Thursday, October 22, 2009

Does Sex Sell?

Well, another library book is due soon, so it’s time for yet another book report! This time I’ll talk about Buy-ology: Truth and Lies About Why We Buy by Martin Lindstrom, “one of the world’s most respected marketing gurus.” With his spiked hair and his goofy smile, he doesn’t look much like Don Draper, but the man clearly has done his research. Plus he uses expressions like “at the end of the day” all the time, which reminds me nostalgically of Stanford MBA’s.

I picked up this book because I have a special fascination for the how the mind works. Add in my daily role as chief consumer for my family and my now-dwindling side hobby as a book marketer myself and this was an appealing and potentially relevant topic. Lindstrom is a global branding expert, and since branding is what a writer is supposed to do to herself and her work, I figured I might learn something useful. In that regard, I did. For example, here’s the list he uses to help his clients formulate a marketing plan:

What’s the secret of your product?

What makes it stand out?

Are there any stories or rituals or mysteries consumers associate with it?
If not, can you find some?

Can the product somehow break through the two-dimensional barrier of advertising by appealing to senses the company hasn’t yet thought of? Smell, touch, sound?

Is the advertising campaign edgy and funny and risk-taking, or is it as boring and forgettable as every other company’s?

This is not a bad set of questions to ask when you’re wondering how to “sell yourself.” But back to the book report.

Buy-ology was a fast and fairly light read, but I suspect I’ll remember more of this book than most (I find I usually take away one to three main ideas or anecdotes from a book for the long term). Lindstrom’s book is a departure from classic marketing in that it relies on the research of neurologists who scanned subjects' brains while they viewed certain images and TV commercials or listened to jingles. This “neuromarketing” is, according to the author, “the key to unlocking what I call our Buyology: the subconscious thoughts, feelings and desires that drive the purchasing decisions we make each and every day of our lives.” For those who question the ethics of mapping the blood flow to the consumer’s brain either through fMRI’s or a less-invasive bathing cap thingy, Lindstrom argues that we will empower ourselves by better understanding our irrational behavior. I agree. Knowledge is power after all!

Most of the rest of the book discusses specific experiments that shed light on what really engages consumers authentically versus merely attracts attention for the moment. A product needs the former to keep going strong over the years.

Here are a few tidbits that stood out for me:

Consumers preferred Pepsi in a blind tasting due to its sweeter taste, but when informed as to the brand names, they preferred Coke because of their emotional engagement with the brand and its history.

The same parts of the brain light up when we see “strong” brands like iPod, Guinness and Ferrari as do when we see religious symbols like crosses, rosaries, Mother Teresa and the Virgin Mary" (I assume this study was done on Catholics....)

Cigarette warning labels light up the craving part of a smoker’s brain, that is, the warning makes them want to smoke more!

When people see an image of a mini Cooper, the part of our brain that recognizes faces lights up, suggesting we see Minis as cute little people--possibly accounting for the popularity of that car.

The success of product placement depends on the way you use it. Bombarding viewers with 100 different brands yields nothing for the advertising dollar, but incorporating the brand into the narrative, as with Reese’s Pieces in E.T. or Coke in “American Idol,” is well worth the expense.

Engaging senses other than the visual makes for stronger associations, but I love this evidence to support the power of music: when classical music was piped over loudspeakers in the London Underground, robberies dropped by 33% and vandalism by 37%.

Thanks to little buggers in our brains called “mirror neurons,” when we watch someone do something our brains react as if we were actually performing these activities, seeing and doing are one in the same. Reading about it triggers the same areas as doing, too.

Which leads us to sex and erotica, naturally. You read about it, it's as if you’re doing it? Depends on the story for me... but of more interest to business types is the following "surprise." Actually, Lindstrom claims that sex on its own does not sell. In fact, it tends to distract viewers, especially men, from paying attention to the product. He does get a bit confusing here, because he also claims that we decide to purchase something based on how much social status it brings, because social status is linked with “reproductive success” (a.k.a. getting laid a lot). Again, without spelling it out, I think he is arguing that it’s how the sex is used that matters. Which makes sense, but I'm not sure most people I talk to about my erotica writing get that. They all seem to think I should be very, very rich if I'm any good. But I digress.

Apparently we need to be able to relate to the advertisement. Studies he cites show that women prefer a wholesome, pretty, more or less “ordinary” woman in an ad to a sexy vixen or gorgeous celebrity. (Makes sense to me, though he didn’t talk about men in this case or makeup ads.) The desire for authenticity is a strong factor in consumers, which suggests why reality TV shows and erotic memoirs are so popular. While we all like a little fantasy escape, “real” sex is somehow more compelling. At least it is for me. It’s all the more thrilling when I feel I’m getting a glimpse into an intimate scene that “really” happened—though we all know that any mediation adds fictionality. But that’s yet another discussion.

I found it interesting that a 2001 survey by Market Facts showed that 53% of people were (said they were?) more likely to buy a product if it showed images of “love” than if it showed images that alluded to sex (only 26%). Again, I’d like a little more definition of what he means by “sex,” but if it’s just body parts colliding, then I can surely understand why some relational context would be more appealing and easier to identify with. Naturally, I’m invested in this because I like to read and write about “real” sex within relationships, so hey, I liked what I read in Buy-ology, too.

Well, I’ve gone on long enough, but again I find myself wishing I could invite you all over for an in-the-flesh erotica writers’ book club. What is your sense of how you respond to advertising? Do you believe sex sells or maybe it's the erotic--sex married to the mind and emotions--that sells instead? Has Martin Lindstrom given you ideas on how to “brand” yourself in terms of hawking your books or your personal (not like in the Story of O--ouch!) So, have a glass of Cotes du Rhone and some baguette with a dab of fromage d'Affinois and weigh in with your opinions on biology and buyology!


Jeremy Edwards said...

Fascinating stuff! I especially like the tidbit about the Mini.

And—oh, Donna!—fromage d'aff!!!!

[dissolves into pool of cheese lust]

Donna said...

Yeah, every time I see a Mini now, I think "Awww" and give it chuck under the chin!

Fromage d'Affinois is definitely the erotica of cheese, creamy and lush and soft, so scoopable with a hard, rigid knife....

Jeremy Edwards said...

Yeah, every time I see a Mini now, I think "Awww" and give it chuck under the chin!


I wasn't hip to fromage d'a until relatively recently. But now it's like, why would I ever eat brie again?

Erobintica said...

Yup, I loved the bit about the Mini - duh! ;-)

I tend to be rather immune to most ads anymore (wasn't when I was younger - wonder what that says). But I do like a clever one. That doesn't necessarily make me want something. I wanted my Mini because I'd always loved them (the old classic ones) and when they came out with the new ones I found myself drooling. I like their ads, but that ain't why I bought my car. Oh, and btw - I just made my final payment last week (and promptly gave my poor car a dent in the boot - not a bad one)

Donna said...

Actually, the book talks more about failed ads than successful ones! I know I'm less interested in STUFF than I used to be--could be my aging brain, lol.

Congratulations on full ownership of your cute little guy/gal. I think that dent is just a symbol of your new relationship, like a hicky. (Hey, doesn't hurt to look on the bright side, right?)

Craig Sorensen said...

Geez, where to start?

I don't respond to advertisements well. I definitely fall into the factual camp. Shiny sexy clever ads, while entertaining, don't sell me much.

For example, I love a lot of the Geico campaigns, but I've never entertained going to them for my insurance.

I can think of one ad campaign that has consistently kept me from buying the product.

Charmin. I hated the "don't squeeze the Charmin" ads of the 70's and I don't like the cartoon ones with the cute bears that run now. Charmin could be made of goose-down and silk strands, and I wouldn't buy it.

I do love the subject of advertising. When I was a younger I had a collection of old Saturday Evening Posts and Reader's Digests, and while I did read some of the articles, my favorite thing was to look at the ads.

The investigation into how people react to products and advertising is very interesting. I could spend hours reading those sorts of studies.

And finally, a hearty "hear, hear" to depictions of sex in a realistic way.

All in all, a fun, and thought provoking post, Donna.

Thank you for letting me babble!

Isabel Kerr said...

Hi Donna,

All this neurology testing for responses to things is interesting and leads me to wonder if we're not getting to the point when all advertising is scientifically geared toward a Pavlovian response system. Remember when they banned subliminal advertising in theaters.

I'm with Craig, I tend to respond more strongly to an ad I don't like and never buy their product. Other ads just make me respond but not necessarily buy the product. Could be we've been around the block a few times and know the difference.

Here in Italy, advertising is still very sexist. There are nipples everywhere and even an ad with someone tweaking a nipple. I have no idea what the product was. There is an ad on a highway billboard nearby that could cause car accidents. I know it's for a jeweler because I know the jeweler's logo, but you find yourself staring at this gorgeous cleavage with a minuscule pendant necklace, and not being able to tear your eyes away. It makes you want to drive around the block. ;)

I do, however, feel that nudity in advertising just makes us get used to seeing nude bodies everywhere and what's the big deal. I also think it should be equal time for equal nudity. And eventually sex doesn't sell because it means nothing.

As a reader and writer of Erotica, I too want it to be close to real and that there is a story there there.

As I write this travel guide, I'm thinking of who and where my audience is and why they would want this book and how to get it to them. Hm, in fact I am making it a little sexy, um lovingly so, I love this area. : ) Thanks for sparking some neurons in that direction Donna.

Erobintica said...

Thank you Donna! My car has a hickey!

Donna said...

Okay, sorry to be late here, I'm still caught up in my baking frenzy! But thank you everyone, for your great comments. I so appreciate your thoughtful responses.

Craig, I know what you mean about old magazines and the fascination of the ads. I feel the same way about my old Playboy's. I read it for the ads! Ads are truly cultural archeology, our dreams and fantasies captured in this skewed but revealing way, so in that sense the topless girls are just blunt instruments.

I have to say I also remember ads I hate as much as ads I like, then again a lot of erotica grates on me and that sells or seems to. I would also say that I don't THINK I buy anything because of an ad. I have bought things because of stealth ads like reviews or articles in magazines. So I plead guilty there.

However, I come away from reading Buy-ology feeling less confident about my control over the matter. Neuromarketing goes beyond the traditional survey where you consciously respond--"would you buy this after seeing the ad" to peek into what's happening below the conscious level. There was one study where people claimed to hate a TV show, but their pleasure centers lit up. Or again people said the cigarette warnings helped them smoke less, but when they saw one, their craving center lit up. So what we are willing to admit in public might not reflect what's really happening. Not that I buy Miller Lite because of the ads, just that there may be influences I don't pick up on my radar.

I also get the sense, as Isabel mentioned, that the current focus with cutting-edge mad men is not on a direct relationship between ads and sales, but something more subtle and possibly insidious. They want to own your soul without you knowing it!

I will say that Lindstrom's list of ways to brand your product is certainly worth thinking about for your travel guide, Isabel. In fact, as I start my next novel, I'm casually making such a list just as a guideline for the query and promotion should it ever come to that. Having been through it once, it doesn't hurt to keep these things in mind as you write.

Again, thanks everyone!