Wall Street Journal: Selling Illusions of Cleanliness

By Martin Lindstrom

As someone who’s been on the frontlines of the branding wars, I’ve spent countless hours with CEOs, advertising executives and marketing mavens at some of the biggest companies in the world. I’ve seen—and, honestly, been disturbed by—the full range of psychological tricks and schemes that some companies use to prey on our most deeply rooted fears, dreams and desires in order to persuade us to buy their brands and products.

A key lesson: Fear sells. I recall a vintage early 20th century ad for lunchbox thermoses that bore an unforgettable tagline: “A Fly in the Milk May Mean a Baby in the Grave.” Advertisers have since gotten more subtle in using fear to persuade us, but the underlying principle remains the same. The illusion of cleanliness or freshness is a particularly powerful persuader—and marketers know it.

To see all the tricks that marketers have for creating the appearance of freshness, there’s no better place to go than Whole Foods, the giant purveyor of natural and organic edibles. As we enter Whole Foods, symbols—or what advertisers call “symbolics”—of freshness overwhelm us. The first thing you see is flowers—geraniums, daffodils, jonquils—among the freshest, most perishable objects on earth.

The prices for the flowers and other produce are scrawled in chalk on fragments of black slate, a tradition borrowed from outdoor markets in Europe. It’s as if the farmer or grower had unloaded his produce (chalk and slate boards in hand), then hopped back in his flatbed truck and motored back to the country. But, in fact, while some of the flowers are purchased locally, many are bought centrally, and in-house Whole Foods artists produce the chalk boards.

These same tactics explain the coolers of chipped ice used by many supermarket chains. To our irrational, germ-fearing minds, tortillas, hot dogs and pickles must be fresher—and thus safer to eat—when they’re sitting on a bed of ice, especially when the soda or juice perspires a little, a phenomenon the industry dubs “sweat” (the refrigerators in most juice and milk aisles are deliberately kept at the exact temperature needed for this “sweating” to occur).

Similarly, for years now, supermarkets have been sprinkling select vegetables with little dew drops of water. Why? Like ice displays, those drops serve as a symbol, albeit a bogus one, of freshness and purity. (That same dewy mist makes the vegetables rot more quickly than they would otherwise.)

In experiments on consumer behavior that I’ve carried out across the world, I often ask people to empty the contents of their fridge and freezer and then to rank and replace the items, one by one, depending on how “fresh” they perceive the them to be.

What product consistently gets the highest ranking for freshness? Heinz ketchup. That’s right, consumers consider bottled ketchup fresher than lettuce, tomatoes and onions. “Why Heinz?” I always ask, noting that the expiration date on the bottle isn’t for another six months. “You’re right,” most reply after a moment. “I have no idea why I put that there.”

So what’s behind this bizarre impression? It’s all in the way the ketchup is marketed. Even though it is made from tomato concentrate, Heinz plays up its “tomato-ness” and its deep red color—the shade of a right-off-the-vine beefsteak tomato.

Another powerful “symbolic” of purity and freshness? Fruit. In the juice world, it’s a rule of thumb that the more fruit a manufacturer displays on the side of the juice carton, the greater its perceived freshness. Note the cascade of kiwis, oranges, mangoes and raspberries on most juice cartons.

Speaking of fruit, you may think a banana is just a banana, but it’s not. Dole and other growers have made the creation of a banana into a mini-science. Sales records show that bananas with Pantone color 13-0858 (otherwise known as Vibrant Yellow) are less likely to sell than bananas with Pantone color 12-0752 (also called Buttercup), which is one grade warmer, visually, and seems to imply a riper, fresher fruit. So these companies plant bananas under conditions most likely to produce the “right” color.

Knowing that even the suggestion of fruit evokes powerful associations of health, freshness and cleanliness, brands across all categories have gone fruity on us, infusing everything from shampoos to bottled waters with pineapple, oranges, peaches, passion fruit and banana fragrances—engineered in a chemist’s laboratory, of course. The same goes for baby soaps, nicotine chewing gum, lip balm, teas, vitamins, cosmetics and furniture polish. Mango-papaya conditioner, anyone? Orange-scented Pine-Sol?

Will these products get your hair or your floors any cleaner than the regular versions? No. But the scent of fruit evokes strong associations of cleanliness for germophobic consumers. By now, our shampoos are so fruity that, instead of scrubbing with them, we’re tempted to guzzle them down.

Shampoo companies also realize that the sheer volume of bubbles a shampoo generates can prompt thoughts of freshness and cleanliness—bubbles signal that the shampoo is strong and invigorating (just as the “sting” of an after-shave or the bubbles hitting our throat when we down sparkling water “inform” us that the product is fresh and uncontaminated). Some companies have gone so far as to create a chemical that accelerates the appearance and quality of bubbles, making bathers feel as though their hair is getting cleaner faster. I call this a “perceived justification symbol”—a moment designed to reassure us that we made the right purchase (and to ensure that we’ll stay loyal to that product).

Finally, a fish story from Spain’s Canary Islands: A friend of mine was once part of the crew that caught the day’s supply of seafood for a harbor restaurant. Their catch was always transferred to a traditional fisherman’s boat (the kind no one uses anymore). When customers arrived at the restaurant for lunch, the old boat would putter into the harbor and a grizzled old fisherman would deliver the fish, ostensibly reeled in just moments earlier. It was all staged, but the customers ate it up.

At the end of the day, we want to buy the illusions that the marketing world sells to us—hook, line and sinker. Which may be the scariest thing of all.


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