Fake News and Manipulative Advertising

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Liverpool, England – On the way from the Hotel de Rome to the Berlin Airport, the driver, Franz, asked me about the hurricanes in Florida. He wanted to move there, he said, but his girlfriend was scared.

“On the news,” he said, “They make it look like every six months all the houses in Florida get knocked down.”

I told him that his girlfriend shouldn’t worry about hurricanes. That although the worst of them could be devastating, the danger is routinely exaggerated. I said that I lived on the beach, had done so for 20 years, and we’d had damage to our house only once and it was mild.

“Fake news,” he said. I agreed.

That neologism – fake news – it irks me. Donald Trump has put it securely into not just Merriam-Webster but probably every dictionary in the world. That’s something I always wanted to do!

On the plane to London, I had time to look over the notes I’d taken during the meetings last week in Berlin.

Billion-Dollar Copy Genius Mike Palmer gave several excellent talks, including one about the five stages of learning for a copywriter: uninformed optimism, informed pessimism, a crisis of meaning, a crash-and burn-moment, and finally a mature period of informed optimism.

I talked with Mike about this after his presentation. We agreed that it is true not only of a copywriter’s career but also of the experience of writing a promotion.

Then one of Mike’s protégés, 100-Million-Dollar Copy Chief Patrick Bove gave an inspiring talk about tricks and transparency in advertising. He began by suggesting that there are two ways to write a successful ad: You can use manipulation or you can use persuasion.

Manipulation is about trickery, he said. It’s about bait-and-switch. Suggesting to the prospect that you will be talking about one thing and then talking about something else. Making irresistible promises you can’t keep. Twisting data to support false statements. Creating artificial urgencies, etc.

Persuasion is about understanding the core desires of the prospect and then showing how the product or service you are selling will fulfill them. Persuasive writing is much more difficult than manipulative writing because it requires a great deal more research and a much better understanding of the prospect’s feelings, beliefs, and wants.

Manipulation can work very well in the short term. But it fails in the long run because you can only fool a prospect once or twice. If you want to develop a long-term, mutually beneficial relationship (which is what business should be about), you can’t manipulate. This is especially true in the digital age where everything is transparent. Fakers are quickly found out. So…

Don’t make the promise. Present the facts. Let the reader make the promise.

Don’t cherry-pick. Present all the facts.

Stop making over-the-top promises.

Remember that having a guarantee doesn’t absolve you of writing manipulative copy.

Focus on the long-term, Patrick said. “Provide real value. Care more about the quality of the relationships than short-term sales and you and your client and the customer will all be happier and wealthier in the end.”

Today’s Word: noisome (adjective) – Noisome (NOY-sum) means offensive, especially when referring to odors. As used by William Shakespeare in Much Ado About Nothing: “Foul words is but foul wind, and foul wind is but foul breath, and foul breath is noisome; therefore I will depart unkissed.”

Did You Know?: Today’s military salute had its origin in Medieval times. Knights in armor riding past the king would identify themselves by raising their visors.

Worth Quoting: “No passion so effectually robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning as fear.” – Edmund Burke

Watch This

A Sneak Peek at My Movie, Off the Rails

This afternoon I’ll be attending the European premiere of Off the Rails, a movie I co-wrote and produced a few years ago. As you can see from the trailer, it’s a coming of age story about three working-class kids that try to hit it big by opening a rock ‘n roll bar in a bad neighborhood in the 1970s. It’s based on a true story (not surprising) that took place on Long Island. The bar was called The Right Track Inn. It eventually became very successful, but those first two years were tough going.

My co-writer, Steve Cabrera, was the second of the threesome that opened the bar. The director, Damian Fitzpatrick, grew up in Liverpool, which is why it’s premiering here. The location of the film is South Florida, not Long Island, because the budget was limited and I was given a choice: a period piece in Florida or Long Island today. I thought the period was more important than the location.

Take a look…



Survival of the Least Fit

Friday, October 12, 2018

Berlin, Germany– She had the perfect job, the culmination of her excellent and expensive education: senior executive of diversity something at a high-tech company. It was her big day, she told the crowd. She was about to present all her best ideas about how the business could be more egalitarian.

But then she hit the glass ceiling. “And it was painful,” she said. “Very, very painful.”

As she was firing up her slide show, she explained, she noticed that some of the executives in attendance were glancing at their cellphones. But that was only the beginning. As she moved ahead with the pièce de résistance of her young life’s work, she noticed that some people were still not paying attention. And it got worse. Some had the nerve to interrupt her and ask questions. There were even a few that challenged her ideas.

Happily, she said, this set her on a course of discovery that led to her current campaign to make the business world a better place by getting people to understand their privileges and stop with all these micro-aggressions.

Had I been there on her “big day,” what would I have done? Would I have nodded off or turned away?

Or worse, might I have raised my hand and asked a question?

Might I have asked something like: “Did you ever wonder about the possibility that your presentation was not useful or that your ideas were not good ones or that the very job you got hired to do had nothing to do with the function of that or any other business?”

But questions, as we know, can be micro-aggressions. And micro-aggressions are a form of violence because they might hurt someone’s feelings. Let’s be honest, they should be illegal.

Today’s Word: pertinacious (adjective) – Someone who is pertinacious (pur-tih-NAY-shus) is stubbornly resolute, holding firmly to an opinion or course of action. Example from Izaak Walton in The Compleat Angler: “He had never met a man of more pertinacious confidence and less abilities.”

Did You Know?: In the U.S., we don’t have a name for @. We just call it “the at symbol.” But other countries are more creative. For example, it’s known as “little mouse” in Chinese, “little snail” in Italian, “little duck” in Greek), “little worm” in Hungary, “sleeping cat” in Finland, “clinging monkey” in German, and – my favorite – “rolled pickled herring” in Czech.

Worth Quoting: “There’s a difference between a philosophy and a bumper sticker.” – Peanuts creator Charles M. Schulz

Recommended Reading

Charity Detox: What Charity Would Look Like If We Cared About Results

By Robert D. Lupton

2015, 195 pages

If you are a fan of Mother Teresa or Ayn Rand (especially The Virtue of Selfishness) or have ever thought seriously about charity, you will likely appreciate this book. The author is some sort of Christian minister, which worried me going into it. But he admirably restrains himself from preaching in favor of discussing the primary problems with charity: the unintended consequences of creating financial dependency and the feeling of entitlement, both of which are likely to do more harm than good.

I have been writing a book on this subject (The Challenge of Charity) for about 12 years, comparing both the good and the harm my family’s charitable foundation has caused in Nicaragua compared to the good and the harm caused by a for-profit residential resort that my partners and I have been developing across the street.

Reading Lupton, I almost considered abandoning my efforts since he had identified the same problems and was making many of the same arguments. But in the end, I think my “solution” is a bit better than his. So I will finish my book and recommend it to you when it’s finished.

How to Accept the Death of Your Good Ideas

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Berlin, Germany– The first time I put on one of these forums in 2014, it was a great success. It was an open conversation between one of our most successful US-based marketers with a dozen of our marketing directors from all around the world. Everyone came eager to learn. And they did. I took copious notes myself

But 15 minutes into this morning’s presentation, I knew that it was time for a change. Because of the success of the past three forums, attendance had more than tripled to 40 people. As a result, the room had to be arranged seating style (rather than as a single roundtable), and the presentation was no longer an intimate conversation but a lecture.

After the first break, I asked a few of the attendees what they thought. “It’s really good,” everyone said. But I knew they didn’t mean it.

“But did you think it was a little boring?” I said.

“Yes, it was a bit,” they agreed. And this time I could see that they meant it.

There are two basic ways of responding to change:

  • The hard way (resistance/anger/defensiveness)
  • And the soft way (acceptance/amusement/relaxation).

If one has an ego-investment in the status quo, the tendency toward resistance will greater. And since this forum was my idea, I could hear the hard side of my brain telling me to ignore the Elephant of Boredom standing in the room. “These people are not bored,” it was saying. “They just look bored. You’re paranoid.”

But as 15 minutes turned into an hour and then three hours, even this part of my brain could not deny the factual details: the postures, the droopy eyelids, the clicking and clattering of cell phones and tablets and laptops.

“Okay,” my hard brain admitted. “They are bored. But it’s not because of the format. It’s because of the attendees.”

“Pearls before swine!” my hard brain shouted.

Change is difficult for business. And for a good reason: It opens the door to chaos. It lets in not only light and air but also the possibility of stormy weather. It can result in the disintegration or even the destruction of programs and protocols that have worked perfectly well for years.

In other words, change is not, as some believe, an intrinsically good thing. Like atomic energy, it can be good or it can be terrible. And that’s why people – including very smart people – tend to resist it.

But here’s a fact every experienced entrepreneur knows: When businesses grow, things change. And when things change, businesses must adapt.

So although my hard brain wanted to blame the attendees for the boredom that I was witnessing, my soft brain was whispering: “Don’t kid yourself. They are bored. And the problem is this format of yours. It worked well for three years, but it’s no longer working. If you want this meeting to go well, you have to change it.”

So we changed the format – both the physical arrangement of the seating and the structure of the presentations – and the vitality of the second half of the week was much improved. More voices were heard. Eyes were focused on whoever was speaking. The fidgeting with phones diminished. And the questions at the end of each two-hour session were good and earnest.

If it’s not already evident, making these changes quickly had two positive effects. It made the presentations stronger and better received. But it also made me feel good about myself, since I had accepted the need for change instead of resisting it.

I learned how to do this 20 some years ago when I first went to work with Agora Publishing. About six months into it, I recommended a marketing idea that bombed. I felt terrible about it. So terrible that I insisted on paying the company the $70,000 it lost on MY idea. Some months after that, we lost as much or more on an idea Bill had. Looking at the results for the first time, we were both shocked at how badly it had done. I expected him to carry the same guilt I had with my idea. Instead, he smiled and shrugged and said something I’ll never forget. He said, “Gee, I guess that wasn’t such a good idea after all!”

That was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had in business. It helped me understand, almost instantly, the freedom that comes with separating your ego from your work. In the years since, I’ve coached into action countless ideas that didn’t pan out. And each time that happened, I repeated Bill’s words: “I guess that wasn’t such a good idea.”

The challenge when facing the need for change, especially when what needs to change is your idea, is to tune into that soft side of your brain. And the only way to do that is to reduce your ego attachment to the idea.

I’ve never been able to detach completely from my own ideas, but I’ve made progress. And that’s been helpful.

The next time you introduce a successful idea into your business, give yourself a day or two to feel good about it. Then mentally kiss it goodbye. Let the idea become the property of the business by desisting from referring to it as “my” idea. Talk about it as if it is the idea of everyone involved. And give credit to everyone that helps realize it.

Of course, that means you get less glory when the idea is working. But the benefit is that the hard part of your brain will be less resistant to recognizing and accepting the problem and coming up with a new solution.

Change is difficult, but it’s necessary. When your business is growing at a moderate rate, a need for change will likely be years apart. But when growth is fast, as it often is with entrepreneurial companies, you might have to recognize (and suggest) the need for change as frequently as every six months.

Today’s Word: fatuous (adjective) – Fatuous (FACH-oo-us) means foolish or inane, especially in a smug or complacent manner. Example from The Friends of Eddie Coyle by George V. Higgins: “Well-dressed people avoided him as they emerged from Shreve’s; one plump man in a tweed jacket stood in the chill gray air with a fatuous smile on his face.”

Did You Know?: According to The New York Public Library Desk Reference, the practice of naming hurricanes began early in the 20thcentury when an Australian weather forecaster decided to insult politicians he didn’t like by naming highly destructive tropical storms after them.

Worth Quoting: Annie Dillard on What We Can Learn About Survival From Mangrove Trees

The mangrove island wanders on, afloat and adrift. It walks teetering and wanton before the wind. Its fate and direction are random. It may bob across an ocean and catch on another mainland’s shores. It may starve or dry while it is still a sapling. It may topple in a storm, or pitchpole. By the rarest of chances, it may stave into another mangrove island in a crash of clacking roots, and mesh. What it is most likely to do is drift anywhere in the alien ocean, feeding on death and growing, netting a makeshift soil as it goes, shrimp in its toes and terns in its hair. (From Annie Dillard’s essay“Sojourner”)

Check It Out: The Controversy Behind Banksy’s “Self-Destructing” Painting

Talk about raising the ante…

This publicity stunt by Banksy takes Duchamp’s “Fountain” to another level! Dada meets Gustav Metzger’s auto-destructive art!