Martin Lindstrom got into the advertising business early on.
"I started up my own ad agency when I was 12 years old," he tells Guy Raz, host of weekend on All Things Considered. "I was a huge fan of Lego, so I built up my own Legoland in the backyard of my mom and dad's garden."
No one showed up on the first day, but Lindstrom persuaded a local ad agency to sponsor him. On the third day, he had 131 visitors.
The only problem? "Visitor number 130 and visitor 131 were the lawyers from Lego suing me."
Since then, Lindstrom has learned a few things about advertising and marketing. He's advised major corporations such as Disney and Proctor & Gamble, and recently wrote a book called Brandwashed, which chronicles the many ways corporations get us to consume their products.
Get 'Em While They're Young
Lindstrom says companies get their hooks into us earlier than we may have thought; he says the average American 3-year-old can recognize 100 brands. That's not all.
"We even are affected by brand messages before we are born, while we are in the womb," he says.
He pointed to a recent British study that looked at pregnant women who watched a particular television show. The results showed that babies born to those women who watched the show had a stronger preference for the program than those children whose mothers did not watch the show while pregnant.
Whole Foods Marketing
Supermarket chain Whole Foods is known for its natural and organic products, and that's the image it is great at selling, Lindstrom says.
In Brandwashed, he describes how the company makes its produce more attractive by carefully arranging its stores and coming up with specific display techqniques. For example, he points out that when you enter many Whole Foods stores, employees are cutting fresh flowers.
"It is not a coincidence," he says. "What they are doing is to tell you on an unconscious level that, in fact, everything is fresh in this store."
If you pay attention as you walk into the produce department, Lindstrom says you will notice the boxes holding the apples and bananas seem to have been delivered by something called "Patty's Farm."
"The story is probably very different," Lindstrom says. " In the backside of the store, they're offloading all those bananas from huge plastic containers, most likely flown in the day before, into those individual-looking cardboard boxes, which by the way is not 'Patty's Farm.'
"It's actually been designed by a graphic design company in New York City to make us feel this is nostalgia at its peak."
Keeping Up With The Morgensons
In writing his book, Lindstrom carried out his own experiment. He hired a family — called the Morgensons — from Laguna Beach, Calif., and filmed them as they had friends over from the neighborhood and talked about 10 specific brands they were using. Their mission was to frequently mention these brands without letting their guests know of their secret motive.
Lindstrom was skeptical at first, but then realized that word of mouth is extremely powerful.
"This simple family, they within three months were able spread the word of mouth to 15,000 people across California," he says.
In fact, it was so successful that "nine out of 10 [exposed to the family] definitely bought at least one out of the 10 brands."
Even after Gina Morgenson, the mother, mentioned the brand Kiss My Face for the 10th time, people didn't realize it was part of a setup. Lindstrom says that's because we spend so much of our time talking about brands that it didn't seem unusual.
"You and I are talking about brands 25 percent of our entire time. ... It has become such a big part of our lives, I would almost claim we would have nothing to say to each other if we can't talk about brands," he says.
How To Cope
Lindstrom says you don't have to switch off the television, iPhone and computer to handle the constant onslaught of brandwashing. Instead, he says, the first thing you should do is educate your children.
"They think brands are some physical stuff, but the reality is it's in our minds," he says. "And if you start to educate about that at a very young age, like 5 or 6 years old, they're prepared before going to school, so thay're not a victim to this peer pressure we're seeing happening so much right now."
Also, Lindstrom says when you go out shopping, don't grab a shopping cart.
"We know today that if I'm doubling the size of your shopping cart, you actually are buying up to 40 percent more," he says. "Another thing you should do is to always pay with cash because you have a physical relationship with money."
But at the end of the day, Lindstrom says it is most important that we wake up to the fact that companies are using tricks to persuade us to buy, and that isn't going to change anytime soon.
GUY RAZ, HOST:
Remember this commercial from back in the 1980s?
(SOUNDBITE OF COMMERCIAL)
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) A Milky Way a day helps you work, rest and play.
RAZ: Work, rest and play - hmm. Well, Martin Lindstrom has worked in advertising for much of his life, helping corporations come up with new and - yes - deceptive ways for them to help sell you products. And he's written a kind of tell-all about how the industry works. The book is called "Brandwashed: Tricks Companies Use to Manipulate Our Minds and Persuade Us to Buy." And according to Lindstrom, the best marketers know that the average American 3-year-old can recognize at least a hundred brands. But that's not all.
MARTIN LINDSTROM: We even are affected by brand messages before we're born, while we're still in the womb.
RAZ: How is that possible?
LINDSTROM: Well, a recent research study conducted in the U.K. shows that pregnant women, while they're watching a certain TV show, in fact were affecting the unborn babies. And as they were born - later on, they had a strong preference for this show where in comparison to the group which were not watching this show while the mother was pregnant, that had no effect whatsoever.
RAZ: You write that - that the tiniest things also can make a difference in our perception of a brand, even the sound of the packaging.
LINDSTROM: Yeah. That's right. We know, for example, today, that if you open a cola, the sound generated in fact is so powerful that it generates, at an unconscious level, craving. And that craving, actually, is so important because most people are not watching TV commercials anymore. They're listening to the commercials while they're standing in the kitchen or whatever they're doing.
(SOUNDBITE OF ICE CUBES IN GLASS)
LINDSTROM: Because it is nonconscious, it actually affects our craving instinct.
(SOUNDBITE OF DRINK POURING)
LINDSTROM: So what we noticed in this research was that a lot of brands have forgotten to put in the craving sound and now, are putting it in. And not just the sound of a cola being opened or ice cubes in a glass but also the sound of a sizzling steak, for example, is so hardwired into our behavior that at the end of the day we simply can't stand back. We actually have to be part of that product.
RAZ: You recently wrote an article - and it's also in the book - about Whole Foods. And you talk about how they make their produce more attractive.
LINDSTROM: Yes. So as you enter the Whole Foods store, you will notice in many of their stores, they are cutting fresh flowers.
RAZ: Oh, right. That's right.
LINDSTROM: And it's not a coincidence. First of all, most likely, they're not earning money on it, but what they are doing is to tell you at a nonconscious level that in fact, everything is fresh in the store. Just take the opposite. Imagine you walk into the store and it had cans of tuna with the expiration dates of two years. You will immediately have the sense of the entire store - would be two-year-plus old. And as you will notice in Whole Foods in particular, they're playing a lot on the farmer's feel.
LINDSTROM: You feel things - comes from the farmer's market.
LINDSTROM: Now, if you - very carefully, you look at those boxes which are holding the apples and the bananas. And yes, they're coming from something called Patty's Farm, making us believe that Patty was just backing up her truck this morning and offloading all her bananas from the farm. Well, the story is probably very different. Those individual cardboard boxes is actually one big, gigantic dummy with plastic inside, which are holding the bananas. And yes, in the backside of the store, they're offloading all those bananas from huge plastic containers, most likely flown in the day before, into those individual-looking cardboard boxes - which by the way, is not Patty's Farm. It's actually been designed by a graphic design company in New York City to make us feel this is nostalgia at its peak.
RAZ: I'm speaking with Martin Lindstrom. He is the author of a new book, called "Brandwashed." Martin, you actually carried out your own experiment. You hired a family to live in Laguna Beach, in Southern California. You filmed them secretly, and you have them basically invite friends over from the neighborhood. And they would just casually talk about things, brands of things that they're using - like a blender or a type of car. Tell me about this experiment.
LINDSTROM: So what we did then was, non-scripted, basically to ask this family to have one mission: to tell the world about 10 different brands we carefully had selected, but to make sure no one would discover why they were talking about those brands - so the hidden intent. I have to admit, I was fairly skeptical in the beginning - I thought, mm, I wonder what we'll get out of this - but was blown away already the first week when I realized that the word of mouth is so much more powerful. And the reason why I had that sense was because I had actually tried, almost a year before, exactly that phenomenon on my own body.
I was standing at a gas station in Australia, in Sydney, and this man comes up to me as I'm filling up my car and saying: Hey, mate. Would you like to try this type of gas? And I said, why? He said, well, I have the same car as you have, and it just works so much better. I would try that if I was you. And I was not listening so much to it, but what I realized was that two weeks later, I actually was using that brand he was recommending. And I heard exactly that same voice three months later. It was at another gas station, and that man was now not talking to me but to another person next to him, saying exactly the same phrase: I have the same car as you, and you should use this.
And I realized this was a setup, and he was employed by this oil company in order to promote this particular brand. And I realized, hey, if I can fall for this - working in the industry of marketing and branding - then everyone would be falling for this. So coming back to the experiment, this simple family, they within three months were able to spread - through word of mouth - to 15,000 people across California.
RAZ: Incredible. The family are the Morgensons. And I just want to play a clip of tape. This is Gina Morgenson, the mother, talking about Kiss My Face lotion to some friends that are just casually visiting. And she brings this up. Let's take a listen.
GINA MORGENSON: I use - you know that Kiss My Face stuff I was telling you guys about? All that Peace Soap, and all that great soap? Well...
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Yeah.
MORGENSON: ...I use all that stuff for my face now.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: They have a whole facial line, too?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: I didn't know that.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Well, I thought it was just kind of basic.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Yeah.
MORGENSON: The smells are like you've been in a spa.
RAZ: So here's the thing. That is so creepy. And I think it's creepy because we have all been in that situation. But this was being done deliberately. How effective was it?
LINDSTROM: Well, it was so effective that we know that every person which were affected by or listened into this conversation, they bought a brand. In fact, we know that nine out of 10 definitely bought at least one out of the 10 brands.
LINDSTROM: It just gave me an indication, though, of how powerful this was. And I was pretty convinced that after one month people will start to realize, hey, this is a setup.
RAZ: Yeah. I mean, didn't...
LINDSTROM: No one...
RAZ: Weren't people in the neighborhood saying, this is a little weird. This family keeps talking about all these brands every time we go to their house.
LINDSTROM: No. Do you know why? Because you and I are talking about brands 25 percent of our entire time. And not only that, when we are sitting at the dinner table, we are talking about brands 51 percent of the time. So it's become such a big part of our lives that I would almost claim we have nothing to say to each other if we can't talk about brands.
RAZ: How do we protect ourselves? Do we - is there any hope?
LINDSTROM: Well, besides you switching off the television, the computer and the iPhone, and going under your duvet and to sleeping for the rest of your life, there is a couple of other pieces of advice - which probably is more useful. Point number one, you need to educate your children at home. They do not know what brands are, really. They think brands is some physical stuff. But the reality is, it's in our mind. And if you start to educate them about that at a very young age, like 5 or 6 years old, they're prepared before they're going to school. So they're not a victim to this peer pressure we're seeing happening so much right now.
Secondly, when you're going out shopping, there are some very simple tricks you can use. One of them is never to grab a shopping cart. Why? Well, because we know today that if I'm doubling the size of your shopping cart, you actually are buying up to 40 percent more. Another thing you should do is to always pay cash because then we have a physical relationship with money. Make sure you're never hungry. It's pretty natural. But by the way, you're also buying more clothes and more CDs and whatever if you're hungry.
So there's a lot of concrete advice. But I think at the end of the day, what you have to be aware of is that this is our life, and we should just not be fooled that it's not there. So that's the reason why I'm writing "Brandwashed," because I think people need a wake-up call.
RAZ: That's Martin Lindstrom. He's the author of the new book "Brandwashed: Tricks Companies Use to Manipulate Our Minds and Persuade Us to Buy." Martin Lindstrom, thank you so much.
LINDSTROM: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.