Well, here it is only March and we already have a strong contender for the worst book I’ll read this year. Buyology: Truth and Lies About Why We Buy and the New Science of Desire is written by advertising mogul Martin Lindstrom and if you believe the dust jacket it aims to explore the emerging field of “neuromarketing,” where advertisers and their consultants draw upon brain scanning technologies like fMRI to understand how brains react to advertising and how to to better market to them. The author claims to be the driving force behind three year’s worth of this neuromarketing research, involving subjects from around the globe and Lord knows how many millions of dollars.
That’s not a bad hook. The problem is that while the book is set up to be a scientific exploration of this new field or at least an exploration of the research couched in terms accessible to the interested layman, Lindstrom seizes that premise and twists it into marketing and advertising gobbledygook. It’s clear from the offset that he’s not a scientist or competent consumer of researcher by any stretch, yet he puts on a figurative lab coat and stomps around the territory making unsubstantiated and even nonsensical claims like “the statistical validity was as strong as could be.” Words like those have very specific meanings in a scientific context, but the author here just slings them around like marketing jingles. He also stomps around knee-deep in other fallacies like confusing correlation with causation and changing the definition of his terms (such as “product placement”) to suit his predetermined conclusions.
But as bad as all that is, it’s not the worst thing about this bad book. That honor goes to how Lindstrom seems incapable or unwilling to turn off his marketing speak. The entire book reads like a breathless advertisement for the author himself and his super amazing totally MIND BLOWING NEW RESEARCH!! With each new topic and chapter, the author blathers on about how you’re going to be totally amazed and shocked by what he has to tell you about the mysterious, murky happenings within the brain and how it forces you to buy a new iPod or bag of Doritos. The tone of the book is one of over the top zealotry and overselling the GEE WHIZ nature of research that in all likelihood a) wasn’t done by him, and b) misinterpreted anyway. Perhaps most annoyingly Lindstrom implies or outright states that marketing and advertising literally force you to behave irrationally, a concept that any person with a brain worth scanning in the first place would tell you is exaggerated at best and hysterical at worst.
Ironically, the only redeeming quality of Buyology comes from the parts that have nothing to do with neuromarketing. While he obviously knows jack divided by squat about scientific research, Lindstrom DOES obviously know about advertising, marketing, and brand development. And when he talks about the novel and surprising ways that companies engage in those activities, it’s often interesting. Learning how cigarette companies pay night clubs to decorate with certain colors and shapes in order to subtly advertise certain brands of cigarettes is fascinating, for example, as is hearing about how grocery stores pump in the fake scents of baking bread in order to trigger our appetites. That’s really pretty cool if insidious stuff, and it has nothing to do with neuromarketing. I could have done with a lot more of that kind of stuff without the author’s faux science veneer and frenzied trumpeting of his own horn.