Even Better Than the Real Thing

At, Jonah Lehrer posts about Mexican Coke (the soda, not the inhalant tainted with cattle-deworming drugs) and concludes its alleged superiority to American Coke, made with high fructose corn syrup, is a "cognitive illusion." No ordinary illusion, mind you, but one that occurs in your brain.

In a passage that would delight Baudrillard, Lehrer cites blind taste tests to explain how when we consume soda, we mainly taste the branding.

Although I can rationalize away that closet full of Mexican Coke bottles (thank you, Costco!), the psychology of taste perception suggests those rationalizations are wrong. Consider this clever study of soft drinks led by Samuel McClure and Read Montague. The experiment was a recreation of the Pepsi Challenge, except this time all the tasting was being done in a brain scanner. Each person swallowed sips of cola from a plastic tube while their brain was being scanned. When Coke and Pepsi were offered unlabeled, the subjects showed no measurable preference for either brand. Most of the time, they couldn’t even tell the two colas apart. But Montague’s second observation was more surprising: subjects overwhelmingly preferred drinks that were labeled as Coke, no matter what cola was actually delivered through the tubes. In other words, brand trumped taste. We cared more about the logo than the actual product.

Let them eat signs! Rob Walker had covered Mexican Coke devotees before in a Consumed column and concluded that people are attracted to it largely for its nostalgia value. He also wrote this memorable line about his own Mexican Coke purchasing: "I do this because I believe it tastes better, and I really don’t care why." No one knows better than he how fragile consumerist joys can be. Sometimes you have to take pleasures where you find them and not let theory destroy the fantasies that goods can nurture.

Lehrer is not content to leave it at that. He links the point about consuming the brand with neuroresearch that explains how various regions light up in the brain and so on in response to logos, etc. The upshot is that people get excited about the brand for sentimental reasons and this translates into subjective taste preferences attributed to the product. Through a profane transubstantiation of an unholy idea into sickly sweet material substance, we eat the marketing: "As the scientists note, Coca-Cola is 'advertising incarnate.' " This mkaes advertised Coke even better than the "real thing," the naked product with no semiotic associations invested in it.

These findings are of a piece with the research into wine tasting, which has suggested that people think more expensive wines inherently taste better. What this implies is that in general, our sense of what we like is extremely malleable, far more manipulatable than our egos can generally stand to tolerate. Brand loyalty is in some ways a hedge against this depressing fact; we assert allegiance to a brand to mask from ourselves that this loyalty has no traceable basis in our "real self." It's an inarticulate way of saying "I do this, and I don't really care why" that allows us to avoid confronting the full significance of those words.

I always wonder about the sentimental reasons, the nostalgia, that triggers these neurological responses. How malleable are those triggers? Can they be implanted by the advertising as well as stroked by it? My hypothesis has always been that consumerism works systematically to broaden our sentimentality, supplying a language and a bestiary of symbols to allow us to react emotionally to a broader range of stimuli. This lets consumerism seem to deepen our sense of self, making our lives seem emotionally (as well as materially) richer -- though from another perspective the puppet masters are just adding more strings to their marionettes.

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