This passage is excerpted from my book, “Brandwashed: Tricks Companies Use to Manipulate Our Minds and Persuade Us to Buy.”
In 1957 a journalist named Vance Packard wrote “The Hidden Persuaders,” a book that pulled back the curtain on all the psychological tricks and tactics companies and their marketers and advertisers were using to manipulate people’s minds and persuade them to buy. It was shocking. It was groundbreaking. It was controversial. And it’s nothing compared to what’s going on in the marketing and advertising worlds today.
Nearly six decades later, businesses, marketers, advertisers, and retailers have gotten far craftier, savvier, and more sinister. Today, thanks to all the sophisticated new tools and technologies they have at their disposal and all the new research in the fields of consumer behavior, cognitive psychology, and neuroscience, companies know more about what makes us tick than Vance Packard ever could have imagined. They scan our brains and uncover our deepest subconscious fears, dreams, vulnerabilities, and desires. They mine the digital footprints we leave behind each time we swipe a loyalty card at the drugstore, charge something with a credit card, or view a product online, and then they use that information to target us with offers tailored to our unique psychological profiles. They hijack information from our own computers, cell phones, and even Facebook profiles and run it through sophisticated algorithms to predict who we are and what we might buy.
They know more than they ever have before about what inspires us, scares us, soothes us, seduces us. What alleviates our guilt or makes us feel less alone, more connected to the scattered human tribe. What makes us feel more confident, more beloved, more secure, more nostalgic, more spiritually fulfilled. And they know far more about how to use all this information to obscure the truth, manipulate our minds, and persuade us to buy.
Why Fear Sells
Fear is an interesting, complex, and not altogether unpleasant emotion. Do you remember the delicious thrill you felt as a kid when you watched your first horror movie — whether it was “The Blair Witch Project” or “The Shining” or “The Exorcist”? Your pulse probably raced, your heart likely beat wildly in your chest, and you may have found yourself involuntarily holding your breath as you waited for that ax-wielding killer to jump out of the shadows. You were scared out of your mind, and you loved every minute of it. It’s not just horror movies and scary urban legends that deliver this delicious thrill. Ever wonder why Stephen King has sold more than five hundred million copies of his books over the years, or why on Publishers Weekly’s list of best-selling books in 2009, a staggering thirteen of the top fifteen fell under the category of thriller?
As the popular media gossip blog Gawker.com noted sarcastically, American readers love being scared — of everything from Freemasons to lawyers to murderers to aliens to lawyers to pirates to even our northern neighbor, Canada. And what do you think is behind the enormous popularity of scary TV shows like “Bones” or “CSI” or even the Discovery Channel’s “Shark Week”? I read once that a human being’s chances of being eaten by a shark are smaller than his chances of being hit by a coconut falling from a palm tree, but if you look at how many movies and TV shows feature shark attacks, you’d think otherwise.
Counterintuitive though it sounds, there’s a real biological basis behind our attraction to fear. Fear raises our adrenaline, creating that primal, instinctual fight-or-flight response. This in turn releases epinephrine, a hormone and neurotransmitter that produces, as many “adrenaline junkies” will attest, a deeply satisfying sensation. There’s a substantial overlap between those brain areas involved in processing fear and pleasure,” said Allan Kalueff, a neuroscientist at the University of Tampere in Finland. Adds Yerkes National Primate Research Center neuroscientist Kerry Ressler, the amygdala, our brain’s “fear center,” “gets just as activated by fear as it would in the real world, but because your cortex knows you’re not in danger, that spillover is rewarding and not frightening.”
By uniting us against a common enemy, fear also brings humans together. It has a perverse yet delicious binding quality. It’s for this reason that we love to spread fearful rumors, sometimes blowing them out of all proportion just to heighten the sense of danger. Nothing travels as quickly as a frightening rumor — think of those ubiquitous urban legends about highway murder gangs and escaped convicts. Says Michael Lewis, director of the Institute for the Study of Child Development at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Brunswick, New Jersey, “Fear has a certain contagious feature to it, so the fear in others can elicit fear in ourselves. It’s conditioning, like Pavlov and the salivating dog.”
According to Harjot Singh, the senior vice president and director of planning at the marketing communications firm Grey Canada, our brains are hardwired to fear potential threats. Professor Joseph LeDoux of the Center for the Neuroscience of Fear and Anxiety at New York University concurs, explaining that “we come into the world knowing how to be afraid, because our brains have evolved to deal with nature.”
What’s more, as anyone can attest who’s ever had the bejesus scared out of them by the sound of a branch scratching on a windowpane on a windy night, fear is far more potent than our facility for reason. Explains Newsweek, “The amygdala sprouts a profusion of connections to higher brain regions — neurons that carry one-way traffic from amygdala to neocortex. Few connections run from the cortex to the amygdala, however. That allows the amygdala to override the products of the logical, thoughtful cortex, but not vice versa.” Adds UCLA neurobiologist Michael Fanselow, fear is “far, far more powerful than reason … It evolved as a mechanism to protect us from life-threatening situations, and from an evolutionary standpoint there’s nothing more important than that.”
(Editor’s note: This passage is excerpted from the book, “Brandwashed: Tricks Companies Use to Manipulate Our Minds and Persuade Us to Buy” by Martin Lindstrom is from a past issue of Brain World magazine. If you enjoy this article, please consider a print or digital subscription!)