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Confessions of a Skeptical Marketer

Dec. 13, 2016 by Steve Cuno | Comments (26)
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Every job has its moral dilemmas. There’s the bus driver who must drop passengers in questionable neighborhoods. The theater cashier who isn’t allowed to say, “You really want to see that stinker?” The fast food server who must suppress an urge to chastise a customer who has no better taste than to order a hotdog with ketchup.

At the more serious end of the continuum are people like the former Born Again Christian minister I met a few TAMs ago. Former, because, upon his embracing skepticism, conscience compelled him to give up his ministerial career. With it he gave up his livelihood, prestige, an adoring congregation, and a good many friends. As for the years and money he’d invested in chasing down an advanced theological degree? “Oh well,” he said.

So I can hardly complain. As a self-employed advertising and marketing practitioner, I have the luxury of deciding what work I will and will not accept. And because I work with multiple clients, declining or resigning one here or there hurts but won’t put me out of business.

Not that exercising that luxury is easy. Selection bias shmelection bias: I am certain that some supernatural force gets a kick out of sending slimy but temptingly profitable opportunities my way when I’m most desperate for cash.

Take, for instance, the time Greg called on the heels of my having lost a substantial client, or, to put it another way, when I was trying to calculate how long I could go without eating in order to make the next house payment. “I’ve been retained to shoot a commercial,” he said, “and I need you to write it.”

Already counting my chickens, I said, “Absolutely. What’s the product?”

“It’s all natural,” he gushed, unaware that he had just raised Red Flag Number 1. “A mineral,” he went on, raising Flag 2. “You put it in your fridge and your food lasts longer.” Flag 3.

I asked, “Does it work?”

Drawing a heavy sigh, he said, “No. I know because I tested it with time-lapse photography.” Then, his voice brightening, he added, “But I have hours of footage of people saying it worked for them.” After I served him an earful, he laughed good-naturedly and said, “I get the impression you’re not going to accept this project.”

On another occasion when money was tight, the marketing director of a large, prosperous multilevel marketing (MLM) company showed up ready to spend. Not bothering with tact, largely because I’m tactless, I told him I don’t accept MLMs. It didn’t go well. He huffed out, taking with him his large marketing budget upon which I may have left a little drool.

In cases like those, a devil sitting on my shoulder, no less real than the above-referenced supernatural force, whispers, “You and your high horse. The director will find a writer. The MLM will find an agency. You should have shut up and taken the money. In the end, you will have made no difference. Except you’ll be poorer.”

He’s a persuasive little devil. In the days when I sat atop a somewhat lower horse, I let him talk me into continuing to write ads for a product well after I’d begun to suspect—or admit to myself—that it didn’t work. It was software purporting to predict stock prices by applying sciencey-looking mumbo jumbo to past performance. I’m ashamed to admit that years went by before I found the integrity to walk away. There’s no telling how many gullible people I persuaded to waste their money on the software, which wasn’t cheap, and to throw away a good deal more if they actually used it. A few years after resigning the account, I met an octogenarian who, using the software, had squandered nearly all of his considerable pension. And he still believed. There was no talking him out of his certainty that this time he had uncovered the secret, and that his next foray was going to bring him riches.

I get to live with that.

Even legitimate products can pose ethical problems. I recently fielded an inquiry from a company that sells massage chairs. I am not fond of letting a massage chair have its way with me, but if you are I’m happy to sell you one. The problem wasn’t the product. It was the way the company sold it. It seemed their chairs cured every hard-to-spell ailment, all but eliminated medical bills, lengthened life, and, for all I know, made in-laws likable. It’s more than likely they believed their claims. Either way, they wouldn’t let me bring them down to reality, so I passed.

One of my clients was an established, highly regarded manufacturer of legitimate, needful electronic devices. I had employees then, and they whipped up powerful advertising for the product line. I later learned that the company’s engineers had fed us lies about the technical wizardry allegedly giving their products an edge. The products worked, but they worked no better than competing ones. Lacking the expertise to evaluate the technological claims for ourselves and trusting the PhDs who made them, we unwittingly wrote their lies into their ads. I’m still mad.

A fact of literary life is that bad apples make for more compelling storytelling than good. You don’t attract readers or viewers with headlines like, “No one produced any false advertising today.”

But fairness demands acknowledging an ample supply of ethical marketers. From steel-cut oats to sweaters to nail clippers to rubber bands to luxury cars, the vast majority of products perform as claimed.

I’m lucky. I get to work with good apples. My client list includes a multi-state bank that refuses to seize fully legal opportunities to make money when it’s not in customers’ best interest (all the more appreciated amid recent Wells Fargo revelations); a not-for-profit secular organization you’ve heard of that raises a voice and backs it with action; a worldwide company that may have created your bank’s online and mobile applications; and a water softener dealer.

Did you cringe at the mention of the water softener dealer? When they approached me, so did I. To wrap up on a positive note, I’d like to share a bit about my experience with them. It’s almost as compelling as a bad apple story.

I like soft water, but I dislike the selling tactics that typify the industry. When Monte contacted me on behalf of the dealership, I expressed doubts about taking them on. You’ll recall that in such matters I am not the prince of tact. Undaunted, he invited me to hear their standard pitch and pore over their marketing materials. I found none of the over-the-top promises, weasels, and scams I’d come to expect from water softener peddlers. Then he invited me to scrutinize the product. While all brine tanks are created pretty much equal, a fact he concedes, I could see for myself that their control unit’s proprietary design was demonstrably superior.

But the real test came when I began writing. The most frequent comment from happy customers was that soft water bettered rashes and itchy skin. Monte wanted to make hay with the claim, which I would do only if I could verify it. I’d love to hear from you if you have verification, but I couldn’t find any. There were oodles of anecdotal claims by—guess who— water softener manufacturers. I was able to track down only one controlled study. It was limited to childhood eczema and showed no effects from soft water.

I told Monte that I would not claim that soft water helped with skin problems. The best I could do was report that people said as much while pointing out that the claim wasn’t verified. Since I had braced myself for a fierce argument, you can imagine my disappointment when he had the gall to agree. He said, “We don’t want to make claims we can’t back up.”

I guess that’s one case when standing firm actually made a difference. Take that, Shoulder Devil.

Skepticism has made me better at spotting from the outset marketing claims that don’t add up. Millions of happy customers can be wrong. Testimonials may or may not mean a thing. Having managed a business doesn’t qualify someone for public office. “Invented by a teacher”—or, for that matter, “by a doctor”—doesn’t establish a so-called alternative medicine’s bona fides. “Free range” doesn’t necessarily mean “ranging free.” Products legally labeled “natural” and “organic” are a far cry from the public’s concept of “natural” and “organic,” and, either way, it doesn’t follow that consuming them makes people healthier.

A skeptical outlook has helped me avoid taking on questionable apples, which is great for the conscience but less great for the wallet. Skepticism even robs me of any reassurance of eventual karmic compensation. On the other hand, when I’m promoting a good product, skepticism helps me prune the nonsense and come up with more soundly reasoned, more persuasive stuff.

I do not pretend that no ugliness bobs in the wake of any company. Plenty bobs in my own wake. But another gem I picked up from skepticism is the danger of the false dichotomy. Whether in the role of contractor, employee, or consumer, each of us gets to decide just how many compromises we’re willing to tolerate.

Steve Cuno

Steve Cuno is chagrined to realize he is old enough to have been in the advertising business for 38 years. He started the RESPONSE Agency 22 years ago. He is the author of numerous articles and two books on marketing, but his favorite role has been that of as-told-to author for Joanne Hanks in her memoir, "It’s Not About the Sex” My Ass: Confessions of an Ex-Mormon Ex-Polygamist Ex-Wife. You may have noticed that Steve likes putting the word “confessions” in titles.

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