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.”

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.

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.

In Berlin for an Hour and I’m Already in Trouble

Monday, October 8, 2018

Berlin, Germany– The Hotel de Rome, the taxi driver told me, is one of the most “prestigious” in Berlin. It is impressive. It’s housed in what looks like a 17thcentury palazzo, but it’s unlikely to be that old. Most of Berlin was razed in WWII. Only a few buildings from the past, such as the Brandenburg Tower (a short walk down the street), were spared. However they restored the façade of the hotel, and they did a good job. The lobby is elegant and spacious, but not cavernous, as so many in hotels of this size are. I’m happy to be here.

The Hotel de Rome has 108 rooms and 37 suites. I’ve been allocated a junior suite. Waiting for it to be readied, I’m working in the smoker’s lounge (an unexpected plus), which has a large window that looks out onto the square.

There is a brochure on one of the desks with a photo of the Forte family, which owns this hotel and several more. I’ve never heard the name. I feel I should have. The photograph looks like it belongs in a Ralph Lauren catalog. The background is old wealth. The costumes are casual wealth. The father and mother look ordinary. Two of the daughters are strikingly good looking. The son not so much, his hair combed over to the side, glimmering from an overly zealous application of gel. They remind me of the Trumps. The Trumps ala Ralph Lauren. I tell myself to look them up.

As I said, the smoker’s lounge has a large window that looks onto the square. In the middle of the square, a man is playing the French horn. He’s playing Mozart’s Horn Concerto in E-Flat Major.  I know that because I attempted to play a section of it in a competition in 1962, when I was 12 years old. It was part of what was called The New York State Solo Festival. I won a red ribbon.

He plays the instrument beautifully. Not Dennis Brain, but close enough for these ears. I leave my work, exit the hotel, walk over to him, and stand there in front of him, listening. No one else is standing there and I’m not surprised. The French horn is not the sort of instrument one plays in a public square. Guitars and drums and violins and saxophones are fine. Even trumpets and flutes. But French horns? I’ve never seen it.

In any case, I stand there feeling mildly stupid until he finishes a phrase. Then I hand him a 20 euro note, enunciating the German phrase I’d looked up just a few minutes before. I say, “Du spielst schon.” Which I think translates as You play beautifully.

The man accepts the money but he’s looking at me oddly. I wonder if I got the translation right. In German, does “play” have the same versatility as it does in English? Does one playa brass instrument? In Spanish, you don’t play (jugar) a guitar, you touch (tocar) it. Could spielst mean play as in… Oh cripes, I hope not!

 

The Danger of Freedom: People Do What They Want to Do, Not What You Think They Should Want to Do

October 2, 2018 Delray Beach, FL – A Boston-based “people analytics firm” named Humanyze has instituted a mandatory parental leave policy for male employees. The motive is to “equalize” the work/parent experience. Why is it mandatory? Why not just give fathers the option? Because when given the freedom to choose, Humanyze’s CEO explained to the WSJ, two problematic things happen: The great majority of men do not take the time off. Even though they can, they choose to continue working. And the great majority of women choose to stay home. The fact that their husbands are free to take time off and help them out doesn’t seem to matter. This is what happened in Denmark after men were given the …

Read MoreThe Danger of Freedom: People Do What They Want to Do, Not What You Think They Should Want to Do

Creating a Culture of Profit

Monday, October 1, 2018

Delray Beach, FL – You own four businesses in the same industry. They have the same sort of products. The same access to marketing intelligence. And they have unlimited access to cash. Three of them have been steadily growing their profits. One has not.

So you devote extra time and energy to that business. You work with the key people. You suggest ideas, make introductions, etc.

You feel certain that they are all working hard and with integrity. But even with your assistance, the bottom line is always red.

You wonder: What’s going on?

I have a theory about that…

It’s untested. It may be wrong. But it may be right.

Read MoreCreating a Culture of Profit

An Interesting Angle on Teamwork

Monday, October 1, 2018 Delray Beach, FL– You don’t have to be friends with your teammates. You just need something that Michael Bar-Eli calls task cohesion. According to Bar-Eli, when a team has a high level of task cohesion, each member will do whatever it takes to reach that goal as a group, even if it means sacrificing their own self-interest. In Boost!: How the Psychology of Sports Can Enhance Your Performance in Management and Work, he gives the example of the Bayern München soccer team in the mid-1970s. Members of the team were far from friends. And yet, on the field, they were all perfectly united in what they wanted to accomplish. As a result, they won three consecutive …

Read MoreAn Interesting Angle on Teamwork

Get Better by Todd Davis

Friday, September 28, 2018   Delray Beach, FL–I purchased the book because I liked the title – Get Better: 15 Proven Practices to Build Effective Relationships at Work. It seemed like it was going to be the sort of book that contains observations and advice that are sensible but not remarkable. Like it was going to be a book made by taking a listicle and expanding each bullet into a chapter. And that’s what it turned out to be. Not a bad book. But one that could be scanned (rather than read word-for-word) without fear of losing much. Below, you can see seven of its ideas along with my reactions… Idea #1: To be a good relationship builder you must …

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The Economy Is Looking Good: Don’t Get Giddy… or Scared

Delray Beach, FL– There are lots of reasons why many people today are excited about the investment markets. For the first time in 10 years, for example, the GDP growth rate is higher than the unemployment rate. We are seeing the strongest expansion of manufacturing activity since May 2004, according to the WSJ. Wages are rising. Not much in real terms, but more than we’ve seen since the last recession. And according to several sources, consumer confidence has rarely been higher. For some investors, Len Zachs (of Zachs Investment Research) argues in a recent report to his clients, this sort of economic environment creates a perilous paradox. Some will see data like this as a signal to go all in …

Read MoreThe Economy Is Looking Good: Don’t Get Giddy… or Scared