Marketing is not a dirty word

I’ve been thinking about why marketing and salesmanship seems to have such a poor reputation among so many people.

It tends to conjure up images of Bryl-cream-haired, shiny-suited arseholes trying to sell you a crappy used car. (And, granted, there are a few of those types around.) 

Mr Wormwod, Roald Dahl/Quentin Blake.

Mr Wormwood from Matilda is the epitome of a slimy salesman

Perhaps it’s because what we’re trying to do, when you get right down to it, is modify people’s behaviour. And that’s a power that can be used for good or evil.

However, I’m sure that you, like me, have no intention of misleading, coercing or otherwise shystering your way through business – and that’s really important for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, and most obviously, because it’s a poor way to behave. Taking advantage of somebody to get what you want is just not cricket.

Secondly, and less obviously but very importantly for your business, people will resent this style of selling. And rightly so. Businesses that use underhanded, manipulative tactics don’t keep their customers and they get bad reputations.

Will Rogers said: “Advertising is the art of convincing people to spend money they don’t have for something they don’t need.”

And H. G. Wells said: “Advertising is legalised lying.”

The former is exactly what we’re not trying to do. And you can’t get away with the latter these days (thank goodness).

So, how do we avoid crossing the line between influence and manipulation?

As always, the answer comes back to two things: your reason why (because that keeps you honest), and knowing your customer inside out.

By discovering what your ideal customer worries about, what she needs, and how to solve her problems, you’ll ultimately be helping her.

It also comes down to telling the truth. As Bill Bernbach said: “The most powerful element in advertising is the truth.”

But it’s not enough to just tell the truth. We have to make our customers feel something, create desire for whatever it is we want to sell them. And doing that ethically is crucial.

So let’s take a little look at the psychology of persuasion.

Before we start, I really recommend that you get yourself a copy of Robert Cialdini’s Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. It’s a superb book and it should be on the bookshelf of every small business owner. If you’ve already read it, you’ll find much of what follows familiar, but I make no apologies for repeating it.

Cialdini has spent much of his working life studying compliance: what makes us do what others want us to do. What makes us buy. And what makes us – at times – suckers taken in when we shouldn’t have been.

He wondered why a request, put a certain way, would be rejected – when a request that asked for the same favour in a slightly different way would be successful. He observed people, businesses and advertising. He joined many sales programmes and learned the different sales techniques used by successful salesmen in lots of different industries.

Here’s an important point for you though: persuasion and compliance techniques aren’t just used in advertising. They’re used every day, all the time, by you and me and everyone else. So pay close attention, because you’ll find this stuff useful outside your business as well as inside it.

Cialdini discovered six principles; six weapons of influence, if you like.

Here they are:

  1. Reciprocation
  2. Commitment and consistency
  3. Social proof
  4. Liking
  5. Authority
  6. Scarcity

I go into them in a bit more detail in my book, Business For Superheroes. You can get your copy here.

For now, though, I want to share something interesting with you. All those principles and the compliance techniques based on them work because we have evolved to rely on automatic responses to certain situations.

And we’ve evolved this way because it saves time. If we didn’t have such automatic responses, we’d never get anything done because we would have to analyse every single situation in minute detail – and that just isn’t feasible.

Here’s an example from the animal kingdom: mother turkeys are ‘programmed’ to respond to the particular ‘cheep-cheep’ sound baby turkeys make. Researchers found that mother turkeys went into mothering mode when a tape recorder hidden in a stuffed polecat played those ‘cheep-cheep’ sounds.

Similarly, male robins will attack any other male robins – with a bright red breast – that enter their territory. When researchers stuck a bunch of red feathers in a garden, the resident robin attacked them – but ignored a perfect replica of a robin without a red breast.

Humans are the same.

PS There’s a lot of nonsense talked about advertising and marketing. I can’t be arsed to argue with it all, so I’ll leave you with two quotes from much wiser men than I.

Winston Churchill: “Advertising nourishes the consuming power of men. It creates wants for a better standard of living. It sets up before a man the goal of a better home, better clothing, better food for himself and his family. It spurs individual exertion and greater production.”

Franklin D. Roosevelt: “If I were starting life over again, I am inclined to think that I would go into the advertising business. Advertising covers the whole range of human needs. It brings to the greatest number of people actual knowledge concerning useful things. It is essentially a form of education. It has risen with ever-growing rapidity to the dignity of an art.”

True, dat.



Vicky Fraser is a copywriter, author, and entrepreneur. She really did run away with the circus… but when she’s not swinging from a trapeze, she’s showing other copywriters and small business owners how to work with better clients, make more money, and stop missing bathtimes, first words, and dinners with angry partners. In fact, she wrote the book on it. Get your copy here.

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