The book talks about Martin’s experience as a brand consultant where he tries to expose the subtleties of marketing used by corporations to create or increase demand for their products. Some techniques mentioned in the book are morally questionable. Overall, it’s a great read into at the intersection of psychology and business. I would recommend reading this in conjunction with “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion“.


Marketing to the kids (including the unborn)

Childhood memories and associations are more resilient to traumas than the ones formed later in life. A small hint of fragrance,  surroundings, or familiar objects can bring them back. But it extends beyond childhood. A fetus can hear not only the maternal sound but also the sounds coming from the outside and studies have confirmed that newborns react positively to the music tastes of their mother. The one-off unscientific real-world marketing attempts have confirmed that this is not just limited to sound but extends to smells and the taste of food as well. Kopiko candy brand gave out free candies in maternity wards and in just four years of existence became the third-largest candy brand in the Philippines. Children who grow up recognizing brand logos not only prefer them later in life but also believe that the brand corresponds to personal qualities. Marketers love targeting kids entering precocious puberty (“early puberty”) since it allows them to form early preferences for things like razors, deodorants, and makeup.

  • Organizations like Girls Intelligence Agency help brands convert young girls with free cosmetics and party invites to convert them into brand ambassadors.
  • Gillette sends out free razors to boys on their birthdays (age varies according to state regulations). There is a 92% chance that a boy who has tried Gillette razor twice will use it for the rest of his life.
  • Kool sends out cigarettes for three months starting on the 18th birthday. If the boy or girl is not hooked in those three months, they are a lost cause. And if they are hooked, then they can milk them for life.

Marketing to kids not only sets their future preferences but also influences the preferences of the whole family. Many times parents would buy what the child is asking for just to calm him/her down. Marketers call this “pester power”.  The reverse “hand-me-down influence” happens when parents shape the preferences of the child. Overall, both are in play simultaneously.

A fetus develops taste for the sound, smell, and taste. The effects last into the adulthood.

Selling Fear

From flu epidemics like swine flu to hurricanes, marketers love capitalizing on fears of selling food that boosts immunity with zero scientific evidence to hand sanitizers where hand wash would suffice. Fear raises adrenaline which leads to the release of epinephrine, which produces a satisfying sensation, more so for adrenaline junkies. Fear of failure is higher than the promise of success. More men end up going to the gym to avoid a flabby body than to develop muscles. Fear is used to sell

  • Fear of failure is higher than the promise of success. More men end up going to the gym to avoid a flabby body than to develop muscles.
  • Fear is used to sell home security systems to single women and life insurance to men with families.
  • Mother of all fears is the fear of a first-time mother. Women are more prone to fear and guilt than men. First-time mothers are even more so. From selling tons of child safety equipment to food items that require a small finishing touch, first-time mothers are the biggest opportunity for marketers.
  • Pharma companies capitalize on the fear of social isolation due to being overweight, being bald, having sexual performance issues, having cancer, etc. Sometimes they terrorize with minor things like restless leg syndrome and even shyness. Among big pharma, twice as much money is spent on advertisement than actual R&D.
  • Fear of staleness – Whole Foods use chalked boards to display prices to evoke the feeling of freshness, toilet papers in hotel rooms are sealed to imply room cleaning, seafood sold on ice, a tomato-colored bottle of Heinz, and sweating cans of coke are all meant to disguise into believing that the food is fresh and free of preservatives.

Among big pharma, twice as much money is spend on advertisement than actual R&D.

Brand Addiction

Dopamine, the feel-good neurotransmitter, is behind our addictions from cigarettes to smartphones. The greater we use a dopamine-inducing substance the more tolerance we build up of it for generating dopamine, and the more we have to use it to generate the same amount of dopamine and feel better about ourselves.

Our lives are divided into two states, the routine state (the weekdays), and the dream state (the weekends). It’s during the dream state, we experience new brands and bring them back into our routine lives. For the craving to build up, some subtle clues are dropped in the environment, like the sound of the soda can popping up or addictive ingredients like MSG, corn syrup, caffeine, and sugar. Studies have shown again and again that addictive ingredients trigger the brain the same way narcotics do.  Games & Gamification cause severe addiction by providing a repetitive task with increasing levels of difficulty, causing a regular release of the “feel-good” dopamine.

Selling sex

Sex does sell. While men respond more to explicit imagery or sexual innuendos, women, on the other hand, respond more to ads with a romantic touch. Seeing a scantily dressed young person of the same sex puts us into the dream state of imagining ourselves as desirable as them.

The story of Axe body spray

Unilever surveyed 12, 000 single men and teenage boys, asking uncomfortable questions ranging from their fantasies to their pick-up strategies. They concluded that the ultimate male fantasy was not to be irresistible by a woman but by several women. They further accompanied several men to bars & nightclubs and segmented the males into six categories –

  1. Predator – a loser & mostly likely a liar looking for a drunk woman
  2. Natural talent – someone whom most women would desire. Due to positive self-delusion, most men thought they are a natural talent
  3. Marriage material
  4. Friend – the ones who get friend zoned
  5. Insecure Novice – looks creepy like a predator but pure at heart
  6. Enthusiastic Novice – looks eager

Unilever decides to target two groups, the insecure novice, and the enthusiastic novice.  They also decided to target natural talent mainly to provide a finishing touch to them. The boundary-pushing sexist ads campaign which showed an ax-sprayed man with several women worked wonders for Unilever, earning $71M in 2006 ($50M more than the nearest rival Tag). Eventually, as more and more dorks started to cover themselves with ads, the brand became the brand of losers and took a huge hit in sales. Unilever’s Euphoria was another success where the idea was to design a fragrance that gave women the feeling of imprisoned lust (euphemized as melancholic).

More examples

  • One car company looked for a particular animal name to design a car targeting middle-aged men. (ashishb’s note: The book does not mention the name but gives enough clues that it was Rolls-Royce Stallion), the car was themed by the smooth, black, and silky appearance of the animal.
  • Simpon’s strategy – where a term like “golden showers” or “12 inches of flavor” which is not overtly sexual but obvious to the wallet-carrying adult is used for producing humor suited both to the child and the adult.
  • In the US, the rise of single mothers, fearmongering among men, and new cosmetics marketed towards men to smooth out their rough edges while keeping them looking masculine have all contributed to the growth of the male grooming industry.

Peer pressure

  • Termites, bees, and birds appear to move in unison as if they are communicating with each other. In biology, these are called complex adaptive systems where simple individual actions result in a complex outcome. Humans to some extent behave the same way.
  • Humans flock behind more confident individuals. Even toddlers have been studied to play with toys similar to how they have seen other toddlers playing with them.
  • When people look at the photos of a party they attended, they first check out their photos, and then they check out the people surrounding them in those photos (to compare and to see their reactions towards them).
  • In 2009, Cepia staged Zhu Zhu Pet Hamster giveaways at Zoos, hospitals, and MLB games. Then they staged several influential parties for mommy bloggers, organized radio shows, and cut production to create artificial scarcity. This created a demand big enough that Cepia made millions by selling this toy.
  • Viral phenomena like the Smirnoff Icing game (with no role from Smirnoff) or small clips uploaded by Viacom on YouTube to market its shows, if successful, can result in a huge windfall for marketers.
  • Bestsellers list recommended music, and all such curation systems help us guide what to purchase. We love buying what is already popular since it implies implicit social approval of our taste.
  • In a survey of 100, 000 teenagers in 30 countries, roughly 50% said that they won’t buy an item of clothing without visible branding on it.
  • Using counterfeit products, not only, fails to improve our self-image but undermines our internal sense of authenticity.
  • Reverse peer pressure develops when older people start using the product, in that case, younger ones try to dissociate themselves from it. A product that is going to be explicitly disapproved by the older generation has a high chance of success with younger ones.
  • Most Russians drink a large amount of Vodka quickly (after Nostrovia – Russian cheers). Neither they like the taste, nor they like binge drinking but peer pressure keeps this ritual alive. The younger generation hates it, therefore, a new brand of Vodka capitalized on that by having a better taste and a slow drinking ritual decided to take on the Russian market ( the author did not reveal the brand name).

We love buying what is already popular since it implies an implicit social approval of our taste.


First experiences might not always be better but they always seem better in hindsight. We always remember beautiful memories and associations of the past. Many memories, especially of childhood and teenage are usually of fewer responsibilities and youthfulness and hence, are more beautiful. We are attracted to small things which remind us of that nostalgic past. When we buy a product from the past, we are not just buying the product but a nostalgic trip to our childhood. We know that time is fleeting and just the mention of the word “time” in an advertisement makes it more likely for us to act.

Nostalgia demands authenticity and nothing authentic can be perfect. From pre-washed T-shirts to (apparently) randomly broken chocolate pieces, and (machine-generated) chalk signs a Whole Foods, all these are attempts to fake authenticity with imperfection. Perfection, like a perfect burger, makes us conscious of mass-produced factory goods.

When we buy a product from the past, we are not just buying the product but a nostalgic trip to our childhood.

When Evian Water, a French bottled water company, entered China, their first attempt to sell bottled water flopped since they chose a well that tasted more like modern-day urban China than rural farmland, most of China was a few decades ago, after realizing this, they found new wells with grassy moldy taste and this time it succeeded.

Celebrity Endorsements

  • In modern democracies, royal families are effectively celebrities. Things like royal marriages and royal births boost their popularity. They have to project an aura of being special but at the same time not too aloof from the commoner.
  • While the childhood dream of most boys is powerful superheroes and princesses for girls, the future self everyone is the same: rich, attractive, and famous. And that’s what attracts us to celebrities, we envy what they have.
  • South Beach Diet published in 2003 was relatively unknown until the “celebrity” Clintons endorsed it. And it wasn’t just 15 Minutes of Fame, the book still commands strong sales in the US.
  • Vitaminwater gave shares to celebrities hoping to get endorsements in return which they indeed got.
  • Companies come up with preferred, exclusive, and club offerings all the time, marketing them as exclusive, even though, anyone who is willing to pay an exorbitant fee can get in.
  • Cosmetic companies put doctors on their boards since the recommendation from experts (even where there is a perceived bias) is pure gold.
  • Celebrities lend their names to products or publicize products in return for either ownership stake or royalty based on goods sold. Despite this bias being visible, it still works since consumers do want to associate themselves with Elizabeth Taylor by buying perfume with her name on it. And this is not just limited to useful goods, Marilyn Monroe’s empty prescription bottles were sold for $18,750. The key is celebrity association and not usefulness.
  • Just like “peer pressure”, celebrity endorsement is a way for us to let someone else decide for us.

Marketing Health – physical, mental, and environmental

  • Goji berry is found in China and Malaysia but is associated with the Himalayas and Buddhism to imply purity, authenticity, and Eastern enlightenment. Most of Freelife’s Goji berry juice is produced in Arizona. Marketers exploit the mental shortcut which looks at the bottle and associating it with Eastern enlightenment. Acai Berry uses “Brazilian rainforest” for the same effect.
  • Pomegranate marketing overemphasizes the absolute benefits of pomegranate without admitting that it is not much better than most other fruits and vegetables.
  • In the US, “organic” is a regulated term but “natural” is unregulated. And marketers love adding the word natural whenever they think it can give them a boost.
  • “multigrain” just means more than one grain and it might or might not be healthy.
  • “energy drink” is a positive spin on a drink with more calories.
  • “contains real fruit” does not mean much, technically, any little amount of real food in a drink would qualify for it to claim that it contains real fruit.
  • “Zero trans fat” usually implies the presence of saturated fat, both being equally bad for the heart.
  • Cosmetics and clothing can make even more outrageous claims due to little regulation. VitaSea -shirts, claimed to be made from Seaweed, contained no seaweed.
  • Green, recycled, and socially responsible goods are usually more expensive, even when they don’t have to be. Companies love creating this aura of it costs more to be socially responsible and environmentally friendly while milking extra money.
  •  Buddhism, yoga, new age spirituality, and halal labels are all used for selling goods under the pretext of purity.

Data Mining (consumer insights)

  • Before a hurricane, Walmart analyzed data from a past hurricane to conclude that the top-selling item was not flashlights but beer and Strawberry Pop-Tarts.
  • Credit card purchase monitoring, which is further sold to third parties is the most common way to find customer behaviors. This data is used for further sending targeted emails.
  • Homeowners spend ~$12, 000 in the first six months of a move and that’s why property deeds are a major source of data for the companies.
  • Loyalty cards while giving a discount to consumers allow the stores to profile the buyer even more closely.
  • When Mark & Spencer in the UK spotted in the sales data that a lot of Indian dishes and food is being purchased there, they realized that a lot of Indians are coming there to shop. They started both currency exchange and travel right inside the store to make money off of the trend.
  • Shoppers who go counterclockwise spend twice as much as those who go clockwise. A store decided to put an entry to the right to ensure counterclockwise motions.
  • Given the amount of information that is being tracked about us, both online and offline, it is safe to say that we are living in a post-private world.