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COLUMN: Deprogram with Denyse O'Leary

Fit for a Zombie

Evolutionary Brand Marketing for Your Survival

by Denyse O'Leary

Wouldn't modern life be less complicated if we could all just morph into brands, in a world so largely branded anyway? Urban environments confront us with a landscape our forebears never knew: logos appear on almost everything we see. The supermarket sells us its meticulously designed logo along with the sack of carefully branded potatoes. Not two generations ago, people grew their own potatoes. The potato had no logo, and charged nothing for its bounty.

Curiously, the classic 1972 pop protest song, "Signs, Signs, Everywhere a Sign" (written by a Canadian dismayed by the Route 66 sign assault) tells only part of the story. The lyrically condemned signs pointed to "rules against. . . ." But what about the "positive rules" created by sophisticated logos that point the way to higher selves and better lives, usually by spending money that is increasingly hard to earn? Do these rules not govern us more often than the older, prohibitive ones?

Darwinian Sales Triggers

As Darwinism captures ever more popular attention, its devout believers have focused on the positive signs, and birthed the science of evolutionary brand marketing. Hence, Fascinate: Your 7 Triggers to Persuasion and Captivation by Sally Hogshead (Harper Business, 2010).

Hogshead is a brand marketing specialist; she helps executives persuade us to pay more for their brands. She has even formulated a theory, developed from the study of apes and neuroscience: to sell is to cast a spell, and the best strategy for casting a spell is to "fascinate" people. She has identified seven Darwinian triggers for successful sales spells.

These triggers are not the fundamental reasons why we buy things, of course. We buy shoes to protect our feet, but brand marketers get some people to pay $800 a pair for what is otherwise a market-price commodity. And Hogshead offers some revealing insights into the clog-eat-clog world of weaving lucrative illusions around a shoe brand.

She begins by disposing of free will. The person to be fascinated (manipulated) into buying something is a "zombie," and the marketers must discover and trigger the knobs that control it. Yes, yes, we used to call this sort of thing the occult, but Darwin's crack troops rode swiftly to the rescue, rebranding it as "science."

Hogshead must fight nascent rationality in her customer, which she does by invoking lust: "Lust conquers the rational evaluation process, freeing us to stop thinking and start feeling." But then we get down 'n' dirty into promoting vice. Yes, vice: "A little vice goes a long way, so customize your message by using it in combination with other triggers."

Faux Profundity

In fairness, much of Fascinate is your conventional power-lunch pep talk. But its basic message, eked out with faux profundities from evolutionary psychology, is: We must do whatever it takes to fascinate people, for fun and profit.

For example, our children's names should Google easily. Well, sure. Why name a child after a biblical hero or a grandfather when his name could win him 1,000 Facebook friends instead? Honestly, what's more important?

Purely irrational values are big winners too. "The New York Times and CNN have both described a growing fascination with zip codes," Hogshead writes. "Realtors report that increasingly, new residents 'shop' for these numeric brands more ­fervently than the house itself." Yes, and how is that housing bubble going? Hogshead admits—almost as an afterthought—that a debt-free, dry roof may be best in a recession.

She also markets financial snobbery fearlessly: "In our research, people were willing to pay 50 percent more for a pair of intensely fascinating sunglasses, such as those made by Chanel. . . . Think about charging 50% more for your product by invoking a trigger." Trouble is, history shows that, if by chance we are trifling with truly needy people, the trigger we invoke doesn't sell; it kills.

An Un-Darwinian Luxury

The strength of Hogshead's Darwinian business model lies in creating scarcity:

Not so long ago, the height of epicurean indulgence was a gold box filled with Godiva chocolates. . . . Then, in an effort to expand, in 1999 Godiva made a fateful decision to distribute in mass retailers such as Barnes & Noble. The chocolates, which for the first time now included preservatives, were no longer a treat to be craved and desired. Now you could buy the gold box in strip malls. (Strip malls!)

Truly shocking. Surely, no one worthy of a copy of Salvo, let alone a mere box of Godiva, has ever visited a strip mall.

Hey, wait a minute! American business was built on the idea that Wal-Mart can proudly sell luxury chocolates to the poor. Because, back when it all got started, Marie Antoinette was already getting hers. . . .

It is no small irony that an evolutionary psychology model for business breezily dismisses long-term survival values in favor of puff and fluff, and during a serious recession, no less. One suspects that most of evolutionary psychology's bedrock fans are securely salaried enough to afford the ultimate, and thoroughly un-Darwinian, luxury—believing harmful nonsense with little risk. 

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