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Chapter 4: Marketing is a Big Load of Bologna

We’ve established that big companies have some huge challenges to deal with. If you’re anything like me, you probably see opportunity in this. If they’re slow and hard to move, there must be room for little guys like us, right? I’m with you—really, I am. Actually, from the articles I’ve read and conversations I’ve taken part in lately, I get the feeling that many are onboard with this notion.

“Everybody’s talking at me. I don’t hear a word they’re saying.”

Those words, from Harry Nilsson’s recording of the song Everybody’s Talkin’, float about in my mind when I think about most marketing.26 I’m just trying to do my work, walk down the street, or eat my dinner. But, it feels almost impossible to do so, as so many want to say something pointed in my direction. Most of them aren’t actually talking to me, nor are they in any way interested in me—even if they might pretend to be. They just want me to do something for them: buy their stuff, vote for them, watch their movie… you get the picture.

This is made worse yet for me personally, because I’m a marketer too. I like to think I’m on the less irritating end of the spectrum, but the fact is, I have to spread the word about smashLAB and the projects we work on. I wish I didn’t have to, and I appreciate that most of our work comes from referral. But little of it happens without some marketing at one point or another. We all need to make a little money, and in order to do so, we have to tell people about what we do.

Some feel weird, bad, or even embarrassed about having to get the word out, but that doesn’t make it any less necessary. The funny part is there really isn’t anything inherently problematic with this. It’s just that so many of us have chosen to utilize crummy methods. Some lie, others don’t shut up, and most just scramble about, trying to make things like newsletters do all of the work for them.

New! Improved! Ultra grease fighting formula! (Lies)

In your gut you know that most marketing is a load of crap. It’s vague, inhuman, and backed by nonsense that seems designed to bamboozle. It is about exaggerating wildly and telling lies. Take a walk through any shopping mall and look at the messages found in promotional materials. The first thing you’ll notice is that they’re founded on hyperbole.

Sure, I understand that Nike sells more Air Jordans by advertising them with that epic icon of Jordan in flight than they would by just calling them “good shoes.” Truth be told, most of us don’t mind a little exaggeration as it really isn’t such a terrible thing. We all like to embellish at one time or another: “It was so funny I peed my pants!”, or “I’m so hungry I could eat a cow!”, or “Totally… he’s so stupid he put a peep hole in a glass door.” We try to make our stories colorful, and marketers do the same.

Playful exaggeration can be fun, and sometimes even sparks our imaginations. The problem with this comes with how easily it goes too far. When this happens, we find ourselves surrounded by messages that aim to outdo the rest with increasingly questionable claims. Although I may believe that Cheerios are reasonably healthy, I sincerely doubt that eating them will reduce my cholesterol by 4–6 percent. (The FDA seems to feel similarly. They recently “scolded” the company for making such claims.)27

I know what you’re thinking: If even the people who make Cheerios perhaps aren’t telling the entire truth, maybe all marketing messages are suspect! Am I to believe my underwear won’t result in women clamoring just to get near me? Could it be that the contractor who’s renovating my house isn’t actually the best in the business? Worse yet, those emails I get offering to add seven inches to the length of my penis—are even those questionable? Damn! I wish I could get that check back!

The old model is inherently flawed

Just for fun, take a moment to google some ads created in the fifties, sixties, or seventies. This time is fawningly referred to as “The Golden Age of Advertising,” and the ads from it offer amazing examples of collective delusion. Ad agencies concocted fantasies with hardly any connection to reality and established whole new standards for deceit.

I’d like to share with you the ad that was my introduction to the cruel world of advertising. Like many of the kids of my generation, I loved comic books and I had a collection of them that I adored. One of the staples of comics at that time were the ads for x-ray goggles, Hypno-Coins, and of course… Sea Monkeys. I was too young to be particularly critical of advertising; nevertheless, I did think these ads were a little questionable. Curiosity got the better of me, though, so I pulled together a few dollars and ordered my very own Sea Monkeys.

I eagerly awaited their arrival and imagined the things we might do together. I pondered their size and demeanor, while wondering if they would share the same diversity in gender and age as illustrated in the ad. I was particularly excited to gather my family around our new bowl of Sea Monkeys, to join in the excitement and revelry of observing our new waterborne friends. They’d swim, dance, toss balls, and perhaps even take a break on occasion and simply lounge about, making idle Sea Monkey chitchat.

Finally the day came and the package arrived. I followed the marked instructions diligently and waited for my new friends to “hatch.” From that day forth I would race home from school, anticipating the fun I had been promised by the fine people who advertised in the comic books I held so dear. That day never came.

After a few days (I can’t remember exactly how long) I did see some miniscule flecks of dust floating about the bowl, but they never amounted to much. No dancing, no games, no interspecies shindigs. I soon lost all interest in my bowl of murky water. It turns out that brine shrimp aren’t nearly as exciting as one might be led to believe.

This story, or some variation of it, is a good example of how many of us were introduced to advertising. As a result of this, a strange reciprocal arrangement was formed. We became cynical of advertising, seeing it as little more than fanciful exaggeration; meanwhile, advertisers learned that for no clear reason we’d endure even the most ridiculous lies. With time, these ads lost some of their power. The frequency, funds, and exaggeration they now demand in order to make an impact results in the medium becoming largely unworkable for any party without vast resources.

Turn up the volume!

Lying like this has become an addiction of sorts for many marketers, and it seems that one fix only leads to a bigger one. Worse yet, it becomes a kind of perpetual one-upmanship in an effort to stem the diminishing returns. A lie may be heard once but will probably be ignored upon being repeated. We all know what to do when no one can hear you, though… you SPEAK LOUDER!

So instead of a few people standing around talking about what they do, we’re left with a whole room full of folks trying to outyell one another. The lies also follow suit, become increasingly obscene. Once down this road, it seems no one can speak human at all any longer. New fantasies are barfed out in rapid succession and hardly a sentence is uttered without a healthy scoop of superlatives and flowery adjectives.

Perceptive marketers even work to dip into the psyche in an effort to uncover people’s greater problems; they then pretend to have the answer to said problems. They tell us how we can be better people: more complete, more content, perhaps even the best versions of ourselves. Sadly, there are very few products that truly solve any of the deeper challenges we face.

Ultimately, it’s the business version of The Little Boy Who Cried Wolf. As an increasing number of unrealistic promises are made and broken, we turn off and believe very little that’s said. Even worse, we become suspect of true messages just because we’re so strongly predisposed to thinking everything must be a lie.

Blah, blah, blah, blah-ba-dee-blah, blah, blah!

When everyone’s talking and no one’s listening, we’re not left with communication; we’re left with noise. Before you do any marketing, I want you to consider how little signal you find amidst this static. Did you watch television this morning? Were there any ads that made you buy something or even take some kind of action? If not, can you at least remember one of those ads? I can’t hear your response, but my suspicion is that you’re quietly thinking, “no.” I admit I’m picking on advertising here, but I certainly don’t think this mess is limited to ads.

I find almost the exact same thing in resumes from job applicants. Every once in a while we need to hire someone at smashLAB. At these times, we receive hundreds of resumes from candidates who go on at length about how they’ll be a greater employee than we can possibly imagine. Their enthusiasm is seemingly difficult to contain. Yet if you ask me to recommend a designer or developer at this moment, I’d be hard pressed to think of even one.

Why? Is it that they are all hacks? Hardly—many of our applicants seem amply qualified. Is it that they weren’t polite? No—almost all of these letters were pleasant and positive. Is it that I’m just a big jerk? That might be it, but I’d like to think the problem can once again be tracked back to noise levels. It’s really hard for me to differentiate between most applicants, as they tend to exaggerate in exactly the same way. Here I have a few hundred resumes, all largely identical, each trying to outplay the next one. How am I to tell the difference?

The question then might be: what would I need to see, in order to break through the noise? Some have thought about just that, and they’ve effectively “turned up the volume.” One sent us a package containing an umbrella, another formatted their resume to like a newspaper, and one even packaged up a small bottle of alcohol. The strangest berated us for being, “so fucking predictable I could puke” in an effort to stand out. (By the way, that last approach didn’t work out particularly well.) The question still stands, though: how do you get past all of the noise, given that every resume claims its owner is better than the next one in the stack?

Showing and telling

I studied under a sometimes curmudgeonly painting instructor during my time at the Emily Carr Institute (now University). Bob was a little older than his fellow faculty members and often seemed out of his element, given the direction art was headed. While others worked on a more conceptual level, Bob was primarily concerned with forming an emotional connection through his paintings. At the time this resonated with me.

There were aspects of Bob’s instruction that didn’t jibe with me, but one lesson that I’ve held on to—and will continue to—relates to Bob’s perception of the difference between showing and telling. I’d often tell him that a painting I had made was supposed to be fun; he’d counter that it just didn’t work. I’d get very frustrated by this, but he continued to remind me that just saying something “was” didn’t make it so. Bob’s contention was that the most powerful art didn’t need an artist’s statement to accompany it, as it would make you feel a certain way, free of any verbal crutches.

As we explore this notion of showing versus telling, we see that it applies almost everywhere. It’s easy to say you have a great band, but it means more if you play songs that are as great as those written by the Rolling Stones. Telling people you have a great sense of humor isn’t a big deal, but making them laugh is. Likewise, telling us your company has great service means nothing, because everyone says that. Those who show us remarkable service are much more rare.

Prove it!

Let’s address the quandary posed earlier: how might a job applicant break through the noise? To which I’d suggest that one might concentrate on establishing proof. Claiming to be a talented, hard working, and insightful candidate isn’t any more challenging than saying you’ve climbed Everest. On the other hand, exhibiting a snapshot from the peak changes everything.

You might respond that this is harder for candidates to do, as they are only being differentiated by a resume. If we work strictly with the traditional application process, you’d be right. I ask whether we should play by such rules. Personally, I’d look at what it would take to get past all the noise and into a space of one’s own. Here the message might actually be heard, and proof could be presented.

One might do this a number of different ways. Perhaps they’d seek out a person who could vouch for them, and ask if they might make contact on their behalf. A qualified and respected individual or shared connection can often elevate one beyond the noise and lend validity to their claims. For newcomers, it might not be so easy to call on such a connection; they might have to do something less traditional.

Perhaps they’d start by investing some time in the prospective employer’s company. If this candidate is as interested in the company as she claims to be, it wouldn’t take too long to get to know the employer and what problems they’re facing. Perhaps the applicant could connect through a blog or at an industry event. Maybe they’d make a note about something that might be helpful: “Hey Sally, nice to meet you! I remember you were looking for new type foundries—here’s a link that might help.” I’m scratching the surface here, but you see what I’m getting at.

Doing this requires an investment. Where one applicant’s colleagues might apply for hundreds of jobs a day, the smart one would take extra time to research the company and make a meaningful connection. To cut through the noise, you have to give your audience a reason to believe. That takes more than telling us you’re the greatest thing since sliced bread. I’m not suggesting any of this will be easy. Of course, establishing a meaningful relationship hardly ever is.

How did it get so bad?

Most of us think it’s better to blend in than stand out. So a lot of people find out what everyone else is doing and copy. We often reason that others must be doing it right, and this keeps us from thinking for ourselves. Much marketing starts with a few people who speak loudly and exaggerate frequently. The next group discovers this pattern and mimics it. Subsequently we’re left with a whole bunch of groups screaming lies about themselves. Surprise, surprise—most of us stop paying attention.

Some people work around this. For example, I’ve been around a few who speak very quietly amongst others. Almost every time, the sound level drops so others can hear what this person has to say. Not all are as prepared to change their tone.

Some get frustrated that they can’t break through the noise, and instead of changing how they communicate, they start looking to gimmicks and novel delivery mechanisms. As a result, advertising becomes prescriptive: marketers create lists of items to add to their plan, hoping that one might do the trick. They create new email newsletters, print glossy mailers, and buy a few ads on the radio. All of these things are added, without much thought regarding what they’re intended to do, other than some vague notion of “creating awareness.” Then along come the web and social media, and these poor, overworked souls are left trying to do even more.

Lies, noise, and “stabs in the dark” comprise the core components of how many organizations approach their marketing. They thrash about wildly, trying anything that might hit paydirt. Thing is, few of us are in the gold mining business—we’re just trying to establish relationships. To do this you need to concentrate on what you want to say and proceed methodically. It also doesn’t hurt to give these efforts a little time to grow. Although we love the idea of instant relationships, they are pretty much unheard of.

Who are you talking to anyway?

It seems to me that marketing often struggles with intention. Just look at how companies speak. The clumsiest ones talk about themselves or their products, but only in glowing terms: “We do this, we do that, yadda yadda yadda.” Ask yourself, if you were on a date with someone who only spoke about himself, would you want to meet him again? Didn’t think so.

On the other hand, some get lost in “you.” One marketer I’m familiar with suggests that we skew our language to use pronouns like “you” instead of “we.” Fine enough and point taken, but try actually doing this and see what you’re left with. It’s really frightful—kind of like someone playing a trick or trying too hard to impress you. “Oh you, you, you, you. You’re great! You’re special! Everyone loves you! You should buy some of our stuff. Did we just say ‘our’? Sorry about that! We should have said ‘you.’ Oh, you!”

Faking interest in your audience is as bad as talking only about yourself. Don’t bother—people can almost always tell, and it makes them feel like they’re being patronized. There are all kinds of other similarly weird messages, like talking about “us” as though we’re “all in it together.” This leads to ads about hopes, dreams, and equally vague nonsense. I ask if the problem with all of these examples is a lack of sincere interest in the actual audience.

Mostly we’re left with companies that talk about themselves: a few that try to woo us, and others that attempt to bamboozle with some kind of vague promise. What if it doesn’t need to be so tricky? What if we just have to look at marketing as a way to erase the gap between our companies and the people who want our stuff?

Marketing is really important

Just because a great deal of marketing is crap, doesn’t mean it’s without purpose. Fact is, you need customers to know about what you do. This is easier if you can get a few people to love your company. Doing so isn’t complex or even that difficult. Getting people to love your company is similar to getting people to like you as a person. But I’m jumping ahead of myself. We have a few things to cover before we get to making people know and love our companies.

With how I’ve carried on—and I know I do—you might think I don’t like marketing, but that isn’t the case. Some see marketing as a manipulative pursuit, but I think that’s an overly cynical perspective. Marketing is largely about communication. I’m fascinated by it, and I think you should be, too.

Most of us offer something of great value, but many fail just because they can’t articulate and share their purpose compellingly. I know great artists whom you’ll never meet; your life is less colorful as a result. I’ve been to restaurants with unbelievable cuisine, but you’ll never taste it, because they couldn’t pay the rent. We’ve all heard songs that should be enjoyed by everyone but won’t because something was just a degree off. (I can’t tell you how many Canadians are frustrated that The Tragically Hip still hasn’t “broken” stateside.)

We’d like to think the world is fair, hard work pays off, and good products find an audience in spite of limited resources. In actuality, lots of great products never get into the hands of people who would love them just because the marketing was off message, poorly executed, or resources ran short. While it’s the product that we may love, it’s marketing that often alerts us to pay attention.

Some who work in marketing have spent so much time lying that they don’t even realize they’re doing it. Perversely, telling the truth has become hard to do. It’s time to go “cold turkey” and start telling it like it is. Besides, it’s easier this way.

Get straight

Most marketing is bullshit. That only gets us so far, though. We still have to figure out how to get our messages out there. That’s the whole point of this book, and it comes down to just a couple of things: 1. Begin by understanding what you have to offer and who you are (be it good or bad). 2. Spread this message to people who care.

To do these things, you will have to let go of “me too” advertising. Most market by looking at what others do and replicating it. Sort of like saying, “my neighbor drives a Volvo, so I should drive a Volvo.”, “My boss likes bratwurst, so I should like bratwurst.”, “The kid in shop class stuck his tongue to an icy pole…” You see where this leads. Little good can come from blindly following what others are doing. I ask you to step back and think about who you are. Is there something about your company that’s memorable and true, even if it’s not necessarily something others would think to promote?

A Canadian cough syrup company called Buckley’s serves as a fine example of this. For me, the name of their cough syrup actually comes to mind after their memorable tagline: “It Tastes Awful. And It Works.” I don’t have to tell you how rare it is to hear a message like this. Most companies don’t like to admit their flaws, but Buckley’s does. As a result, we take notice. Conversations start because of this tagline, and belief forms as a result. Besides, most of us are more willing to believe something is good once we’re aware of the bad parts.

Your company probably has more in common with its competitors than it doesn’t. So you have to move past talking about having “great quality, service, and price” and find something that’s actually notable. This may require you to openly admit what you don’t do, aren’t good at, or perhaps what you are obsessive about. Good things rarely start by misleading your partners. The strange part is that so many companies miss out on connecting with us because they don’t see opportunity in their real stories.

Tell me that you’re awful!

Most of us see honesty as a baseline. Someone saying, “I’m a really honest person” only leads us to wonder why they felt the need to make such a claim.

Companies often twist messages in their favor and then think they can turn around and build some kind of trust. (Try doing the same with your spouse and see what happens.) Trust doesn’t happen when it’s built on partial truths. Nope, you’re going to have to embrace your flaws, mistakes, and shortcomings to build real trust. Don’t worry—it’s not as scary as it sounds.

Building trust is actually easy. Just start by telling the truth, and then do as you promised. Really—how bad are the very worst things about you and your company? Are you part of the mob? Do you have bodies concealed in your trunk of your car? Is your product poorly made? Does it cause cancer? Any of these would probably be good reason to hide. My bet, is that the things you’re uncomfortable with aren’t quite so bad. Actually, I think there’s opportunity to be found in things that might be mistaken for flaws.

McDonalds’ reputation has been tarnished in recent years, in part because they haven’t been honest with us. While burgers and fries were for so long a staple of our culture, a shift in public interest towards healthier options led McDonald’s to try and be “that too.” They’ve introduced a number of initiatives like the Lighter Choices Menu and the Go Active program, ostensibly intended to make us see the company in a more healthy light. Few of us bought this story, and once information on the actual calorie counts of these options came to light, McDonald’s faced a mess. Headlines noting that their salads are more fattening than their burger probably weren’t part of the plan: “A chicken Caesar salad with dressing and croutons contains 425 calories and 21.4g of fat, compared with 253 calories and 7.7g of fat in a standard hamburger. Add a portion of fries to your burger and the calorie count climbs to 459, but is still less fatty than the salad at 16.7g.”28

Calories and fat aren’t actually the problem for McDonald’s. What chips away at their brand is that they pretend to be healthy. We all know better. Whether they like it or not, McDonald’s isn’t about health—it’s about great tasting junk food. I have to ask why they would give up on this position. Why not own, love, and celebrate it?

The heart attack burger

For many years, I’ve been saying this is the way McDonald’s should go: own their legacy of tasty, but not-so-healthy, burgers. Many of us need an indulgence every once in a while, and there’s little wrong with that, so long as we don’t overdo it. Recently I learned of a place that has outdone even what I might have suggested for McDonald’s.

Dr. Jon Basso makes believe that he’s a doctor, but he doesn’t pretend his restaurant is healthy—actually, quite to the contrary. At his restaurant there isn’t a vegetarian option, nor is there a Lighter Choices Menu. Instead, this hospital themed restaurant features scantily clad nurses (waitresses), who serve up single, double, triple, and quadruple “Bypass” burgers that reach up to around 8,000 calories (that’s a lot). Their “Flatliner Fries” are cooked in pure lard, and they offer a selection of other health-hating options: unfiltered cigarettes, liquor, Jolt Cola, and more. With The Heart Attack Grill, we find a company that’s positioned itself quite effectively by being bad… really, really bad.29

I don’t personally like the Heart Attack Grill and what it represents. What I do admire is how they’re positioned around this idea. Additionally, they are in many ways more truthful than other fast food chains, but I suppose this is a little like applauding a crack dealer for telling his clients that his stuff will kill them.

The best marketing is done by the audience

If you ever find yourself in Chandler, Arizona, I bet you’ll take a drive by the Heart Attack Grill. You might walk in or you might not, but you’re likely to remember it. Why? Did Jon Basso send you a brochure that you’ve been holding on to? No. Maybe his company advertised on your local radio station? Not that either, eh? I’ve got it! He sent you an email about the company and a coupon for 10 percent off! Strike three? Darn… I thought I was good at this stuff.

Kidding aside, the reason you know about the Heart Attack Grill, and may tell a few friends about it, is that it’s not like most other places out there. In fact, it’s what all the other restaurants don’t want to admit to being. The Heart Attack Grill takes a position that most would see as corporate suicide and turns it into a memorable story. They court controversy and do some things I wouldn’t, but they get us talking. People talking about your stuff is a really good thing. (It’s also harder to make happen than many of us would like to admit.)

Wouldn’t it be lovely if people found what you did and just loved it? Perhaps they’d tell 10 friends, and those friends would tell 10 others, and soon everything would be perfect. Ooh… I’m excited about this already! While we’re waiting for this to happen, let’s just suppose that getting others to pay attention might require you to get the ball rolling first.

Don’t bug people

Later in this book I’ll talk about all of the excitement surrounding social media. If I may plant one early seed, it would be to not get overly bogged down by what others do and the delivery devices they use. Marketers are often stymied by which tools to use—and especially by the idea that you have to bug people in order to build awareness. Before executing on any marketing piece, simply ask yourself, “Will the recipient get something out of this message?”

Determine what you have to say and ensure that it matters. From there you just have to connect with people who are interested in your message, and are willing to help you tell your story clearly. I believe most companies would substantially strengthen their marketing by doing this alone. It’s all about building good relationships. Before we talk more about that, let’s look at the failings of advertising.


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Next chapter: The Problem With Advertising



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