The Wide Reach of the Blame-and-Shame Industry… or, How to Stop Waiting for Deus-ex-Machina Solutions to Unfairness and Inequality, Part 1

Monday, December 3, 2018

Delray Beach,FL.- One of the first things a copywriter learns about selling diet products is that it is very important to say, at some early point in the sales message, “It’s not your fault.”

This does several good things.

  • It makes the targeted customer feel good to have the burden of responsibility lifted from his shoulders.
  • It relieves, to some degree, the shame of being overweight. (“If it’s not my fault, why should I be ashamed?”)
  • It creates a sympathetic bond between the person delivering the message and the targeted customer.

Now if you know anything about obesity, you know that there is sometimes some truth to the not-your-fault statement. Some causes of obesity are genetic. Not all. But some. And it is perfectly fair to assert that one of the reasons Americans are so fat is because they’ve been given incorrect information about healthy eating since they were children. The widely held (and then dispelled) idea, for example, that eggs are both fattening and also a danger to heart health. So you can imagine that the copywriter with a conscience might want to mention facts like these in his copy to support the much broader claim that obesity is not the fat person’s fault.

Bad eating habits are, of course, the primary cause of obesity. But the intelligent copywriter knows he’s not going to sell any diet pills by pointing that out.

We do the same thing when we are selling wealth-building products. Recognizing that our targeted customer feels angry and/or ashamed because of his lack of financial success, we can offer him some immediate relief by telling him that it is not his fault – even though some part of it probably is.

How I Learned to Avoid Shame by Blaming Myself

Many years ago, when I first began to study advertising, the gurus at the time pretty much agreed that the most effective ads were those that appealed to the prospective customer’s emotions – in particular, to his greed or fear. I launched an argument then that continues today: those hidden emotions, like shame, are much stronger. And that indirectly addressing those emotions is a much better way to gain and keep customers.

Back then, I thought of this slightly manipulative but very powerful rhetorical tactic as being limited to the world of sales and marketing. But recently, I’ve realized that is used much more widely than that… and had been used quite consciously long before I discovered it.

It was actually a core part of a sociology class I took in 1969 as a freshman in college.

When I enrolled in that class, I had only a vague idea of what “sociology” meant – just that it was somewhat aligned with the sentiments I had about fairness and justice and the Vietnam War.

What our professor taught us was that there was a reason why some people had less than others. It wasn’t that they wanted less or cared less. And they certainly didn’t deserve less. They had less because of bad things that had been done to them and over which they had no control.

Those things were isms – racism, ageism, sexism, classism, and (worst of all) Capitalism. And my professor, a distinguished and charismatic scholar, didn’t just make the claim. He backed it up with plenty of historical and current facts.

I found his thesis to be intellectually persuasive.  More importantly, perhaps, I found it to be emotionally compelling.

You see, for most of my reflective life, I had been uncomfortable with the obvious inequities I saw around me. I resented those individuals that had more than me. And I felt bad for those who had less. Those feelings embarrassed me. So I pushed them down into my subconscious, where they resided, unrecognized, for many years. But they flared up when that professor introduced me to this new way of looking at the world. And they prompted me to become a social justice warrior and a Communist.

Because my understanding was so rudimentary at that time, I was unable to notice that my own experience as a Capitalist (I’d been running my own businesses since I was 17) contradicted most of the ideas I was freshly and fervently espousing. But eventually, as I learned more and thought more, I abandoned the  Communist ideology. My core sentiments and sympathies stayed very much in favor of the have-nots. But my warrior status diminished to spectator as the necessity to attend university and work two jobs to pay for it sucked up all my available time.

I still have those sympathetic feelings. (In fact, I think every right-thinking person does because they are part of a biological advantage that we all share.)

Still, looking back at my introduction to sociology, I can see that the way we were taught to view the plight of the have-nots in our society had in it the very same powerful emotional appeal that I stimulated when I wrote advertising copy for diet or wealth-building products.

It allowed me to say, “It’s not their fault.” And that made me feel like I was aligned with “them.” By exonerating them from guilt, I was in some way able to exonerate them from shame. And that felt like a good thing. But I was also exonerating myself from blame.

And that felt even better.