Brand new world

Public-policy students learn the ABCs of how marketers ingrain products into their brains.

By Carrie Golus, AB'91, AM'93

Image courtesy of Heidi Cody; photo by Dan Dry

Students easily named most of the brands in artist Heidi Cody’s American Alphabet. Take the slideshow quiz or see the key.

It’s summer quarter 2009. The recession—as defined by the National Bureau of Economic Research—has been dragging on for nearly a year-and-a-half, and consumer confidence is appropriately low. In Chad Broughton’s Consumerism and Popular Culture course, the students, a mix of undergraduates and high-school students, seem even more skeptical than the Chicago norm.

“I’m always suspicious of documentaries that are trying to push you into something,” says one woman of The Future of Food (2004), which the class watched the week before. The stridently critical documentary, intended to make viewers question genetic engineering in agriculture, had the same effect as advertising, she says: “When you see advertising, you automatically put your guard up. You know they have an agenda.”

“You come from a farming family, right?” Broughton, AM’97, PhD’01, asks the student, who wears a gray UCLA T-shirt and a gray Detroit Tigers cap.

“Yeah, rice isn’t being pushed to the extent as soybeans,” she says knowledgeably about one of the documentary’s main subjects. “But the replicator gene has been taken out of the rice, so we can’t save the seed for next year.”

After a few more minutes of discussion, Broughton, a senior lecturer in the College’s public-policy–studies program and faculty director of Chicago Studies, turns to today’s topic: consumerism’s social and psychological dimensions. He sketches out a complicated flow chart on the board. “This is going to be, I suspect, really messy,” he says while writing increased consumerism in the center. “I don’t think we’ll have the definitive flow chart outlined today, but we need to get our assumptions about cause and effect right.”

In each corner, Broughton puts a heading: biological, economic, social, consequences. The board quickly fills with words and arrows. Under economic he writes terms like income inequality, economic globalization, commodity fetishism. Above consequences he writes waste, anxiety, lowered savings rate. Hoarding, collecting, and social status occupy a space between biological and social. Although the finished chart includes more than 30 interrelated terms, Broughton says, “this is a very simplified version. And it’s a very cynical one—the idea is that we’re becoming less citizens, more consumers.”

Next Broughton turns to the main reading: the best-seller Buyology: Truth and Lies About Why We Buy (2008), by international marketing guru Martin Lindstrom. In the book Lindstrom explores the new discipline of neuromarketing, which uses magnetic resonance imaging to study the brain’s responses to ads, brands, and other marketing messages. Broughton points the class to page 35, where Lindstrom dismisses potential ethical concerns: “…neuromarketing isn’t about implanting ideas in people’s brains or forcing them to buy what they don’t want to buy; it’s about uncovering what’s already inside our heads—our buyology.”

“Do you buy that?” Broughton asks. The question is so common in Chicago classrooms that the pun passes unnoticed, even by Broughton.

“It’s shot with contradiction,” replies a man in a blue T-shirt. “Even as he says, ‘I want people to look into their own brains and make more rational choices,’ he’s advising corporations on how to use neuromarketing.”

“His job is to increase our irrationality without us knowing,” says Broughton. On to page 149, where Lindstrom reveals that some European supermarkets pump artificial fresh-bread smell through their vents; the smell makes customers feel hungry, and hungry customers buy more.

“What about individual responsibility?” asks the Detroit Tigers fan. “A person should be able to control themselves in the midst of fresh-baked-bread smell.”

“You wouldn’t shop at a supermarket that smells like rotten fish,” says a man in a maroon College Programming Office shirt. “A supermarket that smells like fresh bread makes you feel good, makes you feel fresh.”

“Maybe people should seek out the places that smell bad, for their own good,” the Tigers fan suggests.

“I went to a grocery store over the weekend,” says a man in a Nike tee. His consciousness raised by the analysis in Buyology, the experience, he says, “was really weird.”

“I went to an Abercrombie & Fitch store,” says his neighbor. Each store, according to Lindstrom, is “designed to resemble a dark, noisy nightclub,” with model-beautiful sales clerks and actual models paid to hang around outside. “I was really aware of the dark lights, the noise,” the man continues. “Everyone’s attractive.”

“You probably already knew that,” says the woman to his left. “It’s common knowledge, but you don’t think about it.”

“Did you still buy something?” another student wants to know.

“No,” says the guy, who’s wearing an Abercrombie shirt from a few seasons ago.

Later Broughton flips artist Heidi Cody’s American Alphabet (2000) on the video monitor; the artwork spells out the alphabet, each letter from the logo of a famous brand. The class easily identifies most of the products—All, Bubblicious, Campbell’s, and so on—stumped only by the “H” in Hebrew National and the “U” in Uncle Ben’s.

Next Broughton pulls up the CramerSweeney Smart Marketing IQ Test, which includes logos, slogans, mascots, and audio trademarks (such as Southwest Airlines’ distinctive “ding” followed by “You are now free to move about the country”). A woman in a green, button-down blouse makes several guesses that would dismay marketers: When she reads the slogan “For everything else, there’s…” she calls out, “Visa.” When she sees the Energizer bunny, she says, “Duracell.”

“I grew up without a TV,” she explains.

Finally Broughton presents the AOL Money & Finance luxury-brand quiz, the most difficult of the three. Most of the students recognize Louis Vuitton, Chanel, and Bloomingdale’s, but they struggle to identify the logos of Maui Jim sunglasses, Waterford Crystal, and Breitling watches.

“This stripe consisting of a red band bounded by green bands stands for…” reads another question. Of the four choices—Tiffany & Co., Prada, Gucci, and Versace—most of the students choose either Gucci or Versace, but there’s no consensus. “I’m saying Gucci,” the Detroit Tigers woman declares with confidence.

She’s right. “The farm girl gets it,” Broughton jokes.

Her explanation: “I watch hip-hop videos.”

Chad Broughton.


Consumerism and Popular Culture, according to Chad Broughton’s syllabus, examines the subject “through a critical sociological lens, focusing on the social and ecological dimensions of modern goods and food-production systems, marketing and branding, the news and entertainment media, and the ‘the new consumerism.’” The course, cross-listed with undergraduate public-policy studies and sociology, met this summer Monday–Thursday, 10 a.m.–12:30 p.m.

As well as Buyology, students read The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan (2006); The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less by Barry Schwartz (2005); The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell (2000); On the Make: The Hustle of Urban Nightlife by David Grazian (2007); and Everything Bad Is Good for You by Stephen Johnson (2006).

Grades were based on a final paper (30 percent), an advertising assignment (10 percent), critical analyses (30 percent), and attendance/participation (30 percent). Participation included write-ups for two experiments: “media starvation,” in which students forwent e-mail, texting, the Internet, TV, and radio for 48 hours, and “breaching,” where students had to breach a social norm by behaving unusually.—C.G.

Return to top