Thursday, March 8, 2012

Buddhism, Golf and Marketing - A Lethal Triumvirate

Last weekend was me and the guys' annual Florida golf trip. As is the case every year - with 4 guys staying in the same condo, playing 4 rounds of golf together, eating together and spending more or less every second of a long weekend together - we discussed just about every thought our four low-output minds could conjure up. About 85% of what we talked about related to the usual mix of unspeakable subjects you would expect from four guys alone on a vacation. But that left a good 15% chunk of heavy shit to tackle. The combination of two subjects - Buddhism and marketing - turned out to be a lethal mix that has left me devastated and virtually unable to venture out into the world.

One of the guys on the trip - we'll call him "Chris" to maintain his anonymity in the face of the omniscient corporate powers to which he is beholden - is a high level marketing guy, who was willing to explain candidly some of the dirty secrets of his industry. I was ranting about the subject of my last post - Target's ability to figure out when women are pregnant and starting their second trimesters, and hitting them with ads that are customized with baby stuff but sufficiently randomized that the women won't pick up on the fact that Target knows they are pregnant. It turns out that that kind of stuff is child's play, amateur hour. Any schlub can send out coupons and get a person to buy a few one-off products. The real marketing gold is to get your company so deeply permeated into a person's DNA that they but your stuff without even knowing why they want it.

Customer focus groups, it turns out, are interesting primarily because of how clueless and un-self-aware they reveal people as being. When asked why they buy one product over another one, people give what they think are truthful answers. They think they're conducting some kind of objective analysis about price and quality and utility, but they're wrong! How are their lies exposed? Through walking MRIs. When you hook a person up to a brain scan and a rack of other Star Trek-looking contraptions and have him walk down the aisle of a grocery store, you can see, real-time, how bonkers all of his subconscious mechanisms go when he comes across a certain product. Dilated pupils, goosebumps, raised arm hairs, increased heart rate, heavy breathing, slight perspiration and a moderate erection are not caused by comparison shopping for razor blades. They're the result of an emotional reaction based on a lifetime of internalization of ads. A person might honestly believe that he has decided that Gillette shaving cream is an objectively superior product, but his purchase is much more likely the result of him being slightly sexually aroused by the thought that buying it will make him just a little bit more like Roger Federer.

I told Chris that, since I think about this stuff a lot, I have to be at least slightly less susceptible to marketing than the average first world consumer. He thought that maybe I was partially correct, but only because I don't watch much TV - hours spent in front of the TV being the most strongly correlated factor in predicting how commercially brainwashable a person will be. But then he asked me why I thought I had bought the sunglasses, running watch, shorts and shoes I was wearing, the golf bag I was carrying, and the car I drove, and just like that, with one pointed, penetrating question, exposed me as being every bit as much of a clueless, gullible sucker as the rest of 'em.

And all the Buddhist principals I've been reading about recently - the refuge that's been helping in so many contexts - just made it worse. One of the central underpinnings of Buddhism - more specifically, the concept of Nirvana (or, in the words of Carl Spackler after having caddied for the Lama, "total consciousness") - is that, through breathing, concentration and focus, you can train yourself to see the true essence of things. But seeing the true essence of marketing and how deeply it penetrates your subconscious is enough to make you completely flip out. Once you've directed your focus towards marketing, what do you do when you discover you've been brainwashed all your life, and that your supposedly reasoned, autonomous actions are actually just rote responses to decades of calculated manipulation? Rip off all your name brand clothes and move to a monastery? Give up the whole Buddhist thing and just admit that Procter & Gamble is the undisputed winner?

Penelope Trunk, a very funny and insightful blogger, wrote an awesome piece about why, unless someone specifically asks her about it, she never talks about doing yoga. Her point is, nobody wants to hear about the wonderful, beautiful mental space you've managed to find for yourself through discipline, concentration and other self-righteous techniques like that. Completely true. I've touched upon this as well (reminder: please keep me posted about your debauchery so that I can keep tabs on what today's youngsters are up to). But in the case of outrageously effective marketing, I can say with some conviction that mindfulness should be thrown under the bus. Better to keep this element of consciousness locked up tightly in some distant mental box and get on with things. Next time you see me, compliment me on my stylish shades and cool watch. It'll make me feel great (and maybe a little aroused).

Here's Penelope Trunk's post about yoga:

Here's my similar, old post about Buddhism:

And while we're on the subject of marketing and razor blades, buy some stuff from this guy:


veryfrank said...

Which is less worth living - the unexamined life, or the one where you can't buy the shit you want?

dfields said...

Another great post! as a marketer who reads and mini-practices Buddhism this right between the eyes. I only wish we were a little more death star in our marketing. the capabilities you describe have just made me jealous... in moderation.

dfields said...

Another great post! as a marketer who reads and mini-practices Buddhism this right between the eyes. I only wish we were a little more death star in our marketing. the capabilities you describe have just made me jealous... in moderation.

Michael said...

I have a couple tunes on the new record that are very much in tune with this sentiment. But I'll stop short of, you know, marketing it. The last thing I want to do is arouse you—I'll leave that to the professionals.