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.”

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One Thing & Another

Word for the Wise

Claque (KLAK) – a group hired to applaud; a group of sycophants. Example as used by Charles P. Pierce in an Esquire article titled “Nobody Knows How to Play This Game Anymore”: “The bill passed the House because the Freedom Caucus, that claque of unreconstructed extremists who hold the balance of power there, gave in a little.”

 Did You Know…?

Cats spend 66% of their lives sleeping.


From My “Work-in-Progress” Basket

Principles of Wealth: #10 of 61

Wealth is neither absolute nor objective. This is so because those things that we value are by nature relative and subjective.

Your Richard Mille watch cost you $35,000 when you bought it 10 years ago, when the company first came into the public view. It worked no better than a $35 Casio. In fact, it worked considerably worse. You had to have it repaired twice and were charged several thousand dollars to do so. If the value you attached to your watch was pragmatic – keeping time and cost of use over 10 years – you’d feel the money you spent was a hugely foolish mistake.

But the company poured millions into advertising and became a status symbol, particularly among wealthy athletes and rap stars. It also raised its prices considerably. The current range is $250,000 and upwards.

Now you are told you can sell your “vintage, first edition” Richard Mille on the secondary market and walk away with $85,000 in cold cash.

Will you do it? That depends on how much you value its objective qualities of reliability and cost of use versus the subjective qualities of beauty, complexity, and prestige.


 He Did What?

Although I haven’t written much advertising these past 20 years, I did more than a bit of it for a 10-year stretch during the 1980s. After that, I coached and mentored copywriters, and between 2000 and 2010 wrote a few books on the subject.

Writing persuasive copy was probably the single strongest money-making skill I had back then. And it accounted for the lion’s share of my earnings. But I was always a little embarrassed to admit that it was my primary job. Today, copywriters are looked upon much like actors were during Elizabethan times: otherwise reproachable lowlifes in possession of commercially valuable talents and abilities.

I do remember when, besieged by such opinion, I look refuge in remembering that one of my favorite writers, Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) spent many early years writing copy to make ends meet. And he wasn’t the only one.

Here are some other respectable (and in some cases venerated) folks that worked as copywriters before achieving fame in a non-advertising career:

* Sherwood Anderson, author

* Helen Gurley Brown, former publisher and editor (Cosmopolitan)

* Gary Comer, founder of Lands’ End

* Don DeLillo, author

* F. Scott Fitzgerald, author

* Terry Gilliam, director and animator

* Alec Guinness, actor

* Dashiell Hammett, author

* Hugh Hefner, publisher (Playboy)

* Joseph Heller, author

* Tim Kazurinsky, comedian

* Rick Moranis, actor

* Ogden Nash, poet

* Bob Newhart, comedian and actor

* Salmon Rushdie, author

* Dorothy L. Sayers, author

* Fay Weldon, author

Look at This…



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More on Big Ideas

A Big Idea, in the information marketing business, must be more than just catchy and suggestive. In other words, information marketers must do more than create David Ogilvy’s idea of a Big Idea.

A Big Idea for Ogilvy was a cowboy smoking a cigarette while perched on a horse. That works for selling cigarettes but it wouldn’t work for selling books and newsletters and other information products. In the world of information publishing, a Big Idea must contain within it an exciting, arresting thought – a thought that directly or indirectly promises something that the prospect desires. It must also be immediately ascertainable, intellectually stirring, and emotionally compelling.

A Big Idea instantly drives the prospect toward a foregone conclusion by evoking a useful emotion. A useful emotion is one that makes the prospect want the product. Many copywriters miss this point. They feel that their job is to arouse any strong emotion in the lead. But if that emotion is not conducive to selling the product, they’ve made their job more difficult.

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The Unexpected Side Effects of Making Money (and How to Avoid Them)

My life changed dramatically and immediately when, in 1982, I decided to make “getting rich” my number one goal.

Within a few weeks of that decision, I convinced my boss to raise my compensation from $35,000 to $75,000. A year later, I was a bona-fide millionaire.

My status changed too — from just another good employee to a junior partner and employer of hundreds. This made me more confident. And that confidence had a noticeable effect on everyone I dealt with. They took my opinions more seriously. They gave me more respect. Most memorably, my lifestyle changed. Instead of eking out a modest living, paycheck to paycheck, I was able to buy a car without asking how much it cost.

But making this change happen had two negative consequences:

1. I gave up thousands of hours of good times with friends and family.

2. I did a few things I wish I hadn’t.

When I set that goal, I knew there were more important things in life than money. But I suspected that I would be more likely to achieve it if I made it my number one priority. That turned out to be terribly true. There is enormous power that comes from saying “I will put this goal above all others.” It is impossible to understand that power until you have experienced it.

Most people won’t even dare to try. And maybe that is because most people have more sense than I had back then.

I didn’t recognize how monomaniacal I would become. I didn’t anticipate how willing I would be to put my family second. Most of all, I didn’t realize that I would be making some ethical concessions along the way. When my partner and I were accused of misleading advertising, I was actually shocked. All of our copy had been run by lawyers. It was accurate to the letter of the law. How could they call it misleading?

Because some of it was.

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