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Originally published Sunday, December 14, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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How marketing tricks you, and how to beat it

It's the season to buy, though, so this seems like the perfect time to ponder new evidence about why we buy what we buy, how retailers attempt to get us to buy more, and how we can be smarter with our money.

The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — We are the United States of Stuff Buyers. But these days, many of us are also short on cash, either literally or psychologically.

It's the season to buy, though, so this seems like the perfect time to ponder new evidence about why we buy what we buy, how retailers attempt to get us to buy more, and how we can be smarter with our money.

With the help of digital imaging like MRIs, scientists have made big strides toward understanding how our brains deal with financial decisions.

Martin Lindstrom's new book, "Buyology: Truth and Lies About Why We Buy," gets to the bottom of our buying habits, particularly our obsession with certain brands.

Lindstrom, a marketing guru who advises everyone from fast-food companies to drugmakers, partnered with Oxford scientists to conduct a three-year, $7 million study scanning the brains of 2,000 people while they were shown various marketing strategies.

What they found surprised them. In one of the most startling examples, the researchers scanned brains while the subjects were exposed to images of popular brands and religious icons.

Lindstrom wrote: "The room went dark and the images began to flicker past: A bottle of Coca-Cola. The Pope. An iPod. A can of Red Bull. Rosary beads. A Ferrari sports car. The eBay logo. Mother Teresa. An American Express card. The BP sign. A photograph of children playing. The Microsoft logo."

When Lindstrom and the researchers analyzed the results, they noted that strong brands fired up activity in parts of the brain controlling memory, emotion and decision-making. That was expected.

But then they compared those results with what happened when the subjects looked at religious images. To their surprise, "their brains registered the exact same patterns of activity," Lindstrom wrote. "Bottom line, there was no discernible difference between the way the subjects' brains reacted to powerful brands and the way they reacted to religious icons and figures."

This essentially means that when people line up outside Apple stores for the latest iPhone, they are not just hankering to get the latest gadget — they are pretty much having a religious experience, too.

When asked what shoppers could do to control themselves more, his advice was simple: Pay closer attention to what's happening.

He suspects that retailers, particularly grocers, will rely heavily on deals citing "limited quantities, act today!" He has done studies with cans of soup. If they are priced $1.95 per can one day, the sales will be fairly standard. But the next day, if they are priced $1.95 with a tag line saying "maximum 8 cans per customer," sales surge.

The offer triggers survival and hoarding behaviors in shoppers. Shoppers think the deal is so good that they should take advantage before others do.

Another way to avoid spending too much: Don't shop hungry. Not just for food, but for everything. Lindstrom said studies show that when we are hungry, we buy more.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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