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Made to Stick

Dirty Marketing Campaigns

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

Dirty Marketing Campaigns

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.

A version of this article appeared in the June 2008 issue of Fast Company magazine.

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