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Dirty Marketing Campaigns

How marketers create disgust and embarrassment — and why we shouldn't put up with it.

A classic TV commercial for Wisk detergent opens with a housewife closing a suitcase she has packed for her husband. Suddenly, the suitcase springs open, and we hear, seemingly from within the suitcase as if it's possessed, a chorus of devil children shrieking, "Ring around the collar! Ring around the collar!"

Another Wisk ad of that time shows a man on a cruise. He is approached enthusiastically by the female cruise director, who tugs playfully at his collar — you know, in the way cruise directors are always playfully tugging at your collar. But then she spots his Ring Around the Collar. She recoils, disgusted. Ad Age ranked the Wisk campaign No. 62 in the 100 top advertising campaigns of the 20th century. It's also despicable.

People are incredibly sensitive to social stigmas. The most serious forms — aimed at a particular race, ethnicity, class, or sexual orientation — are pernicious and destructive. Others, less serious but more plentiful, govern our day-to-day behavior. Think of the way you quickly judge a person who sneezes on a crowded bus without covering up. The Ring Around the Collar message creates an everyday stigma of this kind.

Marketers deliberately construct stigmas for the sake of selling you a solution to the ensuing embarrassment and disgust. They smack you on the head so they can sell you an aspirin for the headache. Why do we put up with this?

If Ring Around the Collar seems laughably old school, a relic of a more naive time, then consider one of the 2008 variations. A commercial in Visa's Check Card campaign shows a deli where people move through the line with elaborate, precise choreography, like a Broadway production number. Customers complete their transactions by swiping the check card, and they all seem delighted to be part of the capitalistic clockwork. That is, until the moment when one misguided schlub pulls out some cash. Then everything comes to a crashing halt. No more dancing, no more delight. The cashier looks disgusted.

Yes, Visa and its ad agency, TBWA\Chiat\Day, are trying to make you feel embarrassed for paying for your lunch with cash.

Folks, that takes gall, since for most of the past 30 years, it has been the cash people who have waited patiently for the credit-card people. Remember the guy in front of you a few years back who was trying to buy a 79-cent Fanta Orange with his Visa, and the clerk used the card-imprint machine to grind the raised digits onto the carbon, but the machine didn't work right, so he pulled out a Bic and began microscribing the 16-digit credit-card number into those tiny preprinted boxes? And then he had to call for an approval code. Sheesh.

Sadly, Visa isn't alone in making shame one of our leading exports. Get a load of this astonishing statement in a Strategy + Business article that advised companies how to grow faster in China: "Too often, companies focus on understanding only the current demand of the consumer," wrote Edward Tse, a VP with the consultant Booz Allen Hamilton. "A better course is to anticipate or even create demand. Through smart marketing, Procter & Gamble, for example, created the perception that dandruff — traditionally a nonissue for the Chinese — is a social stigma and offered a product (Head & Shoulders antidandruff shampoo) to 'solve' the problem."

Well played, P&G! And, quick, let's get a team from Gillette to solve the Arm Hair Problem in Ecuador! Other marketers should take notes on how to demonize the ordinary. Here's a suggestion for Coca-Cola: "Because who knows where your water has been." For Hallmark: "So he wrote you a love poem. Guess he couldn't afford a card, huh?"

You may be asking, What's the harm? A thoughtful paper from two Columbia University professors on this topic addresses that question. In "Conceptualizing Stigma," Bruce Link and Jo Phelan point out that while stigmatizing certain groups can lead to direct discrimination — for example, against people regarded as "mentally ill" — it can also have subtler effects. A depressed woman, for instance, who is aware of the negative perceptions of the mentally ill, may begin to act more cautiously for fear of the way others may respond to her. Stigmas breed self-censorship.

This is precisely the response that the sleazy Visa campaign wants to elicit. Picture yourself in a crowded checkout line. You reach for the cash in your wallet. At that moment, the folks at Visa and TBWA\Chiat\Day hope you'll feel a whisper of shame. The people behind you are cursing under their breath.

That's icky. Stigma should be reserved for people who violate community standards, like people who willfully park in handicap spots. It shouldn't be used as a too-cute-by-half way to peddle some dumb new product.

This is why we need one more stigma: a Ring Around the Collar for badly behaved marketers. Then the vast majority of people responsible for selling products wouldn't use tactics like these. It's time for the marketing community itself to be the first to turn up its nose at people who shamelessly use these techniques to sell creams and detergents and credit cards.

Read more Made to Stick columns

Dan Heath and Chip Heath are the best-selling authors of Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die.

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  • Opal

    Thank you very much for saying what needs to be said.

    I disagree with the comments that rebuke the article for being elitist and impractical in its argument that marketers should cease to influence consumers with stigma-focused advertising. Yes - as one commenter argued - most products and services on the market are unnecessary and it is a marketer's job to create relevancy for that which is being sold. But no, that does not mean marketing departments ought to automatically resort to belittling should-be untouchable subjects, like social class, in order to generate "solutions" to problems that consumers never had in the first place.

    On the other hand, I think it the job of businesses to create products and services that actually are solutions, and thereafter the marketer's job to simply tell the truth. As one commenter pointed out, consumers are competent enough to decide for themselves. That doesn't mean businesses and marketers ought to lie to consumers or present them with half-truths and gray areas. We ought to present them with the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Consumers are competent enough to know whether or not "the truth" will apply to them.

    As a consumer, marketer, and business owner, I am sick and tired of deception, sidling, swaying and other smarmy tactics as the prevalent strategies of getting people to buy stuff. I have never and would never trade my integrity for another dollar in the bank.

    I hope to see more of this truthful reporting from Fast Company.

  • Gabriel Key

    Is this a rebuke against advertising? A call for positive - affirming advertising? Or just simple wining?

    Messieurs Heath essentially argue shaming people into consumption is bad. While I do agree with this in principle, I do think they miss the mark.

    To my point, the article "American Apparel's New Image" by Rob Walker, also appearing in the June edition of Fast Company, quotes American Apparel CEO Charney:

    "You're not going to get customers walking into stores by asking for mercy and gratitude. 'If you want to sell something, ethical or otherwise, he [Charney] said, snapping the book closed, "appeal to people's self-interest.'"

    Initially AA attempted to appeal to a person's self-interest in protecting American jobs and resisting imported textile products. But, this was not nearly as successful as appealing to their consumers' desire and self-interest in appearing sexy, non-conventional, and "original." Today, AA's campaigns offer only a brief mention, if at all, of the social/ethical benefits of purchasing an AA product. Instead, the focus is on how AA models and "everyday" people appear when wearing AA's products - and thereby showing how you differ. By being different, the implication is either that the AA image is of a person "better" than you or that you lack something they have, and with the purchase of an AA item it all gets worked out in the end.

    A second “real-time” example is the Toyota Prius. As a resident of California when the car was first introduced, I personally saw how spikes in gas prices, not a growing concern for the environment lead to increasing sales. To my point, the car’s advertising focuses more on how drivers can save money by using less gasoline and less on the "altruistic" benefits of reduced gasoline consumption, such as less pollution and decreased consumption of foreign oil.

    As a final point, I believe the ultimate irony of the author’s perspective is this: If advertising were to be built around positive and affirming messages (versus negative and shaming messages) wouldn’t consumers wish to purchase / consume the product come from their to be associated with said message or, due to the ad, feel they lack the positive message and are therefore “different”?

    So, at the end of the day, would it really make a difference?

  • Dave Charbonneau

    'RC R' notes the simple truth. People vote with their dollars and I believe they are competent enough to make their own decisions.

    To indicate what marketers "should" or "shouldn't" do is tyrannical in nature as it assumes ‘The People’ are not capable or smart enough to think for themselves. For another to assume they know what is best for another and then to suggest to control the marketers (even in the form of 'shaming' them) in order to protect the helpless and hapless consumer appears elitist, at best.

    This article is surprising to me, as I have read and recommended "Made To Stick"; and likely would again.

    It’s especially surprising as it tends toward contradicting itself – seeking to create a public opinion of a marketing “stigma”.

    --Dave Charbonneau

  • RC R

    In a free and open society we all have the opportunity to let marketers know we don't like their dubious push techniques; don't buy their products.

  • Mark Zorro

    Robert, this isn’t pointed at you but to Dan in Sales or at least media's version of sales. I like sales people, I don’t have much affinity for marketing people; I like graphics people but I don’t have much affinity for those cronies who speaketh in the group tongue of “intellectual social media”. In terms of you Robert I don’t have an affinity for blogs that simply rehash stuff but I do like your blog at Hypermediate, as I do Max Lenderman at “Experience the Message”, Sam Decker at “Decker Marketing”, James Cherkoff at “Modern Marketing”, Drew McLellan at “Drew’s Marketing Minute” and Bob Gilbreath “Marketing with Meaning”. I like them because they are not marketing blogs, they are people; people who in their own individual ways have developed their own virtual touch, without sounding like cronies or isolated islands of excellence. So life in part is about marketing, but marketing by itself it’s just a system in a world that is increasingly integrated with more systems. Bruce Phelan and Jo Phelan are sociologists, they are not marketers. I just happen to like people who talk about life but I also don’t have much affinity for “sociologists” and so your right, you say tomato(e), I say tomato – so there is nothing new in speaking in tongues – but there is something new in integrating thoughts across the horizontal, because like it or not Robert, Marketing simply sits in one of many professional verticals. So if you happen to shift the world sideways, an interesting situation occurs – you will find the people of like-minded ways to begin to spill their thinking and mingling new awareness from the resulting professional accident, (and IMHO intelligence happens at the same professional cerebral plane when boundaries no longer define ingredients). There are also people who have a raw physical view of life, rather than fancy-schmancy view of things that we “thinkers” do, (or what it means to be “professional”), and they gather at their particular horizontal (but they are not dumbfucks)– they are simply people like Vince Papali, who a particular community turns into heroes and marketing simply brings their story to the horizontal universe that we may be busy segmenting and cutting up into tiny pieces - so we can analyze it or surgically comprehend from our “profoundity of our own professional view. The difference between the vertical and the horizontal is that verticals consist of professional boundaries but the horizontal invariably consists mostly of life. So when you turn the profession of marketing sideways, I bet you that you are going to the result of the spillage form into this thing that most of us seemingly are afraid of, called “life”. So IMHO that isn’t about learning to deal with it, or elitism or naivety or whatever, but simply learning to see. In that regard the skills a sociologist brings is no different to the skills a marketer brings. The difference in the horizontal is about personal appreciation not public marketing. I don’t have much affinity for marketing people because I have seen the smartest of them still operating mostly out of their particular vertical and the verticals within marketing don’t seem to see eye to eye either, such as creative designers vs. analytical researchers. Sales people like Dan don’t do this, they won’t get their accounts unless they know how to cross a boundary, how to connect with real lives, because great sales people are not robots, they have to have an innate sense of what people want and the beliefs they hold that separate a simple “no” from a complicated “yes”. That is the problem with marketing in the enigma we call the digital age, or with sociologist or psychologists with their focus on “stigma’s” – it is therefore ironic that these professionals understand “life” so well, within the magnificent bibliography of their respective textbooks and professional guru’s. They also IMHO understand it psychologically and numerically to the point of ad nauseum measures and detailed in-depth analysis, that it makes me wonder why it is that so many professionals end up living stressed out lives, because they seemingly squash with so much professional detail into their respective vertical. Since I want to live in an integrated universe, IMHO marketing becomes secondary to existence, which basically means that in my world, marketing moves from the public to the personal. At the personal level I have already tried to create my own brand, mostly just to mock it and certainly not to receive prestigious marketing or social media awards. So this note isn’t written for you Robert, it is written to Dan – you just happen to be a conduit through which I am passing on a subterfuge message (i.e. one that isn’t meant to look like an expert view). Beyond that, what I say doesn’t matter one iota or as they say in the land of Vince Papali or Kurt Warner “a hill of beans”; for an opinion is simply an opinion – and while the common brand is the tethered branded life, IMHO life isn’t what a marketer see or what a sociologist studies – it’s about personal appreciation, in other words its bigger than any profession that has been infiltrated by psychobabble and far too much computational or powerful analytical toys – and so when I read this article I have already taken away more from it than you can possibly imagine, but whether you are sociologist dissecting stigma’s or marketer trying to label the enigma of an interactive age– yes, Robert you are right – “do your job” or understand the “job of marketing”. That expression “job” IMHO always reminds me of Adolph Eichmann, when he lamented, “I was just doing my job”. Marketing, sociology or whatever the job of any role becomes (or is) obviously isn’t life, but without a common reference to life, Eichmann in his own deluded way is professionally accurate about what a job is, but he obviously isn’t “right” either – for him, it was just a “job”. What I seek for the rest of the year is six straight uninterrupted months of just shutting up, and that is going to be my personal achievement this year. So I pass my regards to DS and ES, for you know who you are – and as for me, I am still trying to undertake a blog that is about “not blogging”, so just like before, I would like to pass my kind regards and yet again, wish you both the best for the remainder of the year, but most of all, to say Dan I appreciate your ability to discern the difference between that which is cattle and that which is a human, and of course, I better stop here before this turns into a book and a lengthy blog, in the age of Twitter, our becomes an impatient age where everything is an elevator speech or a one-liner that is simply gets people plasetered or stuck in their vertical niche while the rest of us are trying to establish a meaningful social horizon :-)……M.

  • Robert Wallace

    Ummm...we're not talking about "life." We're talking about business and marketing, which is, in fact, about selling products. That's the point, we're reading "Fast Company" not "O."

  • grubedoo grubedoo

    This is neither ridiculous, elitist or naive. It is spot on. It's about time marketing companies et al started making more responsible choices. Life is more than selling products.

  • Robert Wallace

    This is a ridiculous, elitist and naive article. This is marketing - the job of marketing is to sell something to someone. In most cases, the customer doesn't really NEED the product, so you have to convince them they need it. What you call "stigma" is another man's "defining the pain in the marketplace."

    Does this mean you want Ring Around The Collar for for Apple - do you put them in the "badly behaved" bucket? They employ "icky" marketing to put a stigma on PC users. Or do you believe PC users ARE, in fact, dorky, suit-wearing, pudgy, clueless people? The article only looks at the less sexy CPG and credit card industries? "Creams and detergents" solve a problem that is, frankly, unpleasant. Bringing up unpleasant realities to market a solution to those realities is not "icky" its marketing.

    And by the way...when people discuss the latest pop business tomes, and Made To Stick (or Tipping Point, et al) comes up, and you hear a resounding "What! You haven't read Made To Stick?!?!?" - isn't that too a stigma? Time to look in the mirror guys, marketing is marketing.