Tuesday, August 25, 2015

iPods, Patriotism, Religion and Consumerism

I grew up saying the pledge of allegiance like most every other kid in school. It wasn't a big deal mostly because I also grew up within a culture that equated patriotism with moral and spiritual virtue - Christians were good citizens of the nation. As I began to study history, and later theology and the Bible, I came to realize that some of my childhood questions really were astute. I am asking again today, "How can we pledge allegiance to a nation when we're not supposed to have any allegiance but God?"

The answer I always got was, "we pledge allegiance to both and when they conflict, we choose God." Of course, that gives us incentive to try and keep them from conflicting, since our loyalty to each is tough to break or forsake. You can see in current society (and across religions - Jews in Israel, Muslims in many countries, even Buddhists in Myanmar) how easy it is to begin to equate religion and patriotism.

I say that not to start some grand political argument (there are plenty of other posts for that) I say it because it's the best illustration in my life of something really interesting I picked up from reading Buyology* by Martin Lindstrom last week. Lindstrom is a brand consultant, and a very good one at that - he's worked in marketing big companies and popular products all over the world.

In 2008 (so it's a bit dated, even as you read the book), he commissioned a study to see how our brains respond to advertising and help us make consumer decisions. He found that over 90% of our decision-making process is subconscious or beyond our ability to properly comprehend (at least at the time). This explains why surveys and focus groups are often terrible indicators of what people actually like and buy. We simply don't consciously know what we like.

There were a lot of brains scans and tests done to show which areas of the brain light up at different times and why. Neuroscience has gotten pretty good at knowing which parts of the brain correspond to which emotional responses and activities.

For the particular study that most interests me today, they took a baseline reading from a bunch of nuns in a Carmelite monastery, to get brain images of them talking about and reliving their most spectacular religious experiences. These brain scans matched up with others from many religions and around the world. When people have or remember religious experiences, it lights up a part of the brain entirely separate from please, ecstasy, and joy. There really is a specific brain response for God interactions (or perceived God interactions). Religious experience is different in our brains that mere attraction or pleasure.

This is important because the next scan they did was on a cross section of regular folks. They used a series of strong brands - brands people are attached to deeply, like Apple, Harley-Davidson, and Ferrari. They also used weak brands, brands people would recognize, but not feel great attachment to, like BP oil (this was before the Gulf spill).

What they found was that strong brands, the ones people might call "lifestyle brands," cause the same reaction in people's brains as religious experiences. The great loyalty engendered by these companies - the reason your friend buys Ferrari clothes or looks down on PC users - is akin to religious loyalty, which, in turn, makes it very, very difficult to break.

I say all this to say, it does really seem like our brains are not wired to reject religiously loyal brands as easily as those respondents from my childhood (and today) might believe.

Of course, not everyone is religiously loyal to Apple, but we all certainly know someone who is (or substitute Google or Starbucks or CrossFit there). Of course not everyone is religiously loyal to the United States, but I think we know a whole lot more people who at least exhibit these markers.

This is brain chemistry here. Likely those people you're thinking of would entirely deny that their connection is religious. I imagine their brain would differ, if put to the test.

These loyalties are reinforced in many different ways. Apple stores pump a specific smell into their locations, so people will equate the pleasantness of vanilla (an ingredient in breast milk and one of the most universally beloved scents by humans) with their products. The sound made when spinning the dial on an iPod was similarly designed to attach people to the brand. Rituals as well, which come into play specifically when we're talking nationalism - flag presentations, the national anthem before sporting events, putting your hand over your heart... and the pledge of allegiance, all reinforce a religious devotion to the brand.

I'm not saying people can't be Christians an Apple aficionados or Christians and really excited about their country. They can. But we do need to be careful about how we show our support and loyalty. The things we do, say, and experience connect us beyond our ability to consciously perceive. They just do. Yeah, it might be unfair, but it's biology and there's not much we can do about it (at least until some major advances in science).

I don't vote in elections because I want to remember that ALL my hope is in Christ - not the next slick young politician to come along. I don't sing the national anthem or say the pledge of allegiance because it's far too easy (for me, at least) to get caught up in the notion that wielding power well can solve the world's problems.

I will admit, though, I'll have to take a harder look at how I work with brands. I'm pretty cheap, so usually finances make a lot of my decisions. I do have a few brands, though, that trouble me. We've been with T-Mobile for like 17 years or something. There have been times when sticking with them was a poor choice. I justified it because we have such long loyalty and the benefits that affords us are pretty nice. I also justify it by how uncomfortable I am with change (which is also true), but in reality, there's something inside me - something I can't fully explain or understand - that just makes me feel like T-Mobile sends an accurate message about who I am as a person. Don't think that's by accident. They've got a lot of highly paid marketing people working to make that true. The same goes for Apple and Starbucks and the US Gov't.

In the end, I do think the loyalty thing will keep me with T-Mobile rationally (especially now that we no longer live in a place where they don't provide service) - but I will be more conscious of how committed I become to things other than Christ moving forward.

*The book had lots of great insights about how we buy stuff and what we like (although I think this was the best one) - it's a great read, even if it's a little old. In the final chapter (updated in 2010) he even predicts the explosion of all things Kardashian, not by name, but as a personal brand in which the person and the brand become indistinguishable. The reason this is possible is entirely biological - it's happening inside us without our even being aware of it.

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