By  on November 12, 2008

When he was walking around Tokyo’s Shibuya district this year, marketing consultant Martin Lindstrom got a text message from Starbucks on his cell phone saying, “Martin, one of your friends is in the area. Would you like to meet him?”

After failing to spot anyone familiar, Lindstrom responded that he would like to meet the friend. Starbucks answered, telling him, “Starbucks would like to sponsor your meeting. He is at the nearest Starbucks, one-and-a-half minutes away and we’ll give you a free cup of coffee.” When Lindstrom arrived at the coffee shop, his friend was indeed waiting. “I didn’t know he was in town,” he recalled. Both had signed up for track-a-friend connections.

It’s this kind of product placement — contextual product placement “where the brand helps me to become a hero” — that is likely to emerge as the “number-one marketing tool” inside 10 years, predicted Lindstrom, author of newly published “Buyology: Truth and Lies About Why We Buy” (Doubleday, $24.95).

If things unfold the way the 38-year-old, globe-trotting native of Copenhagen anticipates, the marketing landscape worldwide will have changed significantly. Lindstrom pans product placement as the least effective form of marketing, working about 1 percent of the time. “We are hardwired to be seduced by stories,” he said, noting our brains “filter” out brand images that are randomly or commercially dropped into a story where they play no role. “What does the brain say about that? It says, ‘Forget about that. It’s destroying my story line and I can’t cope.’”

Most of this could be happening without our even knowing about it. Based on his research for “Buyology” — functional MRI- and EEG-like brain scans of what stimulates craving, status seeking and other responses in 2,000 people — Lindstrom contends that 85 percent of what we do is prompted by subconscious triggers. While we may think we’ve bought a shirt or gone to a concert for one reason or another, the author suggests otherwise. “It’s not that we mean to lie — it’s just that our unconscious minds are a lot better interpreting our behavior [including why we buy],” he writes.

Though marketing to evoke particular brain responses may elicit images of the thought police, the way Lindstrom sees it, his findings mean that roughly 85 percent of marketing money is being wasted. Last year, that amounted to about $99 billion of the $117 billion he estimates was spent on marketing products in the U.S., including advertising, packaging and displays. He would also throw in another $10 billion wasted on the market research.

What is working is advertising of the subliminal variety. “Subliminal advertising, hate it or love it, is much more powerful than anything else I’ve seen,” Lindstrom said. “It is probably the reason we have 17 million shopaholics in [the U.S.]. People have built whole lives around the entertainment of shopping, rather than entertaining themselves.”

With mirror neurons that incline us to mimic the actions of others, and the feel-good dopamine rush that accompanies buying something, consumers may be easy marks for marketers that can play to those impulses.

Take Abercrombie & Fitch, for example. “As the clerk rings up and bags your purchases in that beautiful black-and-white Abercrombie bag tattooed with bare-chested models, you’re feeling cool, you’re feeling gorgeous — you’re feeling like one of ‘them,’” Lindstrom wrote in his book. “[This] produces a feeling the brain automatically links back to the models [hired to hang out] outside, the fragrant and pervasive smell, and the late-night atmosphere of the store itself….You’re taking home a little bit of that popularity with you.”

Or, at the least, one’s nucleus accumbens — the “craving spot” around the head’s temple — may have been triggered. The author-consultant himself believes he has experienced this. While tooling around in the Second Life Web site one evening, he saw a Pizza Hut storefront with a sun rising behind it appear in the virtual community on his computer screen. The dawn of a new day? No, simply a pizza promptly ordered by Lindstrom and delivered to his home, about a half hour later.

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