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Why Banning Junk Food Advertising May Help Companies Sell More

Regular readers of this blog may recall previous surprising and seemingly counterintuitive reports like the one that messages telling you to move more will only promote snacking, marking healthy “choices” on menus virtually guarantees that these will be the least popular items, and the even more astonishing findings that putting calories on menu boards may actually make you eat more (at home).

If you are wondering why all of these well-meant policies so regularly backfire, you may want to pick up (or borrow) marketing Guru Martin Lindstrom’s book called Buy-ology, or how everything we believe about why we buy is wrong.

The basic thesis is that we all use emotional parts of our brains (and not just the rational parts) when making decisions. Unfortunately, it seem that in the long run, the emotional parts always win hands down. Lindstom’s book backs what some marketers have perhaps always known with cutting edge findings from the latest in neuroscience research.

Based on some of his own studies using sophisticated functional MRI and steady-state topographic (SST) electroencephalographic studies on thousands of volunteers, Lindstrom helped turn simple time-old marketing techniques largely based on brand recognition and market research into a whole new field of neuromarketing.

To be fair, Lindstrom is himself not a neuroscientist, but did recruit the services of at least two renowned experts in the field: Gemma Calvert, Chair in Applied Neuroimaging and Director of the fMRI Centre at the Warwick Manufacturing Group at the University of Warwick and co-founder of Neurosense in Oxford, UK and Richard Silberstein, Chair in Cognitive Neuroscience and CEO of Neuro-Insight, a market research company based in Melbourne, Australia.

A fascinating (and quick) read, the book explains why putting “horror” pictures and health warnings on cigarette packages and even banning cigarette advertising actually promotes their sales (it was only the prohibition of smoking in public places, which was vehemently demanded by non-smokers in response to the discovery of the harms of “passive smoking” that finally made a noticeable dent in tobacco sales).

At least according to Lindstrom, the banning of tobacco advertising was the best thing that ever happened to the tobacco industry in terms of promoting “neuroscience-based” advertising, which helped push tobacco advertising almost entirely under the radar of our consciousness and thus now makes it virtually impossible to regulate while at the same time making it more enticing than ever.

Great for folks like LIndstrom, who can now jet around the globe and make gazillions (which I assume he makes) by helping companies make sure they can continue selling whatever they have to sell to customers who continue faithfully buying their stuff without any idea of why or what they are actually buying.

While I have personally always suspected much of what I read in the book, I did not know that there was actually that much neuroscience (rather than just market research and psychology) to back it up (I should have known!).

I guess while obesity researchers are using sophisticated brain imaging to study ingestive behaviour, marketers are using the very same sophisticated equipment (and I bet their gadgets are way fancier than ours!) to discover how to make folks consume even more.

In fact, after reading Lindstrom’s book, I would guess that the brain imaging research budget of major corporations now exceeds by an order of magnitude the total budget for brain imaging of all “medical” neuroscience brain imaging research facilities around the world – probably no surprise there.

Anyone wanting to learn more about this stuff (but is too cheap to buy the book) can simply visit Martin Lindstrom’s website for a fun and enlightening read.

Edmonton, Alberta