[Q&A] As governments around the world find new ways to make tobacco companies discourage smoking, branding expert Martin Lindstrom explains why their methods just won’t work.
According to marketing expert Martin Lindstrom, around 85 percent of the decisions we make every day take place in the non-conscious part of the brain. In a new field of research called neuromarketing, advertising professionals and neuroscientists team up to measure what happens to the brain when consumers make purchasing decisions, studying, in particular, how the brain responds to various marketing stimuli.
In 2004, Lindstrom partnered with Oxford University researchers to launch a three-year neuromarketing study, the results of which he details in his best-selling book, Buyology: Truth and Lies About Why We Buy. The team used MRI and other neuroimaging technologies to scan the brains of more than 2,000 people as they were exposed to product placements, subliminal messaging, iconic brand logos, health and safety warnings, and provocative product packaging.
Lindstrom’s research is particularly relevant for those trying to curb addiction. The Mark spoke to him to get the scoop on how cigarette packaging triggers addiction, and what needs to be done to effectively reduce smoking the world over.
Based on your research with neuromarketing, what happens to a person’s brain when he or she is selecting a carton of cigarettes?
When a smoker sees a cigarette pack, there is normally some sort of activity in the nucleus accumbens. This is the craving spot in the brain, and it is typically activated whenever you are exposed to things you have a strong relationship to (things like chocolate, coffee, sex, gambling – and cigarette smoking).
All the symbols on a cigarette pack trigger associations in our brain a little bit like we’re Pavlov’s dog. That whole theory is actually very much at play here. When smokers see a cigarette pack, they have a direct association with craving because their brains, over time, have been trained to understand that those symbols mean they will get some nicotine very soon.
In an attempt to reduce the number of smoking-related deaths in the country, Australia has passed legislation requiring that all cigarette cartons be sold in plain packaging – with bland color schemes and no logos. How effective will that be?
I’ve been heavily involved in the regulations around the world, including the Australian debate on this particular topic. What our research studies are showing is that plain packs can actually become just as powerful as packs with the usual stuff on them.
While people smoke, they typically hold the cigarette pack in their hands and look at it. They get this great sensation of craving stimulated in their brain, because it has been trained to associate the feeling of holding that pack with the intake of nicotine. As they’re checking out the cigarette pack, they’ll see the health warning. But the brain has been trained to associate the health warnings, too, with the smoking sensation. So, actually, the health warnings quite often have the reverse effect.
If something is consistently displayed on cigarette packs in the same way, all the time, then the brain will simply link it to the sensation of smoking, regardless of whether it is a branded message or a generic message. So, plain packs will really not be effective in changing people’s smoking habits: The brain will look at the blank pack, with a generic font, and stimulate the craving.
My advice to governments would be to change the design of those generic packs all the time. If you do change the packs – sometimes they’re red, sometimes they’re blue, now the font has changed, now there’s a picture, now there’s no picture – then the brain cannot keep up.
How often would the design need to change?
Ideally, it would change every second week. Craving associations are made incredibly fast, particularly if you are a smoker, so if you can change those packs at least every month, then you are on the right path.
If that were to happen, the cravings that smokers get would really start to diminish. Would they disappear 100 percent? No. Changing the packs is a good move, but I just want to stress that it is not the answer.
New Zealand’s government recently raised the price of cigarettes by 40 percent (to approximately 25 New Zealand dollars a pack) – and actually considered raising it to 100 NZD a pack – to discourage smoking. Do you think this will change things?
That won’t help. Not at all. If that would help, drugs wouldn’t be around.
Have you ever smoked?
No, I’ve never smoked in my life. But my mom has, and my girlfriend’s mother smoked and died from cancer. That’s probably why I drilled into this. I’ve tried to get my mom to quit smoking for many years. I’ve seen the frustrations of a person trying to quit smoking, and not being able to do it. My mom’s health has deteriorated enormously as a result of her smoking. This has fueled my passion for addiction research even more.
Tobacco companies are more sophisticated in branding, advertising, marketing, and communications than any other companies. Ironically, this is all due to regulations. But when they go as far as using direct marketing and subliminal advertising on kids who are only 18, then I don’t think it’s fair anymore. The game is being played on unfair ground.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Check out Martin Lindstrom’s latest book, Brandwashed, for more insight into the tricks and techniques that get us hooked on brands.
Photo courtesy of Reuters.