Made you look!
You’re not alone. In fact, the title of this week’s column is in the top three most reported spam subject lines, according to AOL.
Now, according to Bloomberg Business Week, there are approximately 93 billion spam emails sent every day. Just think of all that brainpower being used to find the catchiest headlines that will lure cynical scanners into clicking open unrecognized email. I’m not a fan of spam, but as much as I despise it, I’m intrigued by the fine art of headline writing. I am endlessly seeking to understand how one headline can grab the attention of millions, while another barely registers. I’d venture to say that a similar phenomenon is at play, whether it is a spam headline, a magazine byline, or a good caption for a cosmetic cream. It maybe has little to do with the promise, because after all, most are aware that tantalizing headlines are usually far juicier than the actual text, or product, or whatever it is that’s being pushed or promoted.
And yet, we keep falling for those sensational headlines. “Gwyneth Goes Topless” leads to a photograph of Gwyneth Paltrow in stockings, with her breasts well covered by her hands. “Tom Cruise Reveals It All!” turns out to be an article about the actor’s next movie. “Lady Gaga Finally Comes Out” is simply Lady Gaga talking about her support for Japanese earthquake victims. We click on the links, we turn the pages, we buy the magazines, and regularly seek out the story behind the headlines. Furthermore, we are rarely perturbed by the fact that they almost never deliver. On some level, we’ve even come to expect that.
Neuroscience might shed some light on what really goes on in our brains as we willingly head down the catchy headline path. The most likely explanation might be our fear of being left out, of not belonging. A short while ago I conducted a small experiment. Using fMRI, 16 volunteers’ brains were scanned as we exposed them to a range of seductive and alluring headlines. Some of the headlines were taken from ads, others from magazines, and, I’ll come clean, some were taken directly from spam emails.
I was looking to understand what is so seductive about these headlines, often knowing full well that they will not deliver anything close to what we are expecting. What we found, and this is perhaps not that surprising, is that we all really want to believe in things. And despite what we know, hope overrules our rational thought processes, tricking us into giving things yet another chance. This not only explains why we open spam emails, and yes, why we continue buying weekly gossip magazines, it also explains why the billion-dollar cosmetic industry continues to thrive.
As one high-powered cosmetic executive once told me, women are driven by hope. Hope for a better beauty solution, hope for a revolutionary groundbreaking cream that will take 10 years off their appearance. And even when they realize that it’s probably not going to happen, nothing stops them rushing out the moment the next new cosmetic breakthrough hits the shelves. The cosmetic executive told me that this generally happens in three-month cycles, and typically cosmetic brands tend to release their new products every three months.
Another fascinating detail came to light in our testing. One thing people have in common is a fear of being alone. The mind ponders the consequences of not opening an email or reading the latest gossip. Will that lead to being the only uninformed person in society? Will they miss out on the next big thing? In case after case, we noticed activation in the fear center of our brain, the amygdale. There was a distinct presence of fear–fear of not opening the email, not participating in the conversation, not buying into the cultural icons of our time. In short, fear of being alone.
Are we really that simple? According to the neuroscientists, the answer is Yes. We only need look at the list of top subject lines for spam:
- Banks Forced to Forgive Credit Card Debt – See if you qualify (7th on the list.)
- Are you a UNUM Policy Holder? (10th on the list.)
- Fwd: Photos (8th on the list.)
In the larger scheme of things, this might also go some way to explaining the phenomenal success of Facebook. I recently received an intriguing email from Facebook. It asked the question, “Want to see what your friends were up to last night?” In other words, it could be saying, “Martin, you were not invited. Loser. But check out what fun you missed!” It might also explain the long lines outside the latest night spot. We want to be wherever others want to be. You’re in or you’re out. And we all want to be in.
Now, all this leads to some good and some bad news. First the good–you know you’re not alone. Billion-dollar industries stay alive because there are many, many others who are also falling for every trick in the headline book, from facial creams to Facebook. Now for the bad news–even though you know it’s all a scam, you are not likely to change your behavior–it’s hard wired. And even though we’re all clever enough to accept it, we’re not clever enough to learn from it. If you don’t believe me, click on this link. Here’s a $100 Starbucks gift card. All you need to do is take a small survey on what you’ve just read.
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.