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Confessions of a Skeptical Marketer

Dec. 13, 2016 by Steve Cuno | Comments (26)

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.

26 responses to “Confessions of a Skeptical Marketer”

  1. Jim Veihdeffer says:

    I can empathize totally with the ethical dilemmas as the line between moral/ethical and less-than-ethical and downright lying can get pretty thin.

    I used to boast, in the most subdued terms of course, that in my own 30-year advertising and marketing career that I insisted on sticking to the facts and avoiding outright blarney. Of course I did created ads for banks’ “Christmas Clubs” which I found out were really not great financial deals but which did no harm and may have been useful for workers who weren’t in the habit of saving up for Christmas time.

    But then, just yesterday, upon hearing that Vemma had finally settled for more than $200M in damages for their outrageous MLM schemes and had been definitively deemed a pyramid operation…I remembered that I had edited press releases for Vemma and its sidekick energy drink, Verve. In my limited defense, I didn’t realize that the products were sold by MLM or that college students were tricked and enticed into investing. But I did suspect that the 65-100 questionable ingredients (yes…that many!) were undoubtedly simply hype and woo. I edited the press releases and requested that they add disclaimers, mostly to protect themselves, but money was tight and I was low down on the totem pole of approvals.

    Maybe “low down” could serve double duty for my ethics at the time. I’ve stopped beating myself up for that but the price of truth is vigilance.

  2. Al Lucas says:

    Steve, Very refreshing to hear from someone of your character and caliber. I happen to be a retired uneducated truck driver but a very good skeptic none the less. I have been reluctant to ever comment on here being embarrassed by my vocabulary after reading all the great comments. I do not believe 90% of what I hear or read and even some things I see. I learned this the hard way by being a sucker many times during my lifetime. Thank you for being so honest and looking out for people like me even though it may hurt you in the pocketbook. I can assure you that any rewards you do receive will have much more worth than a little money will ever give you.

    • Steve Cuno says:

      Thank you, Al. Your clear, intelligent writing and outlook suggest a highly educated person, schooling or the lack of it aside. I might add that I have great appreciation for truckers. I’m keenly aware that merchants have inventory only because truckers transport it to them. —Steve Cuno

  3. Britain says:

    I worked for Mr. Cuno for a few years. He is a man of great integrity and charm. I highly recommend him to anyone needing facts told to them straight (but peppered with very unfortunate puns).

  4. bruce says:

    OK, Steve, what’s your angle telling us about your unswerving ethical correctness? I smell a rat. :)

  5. Beth Ayers says:

    I read somewhere that the first American settlers were people who were inclined to believe advertising. “Come to the new world! Unparalleled freedom and prosperity for everyone!” The skeptical people said the equivalent of “yeah, right” and stayed put. So as descendants of the hopeful believers, maybe we are genetically inclined be uncritical of what we’re told.

    I think we need to start skepticism earlier – teaching very young children that the commercials and stories they see aren’t necessarily to be trusted just because they look exciting.

    Thanks for your integrity: we need to spread the word – that truth is important – whenever we can.

  6. Bill A says:

    I have long felt the level of expertise developed by the advertising and marketing industries has created an uneven playing field when matched against the average consumer. Good to know you recognize this and work to inform rather than deceive!

  7. Ray Madison says:

    Sure, but if your product is not quite as good as your competitor’s is, do you leave that knowledge out of your ads? And do you know anyone else that does?
    Competition is by necessity a deceptive practice. Why? Because to win sales, the other guy will deceive the public as to which of you has the better product, even if you won’t. Deception in the competitive workplace is not immoral per se.
    But what do you do then when the competitor flat out lies about his product as compared to yours? You point out his lies, of course!!
    In the end, competition is a tricky business, and all trickery is deceptive. But can’t there be a situation where deception is still an honest practice? And I would argue yes. It’s when you refuse to denigrate your product by pointing out that if you were smarter, you would have made it better!

  8. Roger Williamson says:

    Nice article Steve. I feel your pain. I worked for over 20 years for a now shrinking camping outfitter. I started in Sales and moved to management and Buying. One day a Rep came in and tried to sell the Power Band to another Buyer. He fell for it hook, line and sinker. After the Rep left I tried to educate my mate about the Ideo Motor Effect, Confirmation Bias and in general scams. He got mad and dug in. Long story short I had to tell him I would go to upper management to prevent him buying and reselling them. I simply could not abide in my company abetting a fraud. This was when they were new and hot. We could have sold hundreds of thousands of them before the public caught on. I slept well. I am now currently unemployed because of decreased sales.

  9. Peggy Baker says:

    There’s nothing here I haven’t heard or k own before but it is nice to see someone actually admitting these issues and having enough conscience to question one’s own motives. I taught science for 26 years in middle school and tried my best to increase rational thinking and skeptical questioning of everything. So disheartening to see the potential college money wasted on electronics, clothes, cosmetics, etc. in the teen population. Marketers relentlessly bash kids and their insecurities to make a buck.

  10. Scott says:

    I can relate. I’m in marketing now, but these moral dilemmas date back to my very first job as a retail employee at Staples. Management told us repeatedly to offer extended warranties on virtually every item we sold, from chairs to power strips to electric pencil sharpeners. While some of these made sense for the right customer, they were mostly superfluous. Furthermore, the sale of these extended warranties was the only trackable metric by which our performance was judged.

  11. Joan says:

    Ethical standards (enforced!) are in place for various other enterprises affecting the public, such as research involving people and animals. I hear that journalists also have a code of ethics, although the recent election season does make me skeptical of its efficacy. How is it that we as a society let advertisers operate in the public sphere without demanding some serious adherence to truth and facts? Caveat emptor is hardly an excuse or justification.

  12. BillG says:

    As in Casablanca “I’m shocked”!

    My lot and unhappiness in life is due to not driving the ultimate car or using the right brand of soap.

    With Christmas approaching, what’s next?
    Please don’t tell me tell me Santa Claus is not real and polar bears don’t drink Coke?

    • Bob Pease says:

      St Nicholas is real and lived in the 4th Century.

      Santa claus sounds a lot like “Satan’s Claws”

      Dr. S

  13. Donna says:

    Keith Kenyon – I believe in your case “intellectually stupid and gullible” fits.

    • Bob Pease says:

      neener neener!!

      He is rubber and you are glue.. it bounces off him and sticks to yew.

      Paraphrase of Dr. P.W. Herman

      Psueudscience Psucks !!

      Dr. Latero Sidethink Hp.D

  14. Norbert says:

    Nobody’s perfect and people do tend to grow and learn with age and experience, and stories like yours turn previous ethiical lapses into positive tools for teaching others. When it comes to advertising, I take it all with a huge grain of salt until such time I know for certain it’s truthful, rather than lies, bunk or stretching facts so thin they disappear. That said, while I wouldn’t want to take this too far, there is surely at least a little onus on individuals to be aware of the dangers in the world and take the responsibility of protecting themselves. What bonehead would take thousands of dollars and give it to strangers on nothing but their say-so without ever checking it out? There are the vulnerable and truly ignorant or otherwise confused and addled that laws should protect. I don’t really like victim shaming, yet I’ve also met reasonably intelligent people with reasonably good jobs and reasonably good thinking skills who nevertheless got sucked in. As you mentioned, some people accept no amount of logic, evidence or rational explanation. I feel sorry for them, but what can you do? I doubt any law can protect everyone from all charlatans.

  15. Elaine Jones says:

    I enjoyed the article, Steve. I am also a self-employed marketing and PR agent. I don’t work in the consumer industry, as you do, but I have turned down work because of claims I did not want to promote. I plan to follow you on Twitter!

  16. Paul Fournier says:

    Great words Steve. Having spent 40 years in B2B marketing, the targets are different but many clients do their best to stretch the truth with marginal benefit claims. Human nature always looking for an edge. Keep your integrity, you will sleep much better.

  17. Jill says:

    Great article Steve.
    It makes me relieved to hear that there are others who battle against pseudo science and gimmicks. I constantly fend off quacks and nonsense initiatives with no evidential basis in my job. I am a psychologist in a high hazard industry where keeping people safe is paramount, so only proven methodologies will do. Sadly this isn’t always the case and often I’m not popular for suggesting otherwise…

  18. James T. Lee, MD,PhD says:

    Very well-written piece Steve. We need folks like you to shake up a very sleazy, and often misleading, area of the advertising underworld called, “Nutritional Gimmicks That Will Cure All Sorts Of Ailments”. Some zillions of dollars get wasted by gullible consumers chasing impossible outcomes. P.T. Barnum was right, but it is not necessary for folks to continuously part with their money to endlessly reconfirm his thesis.

  19. Keith Kenyon says:

    Nice article Steve. I often wonder how the brain of a skeptic operates relative to the millions of us who blindly buy goods sold by charlatans or vote for and who persistently support racist, stupid and sexist politicians who preach a simple yet irrational and impossible to implement populist dogma. Are Skeptics more intelligent, more rational, more considered than the rest of us or are those of us who are gullible, just intellectually lazy?

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