Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Pushing Our "Buying Button"

I've been in the graphic design and marketing game for 25 years. It is my job to compose text and images in an arrangement that will coax the onlooker into buying the product or service communicated by that composition. I  like to think that I practice these techniques within reasonable limits.

I have learned about the psychology of color - selecting the appropriate colors to best convey a certain emotion or feeling. I've learned the decades-old maxim "You don't sell the steak, you sell the sizzle."

This can be illustrated with any beer commercial, which usually portrays good-looking, energetic 20-somethings surrounded by friends at some festive gathering. The implied message doesn't focus on the quality or taste of the beer, but rather tells you "If you drink our beer, you will have lots of friends, go to lots of parties, and be insanely happy!"

Marketing gurus don't sell a mere product - they promise you an entire lifestyle upgrade if you buy their product.

The truth is, if you over-embrace a product like beer, you're more likely to find yourself perched on a barstool in some dank pub, your gut recklessly spilling over your beltline, staring at your own bloodshot eyes staring back at you from the mirror behind the bar. Fortunately, most people have learned to see past this ruse and have become sophisticated enough to avoid this kind of trap.

The marketing experts know this, and are working diligently to build bigger, better consumer traps.

This brings me to some disturbing trends modern technology, namely modern medicine. And as we know, technology can be used (to put it in simplistic, Bushoid terms), for good or evil. The same military/industrial complex that brought us the internet also brought us the cluster bomb.

That's not supposed to be the case with the practice of medicine. Any of you who have attended medical school are familiar with the Hippocratic Oath, in which physicians promise that they will use their medical skills ethically and "never to harm anyone".

There are many medical professionals, however, who choose to ignore this solemn oath, and instead exploit modern medical technology for nefarious purposes.  Do you know that doctors have been hired to practice their art in torture chambers to help torturers know the exact moment their victims are at the brink of death so they can pause for a bit, allow the victim to partially revive and so prolong the torture? Do you know that CIA psychologists are often present during torture episodes to help torturers cause their victims so much psychological anguish that they'll relinquish the information the torturers seek?

These are, of course, extreme situations that will hopefully never happen to you or me. But if, like me, you are trying to wean yourself from the impulse to go shopping and buy a bunch of crap you don't need, there is insidious medical research in the works designed to effectively short-circuit your resolve.

It's called Neuromarketing.

According to an article at Truthout.org written by the World Business Academy, Neuromarketing is based on the idea that "you have three brains: the new brain that thinks, the middle brain that feels and the old brain that decides". Neuromarketers are using techniques like brain scans to find the marketing visuals and messages that best stimulate the "old brain" (or as it is sometimes called, the "reptilian brain").

When this research is applied correctly, a well-crafted Neuromarketing message should override your sense of reason and make a product or service so irresistible to your reptilian brain that you will tell yourself, "Me got buy this thing now!"

You may think you've got the willpower and intelligence to resist such messages, but it's been proven that similar techniques like subliminal advertising are more effective than you realize. Currently, TV ads are designed to be effective even as we fast-forward past them on our DVRs. The ads contain potent graphics that our brains process even though they flash by in a split second.

Don't think for a minute that Neuromarketeers will limit their practice to goods and services. Now that the Extreme Court has opened the floodgates for wealthy corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money on political races, you can expect corporations to craft campaign ads that will convince your reptilian brain to tell you, "Me want vote for Palin! She cute. She clever. She wink at me!" (OK, maybe this scenario is a bit far-fetched, but then again...)

So what can we do? World Business Academy has a petition you can sign, but even better, the organization plans to list those corporations who pledge not to use Neuromarketing strategies.

Beyond that, the solution is obvious. Avoid advertising whenever possible. Watch less TV, read more books. If you feel the impulse to buy something, ask yourself if you really need it. If it's not an essential item like food, rent, utilities, etc., wait 48 hours. If the item is still that important to you after 48 hours, only then should you consider buying it.

There are lots of articles (like this one on eHow.com), that offer tips to help you curb impulse purchases. And, there are lots of helpful organizations in your own neighborhood that will help you improve your money management skills. Avoid the private companies featured in big advertisements - instead, look for the non-profit consumer counseling agencies. Most of these reputable agencies offer some or all of their services at no cost. If you're in Western North Carolina, contact OnTrack. They have helped me immeasurably in the past year.

The marketing mavens continue to stack the deck against us, but in our quest to transform ourselves from consumers to citizens, forewarned is forearmed. Find all the help you need to spend your hard-earned money responsibly and don't let the marketeers (literally) get into your head!

And remember my favorite mantra: STOP BUYING WHAT THEY'RE SELLING!

A follow-up: Watch the video about Neuromarketing and sign the petition against it!

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