Sunday, April 6, 2014

The Right Method for the Madness

Sometimes it's not what you say but how you say it. 

It's such a part of human nature that it has become fodder for sitcoms. The poor nebbish character has a great idea for the company and presents it to the boss. It gets rejected out of hand. 
"It's ridiculous. It'll never work." Then either one of two things happens. The next scene has the boss presenting the idea (as his own) with the same language and mannerisms to his boss, who thinks it's a winner, or a slick co-worker co-opts the idea and it becomes a hit. 

The idea is nothing new. The old radio comedies and TV shows in the 50s and 60s were full of it. 
(Get Smart, Mary Tyler Moore, Dick Van Dyck etc.)

They would typically go something like this:

Max: Chief, I think our plan should be _____.

Chief: Max, that’s a terrible plan.

Max: Well, ok.

99: Chief, what about if we________(same as Max).

Chief: That's a great idea, 99!

(Canned Laughter)

"But Chief, that was MY idea!"

And these bits still gets laughs today. 

But why are we like that?

Why can't we separate the message from the messenger? 

Many years ago I agreed to do some pro-bono design work for a non-profit. I wanted to help them and they were really strapped for funds. 
One day I was in their office and someone showed me a proof of a new ad they were thinking  of running - a "professionally designed" ad from a paid agency. 
As you can imagine, I had quite a bit to say about this, especially since the designer wanted a tremendous amount of money for what was 
really poor work. 
When I expressed my disbelief to the organization's director, his sage answer was, "Well they came in with nice suits and made this whole big presentation!"

Obviously the other guys were slick and impressive and worth spending lots of money on, even if the product was lousy. 

Who would YOU buy from!

But I was still a good resource when they needed freebies!

But I digress. My point in regaling you with that story wasn't to tell you what a bozo the head of that non-profit was. It was to illustrate how much weight we place on packaging and superficialities. Those other guys had nice suits and a neat slide show. I had my discount store wardrobe and a few printouts, and boy was I judged accordingly. 
(They ultimately forced the high paid guys to change the ad based on my 'suggestions.' For some reason that didn't make me feel any better.)

So what great insights into human nature have my years of experience revealed to me?

- That people are easily attracted to flashy things. 

- At least in the short term, many (or most) people prefer style over substance, even when they wind up with a measurably inferior product.

- And people love to feel like they're getting a bargain. They love it even more if they think they're getting that bargain because they somehow have the seller at a disadvantage.

Take America’s relationship with China. Paul Midler, in his fascinating book, Poorly Made in China (available on Amazon), makes the following point. In the U.S., most people think that the big bad Americans stomped into poor undeveloped China and essentially made the people there indentured servants. They forced the desperate, simple-minded Chinese manufacturers to give them rock bottom pricing to allow them the privilege of competing for the West’s business. 

To Mr. Midler, who worked for years in China as an intermediary between American companies and Chinese factories, and who is fluent in Mandarin as well as being a student of Chinese history and culture, that perspective is 180° inaccurate. From his first hand observations, it was the Chinese manufacturers who enticed Western companies to do business there with those rock bottom prices, not the other way around. The Chinese made an art form of reeling in new business with promises of too-good-to-be-true prices, quality and service, all the time playing the part of poor ignorant (and desperate) provincials who knew nothing of "real" business. The temptation was too great. They provided the illusion of control, making themselves look like easy marks for the great American industrialists. And all too often, only when clients were already heavily invested in time and resources would they discover that those promises were empty. Stories are legion of last minute price hikes, shipping delays, or changes in the quality of the final products that all but wiped out anticipated profits. It turned out that they weren't so ignorant after all.

Through great perseverance, hard work and not a little luck, some companies have made successful manufacturing deals with Chinese suppliers. But the situation is not nearly as clear cut as you think. Remember the great “Lead Paint Scandal” that plagued Mattel back in 2009? Their friendly Chinese supplier used (illegal in the U.S.) lead paint on millions of toys which had to be recalled. Mattel was fined 2.3 million dollars. So what do you think they did? Did they yell at the factory owners, who no doubt knew they weren’t supposed to be using lead paint in products bound for the U.S.? No! Mattel sent a delegation to China to apologize! That’s right! They were so afraid of hurting their relationship with the supplier that they - the wronged party - issued a formal apology to the ones who had wronged them!

(It's also kind of counter-intuitive that the same China which claims it's being so badly abused in global trade is at the same time experiencing one of the greatest economic booms in recorded history.)

Mr. Midler argues that the entire dynamic that we’ve seen between East and West, with the Chinese offering cut rate manufacturing was simply a ploy to get Western money and ingenuity know-how. Now that they’ve acquired a respectable amount, the tables have turned, and the balance of economic power has shifted in their direction. And the West has only its own greed and desire for short tern gain to blame.

This is on a global scale. But you can find local examples just looking at the news on any given day. People are constantly being conned by “too-good-to-be-true” opportunities whether it’s a Ponzi scheme, a Chinese factory or fake weight-loss program. The methods they use to target and reel in their marks are virtually identical. It’s only the payoff that’s different.

It’s great news for marketers and advertisers that humans are so predictable. But I’m not so sure it’s good news for us as a race.

What do you think? I’d love to hear!

Danny Kay is marketing and advertising professional as well as a designer and photographer with over 25 years of experience. He's worked with businesses and organizations of all sizes, up to Fortune 500.

He can be reached through his website,, or at

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