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The Brain Sell: When Science Meets Shopping, by David Lewis, Nicholas Brealey Publishing, RRP£14.99, 304 pages
Sales and marketing is something of a Doctor Who industry, constantly reinventing itself while remaining essentially the same. For instance, there is no older sales pitch than “new and improved”, and marketeers have been finding new and improved ways of saying exactly that for decades.
That’s just one reason to be suspicious of neuromarketing. If anyone knows the added value given by an association with brain sciences, however tenuous, it will surely be the marketing gurus. David Lewis is pre-eminent among these. A chartered psychologist known as “the father of neuromarketing”, he is chairman of Mindlab International, one of the first consultancies to specialise in the area.
The Brain Sell, his latest book, works very well as an up-to-the-minute primer on why people buy and how to manipulate them. Pretty much every trick is covered, from the use of smells and colours to subliminal priming, where an unconscious perception of a certain product makes you more likely to buy it when it is subsequently presented to you.
What is less clear is what neuroscience has contributed to this toolkit of dark arts. The brain sciences have gone some way to explaining why these techniques work, and are sometimes used for testing their effectiveness. But in most of Lewis’s examples, very little is added by the knowledge that it is, say, the amygdala that holds the key. For instance, it is well-known that the brands that work best are the ones with which customers feel some emotional bond. What Starbucks founder Howard Schultz calls “the romance of the coffee experience” and “the feeling of warmth and community” draws people to his cafés more than the so-so drinks. But he didn’t need to know about the role of the insula cortex in creating these emotions to realise that.
The clearest evidence that neuromarketing is not such a game changer is that all the key techniques used to package and sell the book itself predate any insights that the brain sciences may have brought. The author is presented as “Dr”, since we know that a title is a heuristic that potential readers will use to decide whether the book carries any authority. His photo is the standard smiling suited man, pictured in front of a bookcase, exuding both approachability and authority.
The cover’s pitch uses the classic “hurt and heal” sales technique that Lewis describes, in which “consumers experience pain before being offered a cure through the simple expedient of buying the product”. The hurt is in the threat of the book’s strapline: “How the new mind sciences and the persuasion industry are reading our thoughts, influencing our emotions and stimulating us to shop.” The heal, suggested on the back cover, is that this book explores what you can do to protect yourself. If even Lewis has to rely on the same old methods tried and tested by people who wouldn’t know a synapse from a neuron, then neuromarketing may indeed be new and improved, but not quite as much as we are led to believe.
Perhaps the most important point is that as these techniques become more widespread, so does awareness that they are being used. Ultimately, any company using them too much will be found out and lose consumer trust. That is the greatest safeguard against nefarious mind manipulation. Where John Lewis won trust by promising never to be knowingly undersold, companies may in future earn loyalty by promising customers they will never be unknowingly sold to.
Julian Baggini is the author of ‘The Ego Trick’ (Granta)