Consumerism and Marketing: An Anatomy

Brandwashed - Lindstrom, Martin This is one of the most fascinating sociology books I’ve read: Brandwashed by Martin Lindstrom.  I realize it isn’t a theological or even Christian book, but it is quite applicable to theology and the Christian life as it reveals the strategies companies use to make us buy their products.  The subtitle is telling: “Tricks Companies Use to Manipulate our Minds and Persuade Us to Buy.”  Of course there is nothing wrong with selling a product; it is also fine for us to purchase products.  However, in Christianity, we’re called to stewardship (using our money in a biblical way), self-denial (fighting covetousness while loving our neighbor), and a pilgrim way of life (realizing our treasure is in heaven, not here on earth).  This book is a good one to read as we think about how Christians should navigate through a world of consumerism.  Again, though the book isn’t a Christian one, if you read it while thinking about the Christian life (sanctification), I’m sure it will get you thinking in the right biblical direction.

Here are the topics of each chapter (along with a few of my own thoughts I had while reading them).  Chapter one is where Lindstrom discusses how companies aim their marketing strategies at young people (from infants to teens).  This chapter is helpful for Christians to think of when raising children (or teaching them in church or school).  In chapter two, the author discusses how businesses make billions of dollars from our fears.  For example, though antibacterial gels cannot stop the swine flu that broke out several years ago, companies implied that it could, which resulted in a 50% increase in sales.  In this chapter, I thought of how the belief in God’s sovereignty helps us deal with fear in the Christian life.  The next chapter (three) is where Lindstrom showed how companies try to get consumers hooked on their products.  Apple is pretty successful; many Iphone users wake up in the middle of the night to check email or Facebook.  From potato chips to video games, companies want us hooked.  This, of course, made me think of the biblical mandate to moderation and self-control.  (FYI, if you routinely wake up in the middle of the night to check your email, I’d say you have a problem!)

Chapter four deals with the fact that sex sells.  I don’t have to go into details here because I’m sure many of you can give five examples of this without much thought.  This made me think of how many churches today are lowering their standards to the level of marketing – specifically when they advertise sermons on deeply sexual themes.  The focus of chapter five is how people buy products based on peer pressure.  In fact, some companies are hiring couples to spread word about their products at the grassroots level (if the Joneses have it, it must be good!).  This is part of the reason companies want you to facebook and tweet their products (viral sells!).  I couldn’t help but think of Christian music and book publishers here.  The thought is something like this: “If these 20 famous Christians endorsed this book/album and it is a best seller, I have to have it.”  This is part of the reason I’m a little skeptical of book endorsements (and why, on this blog, we try to point out all sorts of books, not primarily the “cool” and “popular” ones.  Also, this is part of the reason we’re not afraid to criticize popular books).

The next chapter (six) discusses the effect that nostalgia has on our purchases.  We purchase products that remind us of a “cozy” time in the past, whether it be the Tab soda at grandma’s house or the Frosted Flakes when we were a kid.  In this section I quickly thought about the emergent/emerging church and other “vintage” church movements.  The hipster Christians thrive on the retro theme, from the coffee they drink to the Goodwill shirts they wear  (see Brett McCraken’s book for more info on this).  Chapter seven deals with celebrity power and marketing.  Again, this is well-known: companies want celebrities to use and endorse their products, because it sends sales through the roof.  In Christian subculture this is the same.  If one famous Christian uses this Bible version, everyone else wants it.  The same even goes for looks – it isn’t a coincidence that many pastors purchase eyeglasses that are similar to those of a famous pastor.

In chapter eight, Lindstrom explains how businesses use religion and spirituality to sell products.  I was hoping for more in this chapter; it was quite brief and not too detailed.  However, the point still stands: spirituality sells.  From soft drinks to face cleaners to bracelets, “mind cleansing” and “energy” (etc.) are spiritual (usually New Age or Eastern religion) buzzwords that sell.  This chapter even mentioned how mega churches are similar to shopping malls.  Again, I’m sure many of you have heard how some churches use marketing strategies to fill the seats.  The final chapter (nine) discusses how businesses use our purchasing history to get us to purchase more.  From our online patterns, to where we use our membership rewards cards, to our credit card purchases, companies keep that info in a huge database in order to cater to consumer interests and likes.  In fact, Wal-Mart’s database is larger than that of the federal government!  Here I wrestled with the topic of privacy.  I don’t really have a direct Christian theme here, but I think it is important for us to not get so sucked into the consumerist system that we cannot get out of it.

All in all, the book is an easy and interesting read.  I checked it out at the local library – and I recommend doing the same.  At the same time, if you’re doing research on consumerism and Christian ethics, you may want to own it.  Lindstrom gives many illustrations and examples of how companies manipulate us to buy more – and many of these examples are eye-opening (what does the “organic” and “fresh” and “natural” stamps on a product actually mean?  Not much!).  For a Christian perspective on this topic, check out John Kavanaugh’s book, Following Christ in a Consumer Society, Being Consumed by W. T. Cavanaugh, or, more generally speaking, Set Apart by R. K. Hughes.

shane lems