In the midst of holiday chaos, brand messaging is loud and clear and, more often than not, deemed manipulative. No surprise, really. Advertising motives have always been questioned — especially since the 1950s’ Vicary hoax involving subliminal suggestion. That said, what is the plausibility of subliminal persuasion today? And what does it matter?

Most people believe they are immune to brand messaging sort of like chicken pox. Until one day they are overcome by its strange itchiness. In his recent book Brandwashed, Martin Lindstrom cites examples like Abercrombie & Fitch’s marketing of padded bikini tops to eight-year-old girls and hair removal brand Nair aiming “Nair Pretty” to 10-to-15-year-olds. In an interview with NPR, Lindstrom says “companies get their hooks into us earlier than we may have thought; he says the average American 3-year-old can recognize 100 brands.” For certain, this is cause for concern.

However, in truth, it’s not the marketing gimmicks that work over the long run. It’s the slow, steady, consistent, on-target messaging that works — the kind of inspired messaging that adults relate to and remember the brand it came from. In the case of Abercrombie, the symbolism of padded bikini tops is bolstered only by the conversations that continue outside and beyond the purchase. It’s not an Abercrombie conversation.

Segue to the real point of Lindstrom’s book Brandwashed: It is not a book of anti-branding. Martin Lindstrom points out in our own phone chat, “Even anti-brands eventually become in their own right a brand…The point is to wake up and know when you are being manipulated.” A resounding point in today’s world.

As even Martin knows so well, the change called for goes beyond the people affected. The real change is in the concept of branding itself.

The Wall Street Journal also reviewed Lindstrom’s Brandwashed book. The review by Eric Felten cites Lindstrom’s reference to “various imaging technologies, looking for what parts of the brain light up when consumers hear product pitches, make buying decisions or interact with goods” as high tech phrenology that makes serious cognitive scientists cringe.

But, in many ways, that’s where we are at. We’re looking for pieces of code and related behavioral responses that allow marketers to score us. Of course, people are responding. People are accepting our language.They’re checking like buttons. They’re rating. They’re checking in. It’s easy because technology itself is growing in its power to modify behavior. Is this the point though? Are we celebrating modified behavior or is there something greater that we can be using technology for?

In actuality, we should be checking into their grammar and language and reading the semantic web for what it is. Instead, we creating artificial algorithms to read as cognitive data. A Facebook like button, a Four Square mayorship are all artificial grammar that contribute to the concept of brand washing.

Ironically, the same technologies validating marketing direction, feeding our insecurities and facilitating our surrender to brand washing are the same technologies that will allow us to regain control. “We can build a brand and tear it down,” warns Lindstrom.

What needs to be recognized quickly is the diversity of culture networks across the consumer landscape so we can determine meaningful, readable human grammar. There are networks of culture that get the play of technology and those that don’t — yet. The gimmicks and pop science will hit a brick wall when marketers attempt to reach into their midst. They’ll game the system and establish new rules. Once upon a time such culture networks were too easily dismissed as niche. Today, their fervor spreads fast and wide.

Yet, again, what we attempt to study is an inefficient organization of behavior. People, classified by tools and access. That can’t work. The relationship of culture and networks transcends time, place and tool.

The understanding of culture networks can support our next economy by making reality visible and aggregating anonymous behavioral data. Now is not the time to engage. It is a time for exploration and a time for building confidence. A time for relearning how to inspire, surprise and honestly persuade.

On Sunday, March 11, 2012, scenarioDNA’s Tim Stock will be discussing Culture Networks at SXSW in Austin, Texas.