A “Brand” New Year: Brain Waves, Brand Names & Brainwashing?

mri-color.jpg“Come in, my little pretties,” lured the witch in Hansel & Gretel, as the door banged shut behind the wee ones.

Today’s brand marketers and media mavens aren’t exactly summoning kids into an icing laced gumdrop gingerbread house, but it’s pretty dang close on a few media and marketing fronts.

There’s enough subversive enticement to make a strong correlation based on the new MRI brain-scanning research surfacing.

I’m not saying lab rat researchers are concocting steamy test tube formulas for soul-snatching kids with opportunistic glee, but MRI studies eerily tread into brainwashing turf.

Critical thinking needs to come into play pronto…

Commercial Alert’s article on MRI studies and how we process brands and products released by Harvard and the University of Michigan got my attention, but this newest RSNA study showing brain waves linked to brand names REALLY sounded some alarms as to how we’re shaping youth.

Their MRI study on lingering effects of brain functionality in adolescents playing violent video games was equally disturbing, but that’s a feature story in itself.

Applying these neuroscience nuggets to children will jolt you into some squirmy thoughts as womb to tomb branding takes on scientific significance and opens up an entirely new ethical dialogue.

In the branding study, MRI results showed “strong brands activated a network of areas involved in positive emotional processing and associated with self-identification and rewards.”

The German radiologists conveyed “strong brands were processed with less effort on the part of the brain, and weak brands showed higher levels of activation in areas of memory and negative emotional response.”

Parents have complicity in buying and behavioral influences, but branding is hitting some pre-set buttons that seem hard to ignore.

“Get ‘em while they’re young” tactics of kids marketing takes on some outrageous dimensions here, opening up some profound consumer questions about positive and negative branding.

Is Clifford the Dog embedding manners and goofy sweetness into pleasure nodes? If so, what are Bratz dolls branding behaviorally?

Aren’t parents associating ‘pbs is positive’ based on branding itself?

Is there a difference between a child fixated on Elmo or Spongebob?

If cartoons show up on fresh fruit and vegetables, are we encouraging ‘healthy habits’ or implanting icons into kids’ mental relays?

Are M&M counting candy books setting a sweet tooth for life or are they bright, enticing ‘learning aids’?

If kids play with candy and cookies to gobble up their math or colors what happens when entire preschool programs are positioned with junk food brands like Fruit Loops?

Now consider some of the relational aggression studies surfacing with ‘mean girl’ dynamics. Could they be traced to products and brands? Are they causally linked and reinforced?

Think about the Pixel Chix positioned as ‘virtual friends’ who talk behind your back and give you attitude if you don’t give them proper care and attention. Isn’t this branding “mean girl” cues as tots?

What about the Shell Shocker cyberbeast that overpowers any obstacle that gets in its way?

It’s described in an ad as “brash, noisy, rude and incredibly cool.” Is branding brashness to kids really what we want to unleash within our culture?

Seems we’ll have to mop up this negativity somewhere down the line, and I don’t see any fathomable value.

Branding itself is not inherently bad. I’ve been accused of “positive propaganda and counter-branding” using our industry’s marketing techniques, and I’ll cop to it readily…because Shaping Youth is a brand too.

We’re promoting healthier worldviews through counter-marketing of materialistic values and damaging drek, so the ol’ slash-n-burn ‘branding is evil’ generalist pitch doesn’t quite cut it.

One peek at Live 8 sponsors, disaster relief mobilization, or trend-tracking like the LiveStrong bands that vaulted testicular cancer into the forefront of caring, compassion and global awareness will confirm this, and show you how well branding works.

In fact, we use the LiveStrong branding effort as an example of youth mobilization that worked extraordinarily well in its raw, most authentic form.

We teach media literacy to track how fast that powerful purpose got hijacked at breakneck speed as profiteering from exploitation, knock-offs and brand erosion of colorful rubber bracelets purchased in bulk overseas with the message of your choice began flooding the marketplace and turned a cause into a ‘fad.’

The cool thing is, LiveStrong as a branding message will far outlive the fizzled bracelet frenzy.

LiveStrong single-handedly awarded more than $14 million in research and grants to support vital community programs and reinforced that there is ONLY one authentic yellow band.

They spread their cause far beyond the celebrity wearing wannabes and kids that turned the bands into a ‘jump the shark’ fashion trend by overly exposing meaningless wristwear in me-too-bandwagonism, and even managed to rise above the rumor mills on the wry PR circuit.

LiveStrong as a brand has expanded into a social support system, cancer resource and advocacy center, video sharing site and activist arm that reaches far beyond Lance Armstrong himself and cues most of us immediately with positive feelings when that particular color of yellow pops up.

Can a color be a brand? LiveStrong pretty much ‘owns’ that shade of yellow in my brain.

Who knows, maybe I subliminally picked our Shaping Youth logo based on positive feelings about their brand?

My nephew had testicular cancer at 19 so maybe it logged into my brain waves unconciously…Ya never know. No MRI data…

For any teens going through cancer treatment, I should add that Group Loop is a great social media resource for bonding, sharing, and supporting, it just needs more BRANDING to get their name out there!

So how is branding different than brainwashing?

Well, arguably, I suppose it’s about ethics and semantics when it comes to children, for those MRI studies gave me some huge parental ‘aha’ moments that my naïve idealism missed.

Most parents ascribe to the ‘whatever works as long as it’s a healthy choice’ branding mindset, which means characters marketing education, reading, manners, nutrition, or positive values pass through with flying colors…but that can be a slippery slope because marketers KNOW these are our hot buttons.

So then we’re subjected to ‘baked’ chips being marketed as ‘smart choices,’ cell phones for ‘safety’ and new firms coming on the scene like BusRadio trying to pump advertising into a captive audience of school children, branding their brains under the guise of a ‘calmer’ bus ride, with ‘regulated’ radio and ‘appropriate’ tunes and ads…

BusRadio constitutes unmitigated brainwashing to me…

Even if they spin it with PSA propaganda the advertising and playlist is pre-selected to drill those preferences into kids’ brains to and from school the moment they get on that bus…THAT’S brainwashing…Like elevator music and ad jingles you can’t get out of your head.

Sometimes I get a blind spot when it comes to ‘brand creep’ and commercialism seeping out sideways, and cut some slack when education comes into play…this MRI study has bumped up my vigilance.

I remember seeing “Toyota’s Road to Reading” in my daughter’s 4th grade homework pile awhile back. I was steamed, wondering why a CAR company would want to brand nine-year old brains when they can’t even reach the pedals, butlet it slide without a full flare up of the poison pen because it was about READING…

I recall being annoyed and disturbed that marketers were targeting PARENTS helping KIDS with homework…but I never quite made the leap to ‘age compression’ where marketers dial down the demographic to target the KIDS themselves!

Marketing cars to 8-12 year olds?

It seemed like a ‘disconnect’ but now I see it folds into the MRI brain scan bit nicely, especially since industry pros are realizing pester power to nag parents is creating backlash so they’re shifting toward new “shared preference” strategies.

Rethinking that ‘ad’ disguised as homework that prompted kids to move the little mini-van marker along the path with each completed book on the ‘road to reading’ I kick myself for being so naive and am more than a little tweaked I cut them so much slack back then.

Now when I see virtual Scion autos transporting tween avatars inside kids online worlds like Whyville I can connect the dots with the MRI data FAST.

As the old pop crooners used to say, “I can see clearly now, the rain is gone.”

Did it work for Toyota to target tweens?

A little homework of my own revealed this MarketWire report: “Scion” has been used nearly 200,000 times in tween chat between spring and summer alone, tweens have purchased more than 1,200 ‘virtual’ Scions online, gone on 140,000 rides in their cars, and Toyota was voted “marketer of the year.”

Talk about subliminal commercialism.

Granted, it’s positioned under the educational auspices of financial learning, since kids learn how to take out a loan, all about financing, credit approvals and such. The MRI brain-branding now has tainted my view a tad on that educational goal.

Watch for MORE of this unconventional branding and product placement in 2007 as marketers tap tween and teen mindshare for brand recognition, internet, viral, social media, mobile devices and even audio mnemonics where one second “blink” radio spots are being tested to reinforce a brand.

A sample of audio mnemonics? That ‘bing-bong-bing’ logo of NBC. A ‘toot’ of a horn and a ‘shout out’ of “Mini” for the cute lil’ Mini-Cooper on the radio.

It’s a ‘brand’ new world that’s being tested out there, as marketers tap into new ways to go around the backside of parents and bluff kids into believing they have ‘agency’ when they’re really being manipulated right into their hands.

Frankly, I wish we could just remove young children from the crosshairs of the marketing scope and leave them alone altogether so they can develop their own identities without the influence of media defining them.

But it’s far too late for that.

Shaping Youth is aiming for awareness so kids will see through it all and define media rather than be defined by it.

Kids need to see how their brains are being heavily mined by marketers trying to trap them in a way of thinking that sets their brain-scans for life.

This is the most media savvy generation yet, so I’m hopeful it’s just a matter of feeding them the data they need to keep their media literacy smarts well-tooled and combat the brain drain of adults going in the backdoor to mine their childhoods for a buck.

I’m banking on our own counter-marketing efforts to give kids the evidence upfront, so they’ll wisely prop their foot in the doorjam of that alluring gingerbread house and keep it from slamming shut.

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