The other day I hurried home from work, pulled open my bathroom cupboard and with a crazed look in my eye, scanned through the list of ingredients of my various lip balms and moisturisers for salicylic acid. For according to Martin Lindstrom, author of “Brandwashed”, the US leading brand of lip balm, Carmex, contains this ingredient, which “eats away at living tissue”. What is THAT doing in a lip balm? Well, apparently, along with foods high in MSG, sugar and fat, Mr Lindstrom is suggesting that some products are deliberately manufactured to make them a little bit addictive.
I expect you are desperate to know how my bathroom toiletries performed. Annoyingly, the labels had come off some of them, but I couldn’t see salicylic acid on any of the ones I checked. Phew. But then, a friendly scientist informed me that I also needed to look for benzyl salicylate and that a dead give-away was a tingly feeling on the skin. No, surely not! My special overnight care lip balm! But then I have until now been very happy with both the overnight lip care balm. So is this chemical good for me? Is it only good in the short-term? Do I wake up with lovely smooth lips in the morning at the moment, but will one day, suddenly wake up with my lips falling off after a lip balm overdose? How has the life of a consumer come to this: that I require the services of friendly scientists to make the right purchasing decision?
And I don’t know if you have noticed, but it is ridiculously difficult to get lists of ingredients online, so if you’re an online shopper, it’s pot luck, even if you are a scientist.
So for me, this was one of the more surprising revelations in the book. Others included the potential for advertising to babies in the womb and the fact that royal families across different countries get together to discuss strategy (do they use Powerpoint, I wonder?). If you’re fairly familiar with behavioural economics or psychology, there are many things here that won’t shock you: like the potent influence that one person’s shopping choices can have on another, or the effect on consumers of making a product seem aspirational or scarce. And if you’ve read the papers lately, you won’t be that surprised by how supermarkets, credit card companies and social networking sites like Facebook are using people’s data to better target their advertising.
But reading the stuff I didn’t know already has made me slightly paranoid. As a type these words, I’m licking my lips, unsure whether they are actually tingling or I’m just imagining it. Some of Mr Lindstrom’s stories, like advertising to unborn children seem entirely fantastic. Yet Martin Lindstrom is a marketing expert, so you’d think he would know what he’s talking about. But then again, as he himself says in the book, fear sells.