Marketing 101

The assembled students were oblivious to the presence of the sharply dressed man of indeterminate age who had appeared silently in the doorway at the rear of the buzzing lecture theatre. He stood there for a few moments, surveying them with a curious mingling of desire and loathing. Then as he smoothed his greasy ponytail with one hand, he flicked a long, narrow tongue across thin lips, twisted his mouth into something approximating a smile to reveal a glimpse of abnormally pointy teeth, and made his way to the front of the room.

The students’ voices died. The man placed a faux snakeskin attaché case on a table next to the lectern and addressed them.

“Greetings, class. Welcome to Market­ing 101. I am Dr Stanislav Agon and I shall be instructing you this semester.” His sibilants were emphasized—almost hissed—and his accent was impossible to place.

“Before we discuss more mundane matters such as reading lists and assessments, I wish to start by whetting your desire for this subject with the story of the greatest triumph in the history of the second oldest profession (that is, after horticulture). This incident is not simply of historical interest. Besides the fact that it holds many valuable lessons for aspiring advertisers, it has had—and continues to have—a lasting impact. Indeed, it was the launch of a major advertising campaign that continues to this very day. My text today will be Genesis chapter 3.”

There was murmuring—and some sniggering—from the students.

Dr Agon continued. “You are surprised at this? Why? Do you not realize this is a seminary? Do you not know that you are training to enter a priesthood—the priesthood of Mammon? Upon graduation, you shall go forth to the ends of the earth and spread the news of goods.

“My young disciples, in this class you shall discover that materialism is a deeply spiritual thing—a religion with its own distinctive doctrines. Our first and greatest commandment is this: thou shalt covet. And the second is like it: thou shalt envy thy neighbour. Thou shalt covet thy neighbour’s house, thy neighbour’s lifestyle, thy neighbour’s motor vehicle and anything else that is his (or hers). On this hangs all the lore—that’s L-O-R-E—and the profits of advertising.

During this digression, Dr Agon had pulled a Bible from his attaché case, wincing slightly and almost dropping it in his haste to put it down on the lectern. “Genesis 3: the story so far: consumers have been created and placed in a paradise where all of their true needs and legitimate wants are fully catered for. It is at this point that our hero enters. His task? To sell death.”

Having found the passage, Dr Agon read it to the class before hurriedly shoving the Bible back into his attaché case. “Now, to appreciate fully what a triumph this was, you must grasp the two sets of difficulties faced by the Father of Advertising. The first set concerned the target market: all their real needs and legitimate wants were already abundantly satisfied. Plus, unlike the fallen consumers you will be selling to, Adam and Eve were not a mass of fear, greed, lust, envy, covetousness and pride.

“The second set of difficulties related to the product itself: how does one market fruit with such a bitter aftertaste? (Incidentally, please don’t make the tediously common mistake of thinking it was an easy sell because it was ‘forbidden fruit’. On the contrary, this made it harder. Fallen consumers will desire something simply because it is forbidden; not so Adam and Eve.)

“We shall now proceed to consider each set of difficulties and the ingenious strategies used to overcome them. As I said, Adam and Eve were living in paradise, with all their needs and wants abundantly satisfied. Thus, the obvious first step was to persuade them that this wasn’t so by conveying the key message: ‘God is holding out on you’. (You’d be surprised how often this lie has—ha, ha; Freudian slip; I mean, this line—has worked for me over the years.) But how? If I had put it as baldly as that, I’d have been laughed out of Eden. It couldn’t be stated—only insinuated. (In marketing, the frontal attack is easily repulsed—which is why advertisements tend to make their appeal to the emotions, rather than to the intellect.) In short, I—I mean, the serpent somehow had to get Eve to draw the inference herself. As you will find, much marketing relies on guiding consumers gently to an incorrect conclusion by encouraging them to draw a wrong inference.

“A good way to do this is with a question, such as ‘Did God actually say, “You shall not eat of any tree in the garden”?’ (v. 1). Questions have several advantages over statements. Firstly, a question avoids the risk of being caught out in a lie, where­as statements are usually true or false. Secondly, a question invites a response, thus engaging the consumer. Some say that advertising is about persuading people to buy your product. It’s not; it’s about seduction. It’s about getting people to do things they’ll regret in the morning, so to speak. A question sidles up to your mark, puts an arm around his shoulder and gently strokes his ego, mak­ing him think you’re soliciting his thoughts on the subject. As you’ll discover, fooling someone into thinking that you think he’s no fool is an excellent first step in fooling him into buying whatever you’re flogging.

“Now, note that the advertisement actually had an element of truth to it: God had imposed a certain restriction relating to the food (see 2:16-17). On their own, lies lack power; they must be alloyed with truth to gain strength. (We’ll cover this in more detail in week 9. For now, it suffices to note that it’s not just because of fear of section 52 of the Trade Practices Act that you absolutely must include as much truth in your advertisements as you think you can get away with.) Eve says as much in her response to the serpent: ‘We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, “You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.”’ (vv. 2-3). Incidentally, while Eve purports to quote God, if you compare this verse with chapter 2 verse 17, you’ll see she has actually misquoted him; he didn’t say anything about dying as a result of merely touching the fruit.

“Now to the product: how to market a fruit with such a bitter aftertaste? Notice the strategy the serpent used to counter the woman’s sales resistance. Firstly, he downplayed the risk: ‘You will not surely die’ (3:4). See that skilful mix of truth and falsehood? It’s like saying ‘You will not surely get lung cancer if you smoke’: in all likelihood, you will, but there is always a possibility you won’t. Secondly, he distracted them immediately with the benefits of the product: ‘For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil’ (v. 5; cf. v. 22—a blending of truth again). Mark that lovely bit of illogic here—the inappropriate use of the little word ‘for’, creating the impression (completely false, of course) that there was a basis for the implicit assertion she wouldn’t die. That is, dying does not necessarily follow from their eyes being opened, causing them to be like God. Thirdly, he created demand by stimulating desire—or rather, ‘desires’ plural, for he brought Eve to believe that the fruit would satisfy her physical, aesthetic and intellectual desires (v. 6).

“No doubt the factors that sold Eve also influenced Adam’s decision. But my theory is that what clinched the deal for him was sex. As the adage goes, ‘sex sells’. With men, it is the promise of sex: ‘Buy this product and you’ll get laid’. Stated baldly, the proposition is laughable. That is why you must always hint it rather than state it: show a desirable woman (if possible, in a state of undress) with your product, and let the man subconsciously come up with the fallacious argument himself. With women, it’s a little more complicated: ‘Buy this product and men will want you’. So a standard question—indeed, the first question to ask yourself when devising a marketing strategy is ‘How can I associate this product with sex?’

“Here endeth the sermon. Of course, we’ll cover all this in far more detail over the coming weeks and months. As I indicated at the beginning, today was mainly about whetting your appetite for this semester’s studies. Hopefully, I’ve succeeded in doing this.

“Now, as regards to the prescribed reading, we shall be distilling the wisdom contained in the writings of some of the finest snake oil peddlers of all time. Of course I meant that as a compliment. There will be some Marx, some Freud, some extracts from Mein Kampf, some readings from popular fundamentalist evolutionists. The details are in the course outline. Take one and pass the rest on…”

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