Urgent! Breaking News! The last time we felt a little complacent, a little unguarded, was shortly after Labor Day 10 years ago when two hijacked planes flew into New York's Twin Towers. In short order, then-President George W. Bush declared a War on Terror. Since then—consciously but mostly unconsciously—as a culture we've been fighting our very own War on Terror. Our enemies are abstract. They are everywhere and nowhere. They could be hiding in a basement, in the skies over our heads, in our offices, in our computers, and even in our baby cribs.
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote an article for Fast Company about the concept of clean—and how the huge organic food chain, Whole Foods, primes shoppers to think "uncontaminated" and "fresh" and "back to nature" whenever we pass through its doors. Whole Foods accomplishes this supremely clever feat via the use of symbolics such as fresh ice chips, hand-scribbled chalkboards, and crates of fruits and vegetables that look as though they were hand-delivered just that morning from Old McDonald's farm, with a little help from Henry Fonda and James Stewart. It works, too. Most of us leave Whole Foods feeling virtuous, clean, vaguely yogic, and not particularly irked that over the course of one trip we've just blown our entire food budget for the next month.
In my new book, Brandwashed, I devote a standalone chapter to some of the main drivers that ignite our desire to buy, from sex, to nostalgia, to yes, our very human desire for freshness, and how marketers ruthlessly take advantage of our very human susceptibilities. I may have explored each one of these drivers alone, yet in real life, they blend and blur into one another. And what do they all have in common? F-E-A-R.
Think about it: What underlies our desire for fresh, non-processed foods, organic apples, and Norwegian spring water? Fear. What makes us pine for simpler, older times, e.g., when we were children? Fear. What's behind our decision to disguise our behinds with Spanx, and wear underarm deodorant, and use dental floss, and slather ourselves with copious amounts of hand sanitizer? Fear. What makes us keep our Smart Phones padlocked to our hands and ears? Fear. I consider today's culture of fear a battle against the unseen, or to put it another way, our very own consumer-driven War on Terror.
After all, today's Scare-the-Pants-Off-You industry has its hooks in just about every product category. To take a normal day in the life, here are some things that put us on edge: We're scared we'll wake up late, and that we'll have trouble going to sleep. We're scared our computers will crash, and that our identities will be swiped. We're scared of getting skin cancer from the midday sun, and we're scared of home invasions at night. The news media doesn't help matters any. When we switch on the morning news to read about an escalator that has eaten a man's foot in its metal jaws, or a pain medication that's just been recalled by the manufacturer, or a study showing that pasteurized milk is turning our five-year-old daughters into Jayne Mansfield, it sometimes seems as though everyone and everything in the world has us in our crosshairs.
In my mind, you can trace a lot of today's fear culture—and our attendant vigilance—back to the fear of being caught as unalert and unprepared as we were in early September ten years ago.
That said, one of the many problems with fear is that it just puts us even more on edge. When we are in fear-and-survival mode, and we take a respite, say, during a yoga class (whose popularity has exploded in the last decade), we almost miss that sweaty, jangling, alive sensation. It's as though fear has planted a semi-permanent groove in our brains. Fear and stress, and our vigilance against them, have become our new normal—the problem being, in my experience, that fear and stress rob us of any and all perspective.
Among the victims of today's new stressed-out, fear-based normal? Children. Take the modern-day phenomenon that was once known simply as having a kid but that is today called by the branded name, Parenting. Now that we're responsible for this baby, hasn't the entire world suddenly become one giant death trap? Among the many other items companies would have us believe are critical to our baby's health and well-being are: ointments, humidifiers, car seats Houdini himself couldn't escape, baby gates, cabinet locks, $300 digital color video baby monitors, "safety bath time thermometers," "safety bath time faucet covers" and that's just for starters.
In the U.S., what is popularly dubbed the "Mom Market" —which includes everything from pre-pregnancy supplements to doctors' visits to changing tables to Baby Joggers (which incidentally cost more than most used cars), is estimated to be a roughly $1.7 trillion industry. It's little wonder, then, that superstores, like the subtly named Buy Buy Baby, cater to the every need, desire and fear of the new mother (including, of course, ones she didn't know she had), are cropping up all over. Which is a good thing too, because in addition to the above items, first-time parents will need a crib, and crib-sized bedding; bassinets, changing tables, and a baby armoire glider: onesies, socks, pants, and sweaters (which the kid will outgrow in a month); towels, wash cloths, bibs, pacifiers, rattles, and stuffed animals; camcorders to record those precious moments, not to mention a whole slew of educational, politically correct toys, computer games, and CDs. Is it any surprise that we've started to see new models of laptops and cell phones marketed to babies and toddlers (and they're a huge hit, too)?
Yet what underlies this desire for freshness, the desire to feed our children only the purest ingredients? What partially underlies the enormous success of Whole Foods? It's fear—a fear that translates itself into a desire for freshness and simplicity, which then kickstarts our desire to return to purer, simpler times. At which point, the whole sequence starts all over again. Hey, I never said that being brandwashed isn't an incredibly complex mechanism.
Neither am I saying that things can't go wrong in the world. And as the terrorist attacks of ten years ago showed, the world can change in a split second. But with a lot of help from marketers, hasn't our fear-based culture caused us to lose connection to a bigger picture? Is this really the most frightening time ever to be alive? What about during the Crusades? What about during the Black Plague? What about if you happened to be living in Berlin in 1937, or under Stalin, or during the U.S. Civil War, or if you were born in 1900, when the average human life expectancy was forty-seven years?
I don't want to scare you, but it's worth relaxing your guard for a few moments, and thinking about.
Martin Lindstrom is a 2009 recipient of TIME Magazine's "World's 100 Most Influential People" and author of Buyology: Truth and Lies About Why We Buy (Doubleday, New York), a New York Times and Wall Street Journal best—seller. His latest book, Brandwashed: Tricks Companies Use to Manipulate Our Minds and Persuade Us to Buy, will be released in September. A frequent advisor to heads of numerous Fortune 100 companies, Lindstrom has also authored 5 best-sellers translated into 30 languages. More at martinlindstrom.com.
Read more by Lindstrom: Word-Of-Mouth Marketing: We All Want To Keep Up With The Joneses
[Image via Says-It.com]