe the nation wasn’t in an uproar over the Rev. Wright stuff…
    Here’s Obama on Reagan:
    http://www.realclearpolitics.com/video_log/2008/01/what_obama_likes_about_reagan.html
    Purely calculated. Pure genius. He knew precisely what he was doing and he outraged the hard left to play to the right and that was his intention.

  11. Yes David, I understand he has given a shape to those fuzzy ideas but I think he has some solid foundation to go forward.
    Hope is for the best and change is for good – I think that’s what he tried to convey. He can’t go far only with fuzzy ideas though…

  12. Hi Dananjay —
    That Obama interview where he professes his love for Regan was a game-changer, I think. It showed his hand that he’s incredibly smart and prudent. He was ringing for those lost “Reagan Democrats” that went Red. He brought them back into the Blue in Ohio and Pennsylvania and Indiana and North Carolina.
    I don’t know that there even were Obama Waffles, Dananjay. I think it was all just a nasty parody website:
    http://relationshaping.com/2008/09/obama-waffles-culture-wars.html

  13. I agree, Katha, that everything Obama said that was fuzzy was fully backed up by hard facts. What concerns me, though, is how few people cared about those facts. They didn’t want them. They only wanted the generic, self-labeling, feel-good-warmth-of-the-fuzzy-hope.

  14. One word as to why we all bought into Barack Obama – HOPE.
    There is also the fact that his is so diametrically opposed to his predecessor that it was an anti establishment vote (one of the reasons that the Clinton campaign failed).
    I think many in the USA fancy a clean sheet – as do the rest of the world.