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The Darwinian world of brand marketing

An author’s “triggers to persuasion and captivation” read more like the seven deadly sins.
Denyse O'Leary | 1 October 2010
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Sally HogsheadWe all know what evolutionary psychology (EP) has meant for sociology, psychology, and religious anthropology: a serious effort to explain human behaviour in terms of ape behaviour or “hardwired” Stone Age genes. For example, you get your selfish genes from your mother, so it’s her fault if you don’t visit her...

The EP academics, however pernicious their ideas, are doubtless just trying to understand. But what happens when their theories hit the business world? Fascinate: Your 7 Triggers to Persuasion and Captivation by Sally Hogshead (Harper Business, 2010) gives us a glimpse of the Darwinian universe, as opposed to the Judeo-Christian one.

Hogshead is a brand marketing specialist. She helps executives persuade us to pay more for a brand than for a reliable service. Her special theory, gathered from research studies of apes and brain scans, is that the best strategy is “fascinating” people, and she has identified seven triggers for the spells a perceptive marketer can cast on them: lust, mystique, alarm, prestige, power, vice, and trust.

This list vaguely echoes the seven deadly sins, except for the last. But caution! Here, trust is not an intuition about how the universe really works; it is manipulative. We are told, “trust doesn’t demand a moral absolute—only absolute consistency.” (p 175)

Hogshead begins by disposing of free will. The person we fascinate (manipulate) is our basic zombie, and we must discover and trigger the knobs that control it:

"We’re in control far less than we fancy ourselves to be, because our behavior is being pulled by seven unseen strings." (xxi).

In fact, free will doesn't come into it:

“Whatever you’re drawn to—from watching reruns of Family Guy to spending time with your family—you have the triggers to thank for it.” (17)

This sort of thing used to be called the occult, but Darwin’s crack troops soon ride to the rescue on behalf of “science”. Let’s start with a sense of humour. Darwinism explains all that:

"A sense of humour, like a smile, is fascinating for evolutionary reasons. (If you’re sick and starving, you’re probably not cracking jokes). Just as a peacock’s tail and a lion’s mane attract a mate by demonstrating a wealth of survival resources, so does humour impress a female." (28)

This kind of talk comes easy with a six- or seven-figure income. In reality, there is nothing remarkable about sick, starving or otherwise desperate people laughing at the difference between “is” and “ought” in our universe. That, by the way, is the traditional explanation for our sense of humour -- we laugh at the naked emperor whose "clothes" everyone is forced to praise. But that perennial explanation assumes that we have thinking minds and free will. By contrast, impressing a female is the only possible explanation for a Darwinian like Hogshead, given her commitment to merely material explanations.

In fairness, much of Fascinate is your standard convention power lunch pep talk. But its basic message, eked out with EP examples, is: “Fascinating people and companies win”, not reliable ones. If marketing executives are listening, grip your wallet tight.

How far does Hogshead take her message? Pretty far; here are some of her guides to success, randomly chosen:

* Parents should give a name to their offspring that Googles easily. (Forget naming the child after a Bible hero, and letting Google play games with its own name.)

* In defiance of growing legions of jobless and just-gettin’-bys, Fascinate markets financial snobbery shamelessly: “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.” (65) The trouble is, more than one type of trigger may be invoked if we trifle with people in real need …

*Still more news from the world of privilege: “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!)” (79)

Huh? Does this writer really not know that millions of her fellow Americans crave the goods of strip malls in vain? One is reminded of Samuel Johnson’s 18th-century rebuke to a wealthy woman disgusted by the food stalls frequented by the poor: “Come, come (says he gravely), let’s have no sneering at what is serious to so many: hundreds of your fellow creatures, dear Lady, turn another way, that they may not be tempted by the luxuries of Porridge-Island…” Yes, many poor Americans are obese, but not from high end food.

*In keeping with her denial of free will, Hogshead must fight rationality in her customer, which she does by invoking lust: “Lust conquers the rational evaluation process, freeing us to stop thinking and start feeling.” (73) “Lust turns ‘I really shouldn’t’ into ‘I really shouldn’t, but I will anyway.’” It’s like the fall of Adam and Eve, except promoted and celebrated. And how is that working out for society? (83)

*Sometimes, fascination descends into purely irrational values: “The New York Times and CNN have both described a growing fascination with zip codes. Realtors report that increasingly, new residents ‘shop’ for these numeric brands more fervently than the house itself.” So, how is that housing bubble going? (128–29) Hogshead admits almost as an afterthought that a debt-free roof in a recession may be best. But then we get down n’ dirty by promoting vice. Yes, vice: “A little vice goes along way, so customize your message by using it in combination with other triggers.” (151)

Hey, wait a minute! America and the other common law democracies were built up by clear thought, hard work, saving, and vice avoidance. Thus, Walmart can proudly sell luxury chocolates to the poor; indeed, that’s our basic idea. Save the rest for Marie Antoinette.

Fascinate conveys the distinct sense, without coming right out and saying it, that there is no underlying spiritual reality in the universe. Perhaps brand managers lap up the author's message in desperation, to stay one step ahead of losing their jobs in a tanking US and European economy that is attracting the attention of China.

As the year winds down, this will surely count as one of the odder business books, so far is it outside the mainstream of customers’ perceived and actual needs. And yet, as I write, it is in the top 5000 at Amazon. Like I said, hang onto your wallets.

Denyse O’Leary is co-author of The Spiritual Brain: A neuroscientist’s case for the existence of the soul.

This article is published by Denyse O'Leary and MercatorNet.com under a Creative Commons licence. You may republish it or translate it free of charge with attribution for non-commercial purposes following these guidelines. If you teach at a university we ask that your department make a donation. Commercial media must contact us for permission and fees. Some articles on this site are published under different terms.

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