Deviousness is not intelligence

I got more e-mail about my article “Social Proof, Rich Jerks, and Google” than anything I’ve written in a long time.

My mailbox was filled with positive comments, some intensely so, from people who are serious about the business either as practitioners or students or both.

Predictably, some of the Internet guru ‘mafia’ and their friends didn’t like what I had to say,


Here’s some more…

Honest mistakes

There’s no one alive, and certainly no one in business, who’s ever lived without making a mistake.

And the fact of life is the more you do, the more mistakes you’ll make.

But there’s a huge difference between making an honest mistake and basing your business on a non-stop campaign of deliberate deceptions.

The difference boils down to what you think marketing is for…

Is marketing the process of getting a worthy product into the hands of the people who’ll benefit from it?

Or is marketing the process of separating people from their money by any means necessary?

Meaningful marketing

A man named Doug Hall wrote a whole book on this subject called “Meaningful Marketing.”

If you don’t know who Doug Hall is, he appeared on the cover of Inc. Magazine TWICE, once in 1997 and again in 2001.  He’s one of the most successful new product developers who ever lived.

In his book, Hall makes the distinction between what he calls meaningful and mindless marketing.

It’s a simple idea, but it’s very helpful for sorting out what’s worthwhile and not worthwhile in marketing.

Here are a few quotes from his book:

* Meaningful marketing is telling the story of your genuine breakthroughs…Mindless marketing is about exaggerating the performance of mediocre products or services…

* Meaningful marketing leads to customers who become your biggest cheerleaders…Mindless marketing leads to buyer’s remorse…

* Meaningful marketing is about respecting your customer’s intelligence…Mindless marketing is mass hypnotism.

* Meaningful marketing is about honesty…

To write his book, Hall drew on decades of marketing experience including sales data from 12,424 brands,  4,129 business-to business buyers,  294, 732 consumers, 3,057 sales reps,  1,337 advertisements, and 3,846 industrial buyers.

His conclusion?

Mindless marketing tricks do work, but only in the short run. They not only don’t build lasting businesses, they also mess up your chance of building a lasting business.

No moralizing. Just hard data.

Meaningful marketers flourish.

Mindless marketers make a buck and eventually are flushed down to where they belong.

The crook’s playbook

In 1984, a social psychologist named Robert Cialdini (Chal-DEE-nee) wrote a booked called “Influence.”

In it he documented six psychological devices that are effective for tricking people into taking action against their best interests.

They are:

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

He calls these devices ‘short cut responses’ because they trigger the short cuts we use to make decisions when we don’t have access to all the facts.

We all take ‘decision short cuts’ dozens if not hundreds of times a day.

If we didn’t, we’d get so bogged down in detail we’d never make it through breakfast.

But there is a big downside to our wired-in ‘short cut responses.’

In Cialdini’s own words, they have the power to…

“produce a distinct kind of automatic, mindless compliance from people… a willingness to say yes without thinking first.”

And unfortunately, there is a world full of people who take advantage of automatic responses to sell us all kinds of junk… junk products, junk ideas, junk beliefs, even junk loyalties.

Cialdini didn’t intend for his research to become a playbook of dirty tricks for ethically challenged marketers.

Quite the opposite.

In the beginning of his book and again at the end, he makes it crystal clear how he feels about people who abuse human psychology to make sales…

“The proper targets for our counteraggression are individuals who falsify, counterfeit, or misrepresent the evidence that naturally cues our shortcut responses.”  That is, tricks us into taking an action based on falsified evidence.

In other words, there’s a right way and a wrong way to use sales techniques.

Hall calls the distinction meaningful vs. meaningless marketing.

Common sense tells us that basing a business on trickery and BS is not a good long term strategy – no matter what some ‘gurus’ say to the contrary.

Deviousness is not intelligence

The fact is that it’s easy to take advantage of people who are trying to learn a new subject.

We’re all vulnerable on this score.

I don’t care who you are, how smart you are or how worldly wise you are, when you become a student of anything that’s new to you, you are, to a very real degree, putting your fate in the hands of the person you choose to teach you.

Good instruction can save you years of time, prevent you from wasting thousands of dollars, and create a strong foundation for spectacular success.

Bad instruction does all those things in reverse: It wastes your time, wastes your money, and can create such a state of confusion and disillusionment that some people never find their way
out of it.

Here’s how the bad players justify why they do what they do:

(You might have even been taught these things by some of the ‘gurus.’)

* “The product doesn’t matter. They’re all the same. It’s the marketing that makes the difference. “

* “Only 10% of the people who buy your product will even open it, so don’t obsess too much over making it too good. There’s no profit in it.”

* “There’s nothing new under the sun so feel free to steal other people’s ad copy, positioning, product ideas, whenever you can.”

Now imagine these attitudes translated to medicine:

“Who cares if this medicine works or not? There’s a great profit margin in selling it.

Let’s massage the facts with a good story, create a big media blitz, and trick doctors into prescribing it before they figure out what’s going on.”

It sounds remarkably like the mind set that’s overrun Internet marketing in recent years, doesn’t it?

Do cheaters prosper?

When we’re little kids, we’re taught that ‘cheaters never prosper.’

Later, when we get a older, it’s easy to believe that that advice is an old wive’s tale because the world seems to be packed full of cheaters who prosper.

But if you really believe that, it’s only because you didn’t sit through all the way through to see the END of the movie.

If you want to read a fascinating book on this subject, I recommend the new edition of an old book by a Roman writer who went by the name of Seneca.

It’s called “On the shortness of life: Life is long when you know how to use it.”

Seneca was clearly a guy who had the patience to sit through the WHOLE movie.

He recounts the tales of corrupt Emperors who thought they had the world on a string only to end up meeting gruesome ends.

But you don’t have to look back thousands of years to see this principle working…

Not all that long ago, people in the energy industry were scratching their heads about Enron.

“How are they doing it?  I know the business and their numbers just don’t make any sense.”

But for a short while, thanks to carefully stage-managed social proof – with a liberal helping of out-and-out fraud – Enron was considered one of the sharpest and most valuable business operations on earth.

Now, where are they? Gone. Poof!

And several of the high rollers responsible for the fraud are behind bars.

It’s true that cheaters may have a long run.

And they can definitely and do inflict a lot of harm on innocent people along the way, but if you stay until the end of the movie, many more times than not, the truth comes out.

Cheaters do not, in fact, prosper.

Grandma was right after all.

So now what?

If clever manipulation is not the answer to marketing, then how do we go forward?

After all, so much of ‘marketing education’ seems to be nothing but manipulation.

The answer is you go forward by throwing away the 1,000 devious methods people teach for making people act.

And getting simple.

Here’s how it really works…

Money comes from creating value.

As a marketer, you create value by bringing worthwhile products and services to people who’ll benefit from them.

As your reputation for DELIVERING on your promises grows, so will your real prosperity.

Delivering quality attracts quality customers and quality partners, two things that have more real power to transform your financial destiny than any con artist’s bag of tricks.

The opposite is also true.

Cutting corners for a quick payday and spending your time mastering new ways to pile on the BS is a great way to cut your own throat.

You can try to manufacture a reputation by manipulating social proof and playing fast and loose with the facts.

It seems to be ‘The Game’ of the moment.

You might even get away with it for a while.

But why go through all the trouble?

Deviousness is not intelligence.

Your customers will know the difference

Let’s go back to the Google example from the first article in this series…

Just seven years after opening the doors of their business, Larry Page and Sergey Brin are tied as being the 16th richest people in the world according to Forbes Magazine,

Not bad for two guys in their mid-30s,

How did they get from a dorm room and a bunch of borrowed computers to where they are now?

I can tell you one thing for sure. They didn’t do it by taking a course in advanced BS.

They looked at a marketplace (the world of Internet users) and saw that consumers were being shortchanged by the search engine companies – and they decided to do something about it.

If you’re relatively new to the Internet, you would not believe how bad search engine results were before Google came along.

Nine times out of ten, you had to scroll through pages of junk to find a single relevant listing. If you had a lot of time and we’re lucky, you *might* even find something you could use.

And you know what?

The search engine industry didn’t care.

They were making plenty of money and their attitude was ‘good enough is good enough’.

Page and Brin were turned down cold when they tried to sell their idea on how to improve search results to the ‘Big Boys’ in the search industry.

Here’s an exact quote from the big shot CEO of a then-successful portal company to their proposal.

“As long as we’re 80 percent as good as our competitors, that’s good enough. Our users don’t really care about search. Our users don’t really care…”

Famous last words.

It turns out that users really did care – and care a lot – about the quality of their search results.

I know the same is true of whatever market you’re in.

Your customers are praying for someone to deliver real value to them and free them from the ‘take it or leave it’ deal most industries feel is ‘good enough.’

When you become that person – really become that person, not just strike a pose as one – you’ll receive a level of support from your marketplace beyond your wildest imaginings.

Don’t short change your future by buying the cynical ‘hit-and-run’ advice of second rate marketers who treat marketing as a manipulative game.

  • Great marketing is delivering value.
  • Greater marketing is being loyal to your customers.
  • Great marketing is earning a reputation, not
    trying to manufacture one out of smoke and mirrors.

Marketing, done this way, is something you can be proud of.

– Ken McCarthy

P.S. For over 25 years I’ve been sharing the simple but powerful things that matter in business with my clients.

If you’d like direction for your business that will work today, tomorrow and twenty years from now, visit us at the System Club.

Recommended resources:

1. “Meaningful Marketing” by Dough Hall
2. “Influence” by Robert Cialdini
3. “On the Shortness of Life: Life is Long
When you Know How to Use It” by Seneca
4. Advanced Copywriting and Info Marketing

In memory of one of the Internet's finest
Social proof, rich jerks, and Google
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