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All Marketers...

With too little facts

…people make up a story. They have to. We have no choice.

Consider this story courtesy of Boing Boing:

VANCOUVER, British Columbia (Reuters) – A lazy worker, not a satanic cult, was responsible for severed goat heads that caused a scare at a Vancouver-area school, Canadian police said on Monday.

Police were called in after goat heads were twice found on a bench outside a school in nearby Chilliwack, British Columbia, prompting fears in the suburban community that it had been targeted by a satanic animal killing.

A 19-year-old worker at a local slaughterhouse has admitted he took the two heads with the intention of having them mounted, but then changed his mind and left them at the school in hopes a janitor would dispose of them.

“(Police) want to reassure the community that there were no satanic intentions in relation to these incidents,” the Royal Canadian Mounted Police said, adding that the man “should have known better.”

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So, the reporter from the LA Times started with this question, “Why do you think the cable TV people are using the Internet to fight the government’s attempts to expand their crackdown on broadcast indency to cable?”

That’s when you know which side has already won the debate.

How can you be against indency? How can you argue against a crackdown?

Would the question have been just as accurate if it had been, “Why do you think the cable TV people are using the Internet to fight the government’s assault on the first amendment as it tries to censor and control what adults choose to watch on paid TV in the privacy of their homes?”

It’s easy to assume that I’m just playing with words here. I’m not. The words that are used in any debate are at the heart of the story we tell ourselves.

One side often tries to rely on facts, on the truth, on what’s right. The other side tells a story that fits our worldview. Who wins?

The storytellers will win every time.

Try for a moment to divorce the way you feel about this issue (personally, I’m sort of ambivalent) and take a look at the tactics. They are precisely the tactics that a wi-fi router manufacturer needs to use, or someone searching for a job.

Yes, it feels Orwellian. It doesn’t seem fair that it’s not just good enough to be correct or qualified or the best value. That’s not even close to what it takes to succeed in today’s marketplace of ideas. Instead, you must frame your message in a way that gives people a story that matches their worldview.

I heard a spokesperson for the governor of Missouri on the radio today. She was supporting the governor’s claim that eliminating Medicaid in Missouri was a moral, socially acceptable act of generosity. She explained how unfair it was for taxpayers to subsidize health care for the poor, and that in fact, eliminating health care for the poor might be quite positive because it would encourage people to go out and get a job. She did this in a calm and reasonable manner, and you could hear the foundation being built. After all, how can you be against people going out and getting a job? How can you be against people keeping their own money… If this story fits your worldview, I’m sure it sounds reasonable and believable. If it doesn’t, the story won’t persuade you. That’s the way marketing works–you don’t persuade people with your story, you just give people who already agree with you the tools they need to persaude their friends.

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Costa Rican Tilapia

 That’s what the sign said at the fancy fish market in Manhattan. It was more than $10 a pound, and it sure sounded exotic.

It turns out that Costa Rican tilapia is grown in backyard ponds by women just like this one. Here’s’s a picture I took of her, kissing our fish before cleaning it on the open-air table in her backyard. She grows 500 at a time, has a dozen or so chickens for eggs, and she’s a lot better off (and doing a lot more long term good) than the rancher next door.

A tilapia from this wonderful person costs about seventy-five cents.

When you see the sign in New York, though, you imagine spear fisherman or spring-fed crystal clear rivers. You certainly don’t think you’re buying a home-farmed commodity.

Somewhere between cheap protein near the equator and my home in New York, the price and the value of the fish skyrocketed.

Not because of the cost of shipping. Because of the story. Tilapia sounds exotic. Costa Rica is exotic. Put them together and amateur chefs are ready to line up and pay a premium.

Is someone getting ripped off here? Of course not. Chowhounds like me want to buy something that sounds exotic. Fish mongers want to find new supplies of fish and also want to charge enough to cover their risk. And my friend in Costa Rica certainly deserves the higher prices she’ll get if her fish becomes popular in the United States. Everybody is telling a story so that I’ll be able to lie to myself when I cook dinner tonight.

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Heart Surgeons are Liars

 Dr. Nortin Hadler, professor of medicine at UNC knows what he’s talking about. He’s spent the last thirty years examining the stats associated with various medical interventions… and he’s written up some of his results in the Journal of the American Medical Association. He’s got a new book out, and some of the takeaway is startling.

It turns out that bypass surgery (which is incredibly expensive, quite risky and leads half of the patients to suffer depression and a third to have measurable memory loss) does no good at all. None.

In one study, half the angina patients waiting for surgery got nothing but a cut in the chest–no surgery. The other half had the surgery. The results? The placebo group enjoyed the same improvements as those that had the “real” surgery.

Of course, if surgery works–even pretend surgery–it’s real. It turns out that something as examined and life-threatening as heart surgery is no different than a wine glass or an iPod. It’s the way you feel, not what is really happening.

So, if it’s so obvious, why do we still cut so many people open? Because of worldview. Hey, it’s your heart. You better do everything you can to protect yourself. Take no chances. Cut no corners. That’s the story we desperately want to hear. I predict it’ll take at least 20 years before bypasses go away.

(for those considering bypass surgery: I’m not a doctor. I don’t even play one on TV. I haven’t done all the research, and I’m naturally hyperbolic. Consider this a grain of salt.)

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The Runaway Bride

[Actual overheard phone conversation, yesterday, in a company that books music for parties]

“So, you want to reduce the number of musicians from 9 to 6?”

“Do you mind if I ask a question… is it because of the cost?”

slight sneer “Hmmm, well I’m sure we’ll still be able to provide you with something special.”

“Now, for the reception… you’ll want classical musicians, of course.”

The American bride’s worldview is a twisted, scary place. It’s not only about creating a special day, a day just for you, a day that you’ll remember, a day that you’ve dreamed of forever, a day where you are the princess you’d always like to be, but it’s also filled with doubt and self-esteem issues.

Why do we “need” $9,000 worth or flowers or a dress that averages $799? (Aside: if the average price of a wedding dress is $800, that means that most brides are spending close to their entire annual discretionary income on an article of clothing that will be worn exactly once). The reason, of course, is that on this day, the way you feel is everything. Nobody NEEDS a wedding. And the way you feel is largely driven by your expectation of how others expect you to behave.

The entire wedding industry is built on a lie. The lie is a story that says, “if your wedding doesn’t include at least all of the standard items, you’re not special.”

You knew all this of course. I’m just reminding you because when you see something so perfectly executed, it’s worth noting.

As a marketer, I’d be more inclined to sell the over-the-top fantasy stuff like a wedding at Disney with Mickey as best man. What astonishes me is how high the bar for the ‘standard’ wedding has become.

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Some people want a hand held

My fish store sells plenty of Fish Rub. If you’re a cook, the label may look familiar. The product is made by the producer of one of the best kinds of paprika.

Guess what’s inside the box? Mostly paprika. You could make your own Fish Rub at home in seconds if you had, say, some salt and maybe a little pepper.

But if the box said Paprika, the Fish Rub customers wouldn’t nibble, never mind bite. Why? Because they have a worldview that says that they know how to heat things up, not how to cook. Paprika is a cooking word. Fish Rub is a heating things up word.

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Listening to the new

 This is one of the bestselling albums in the world.

Not since it came out, but LAST YEAR.

How is that this album has been a Billboard 100 for decades?

Because of worldview. Some people (most people) want to buy music they’ve heard before. It makes them happy to hear familiar music. The best new album in the world isn’t going to change that worldview. Instead, what happens is that a great new album appeals to people who LIKE new music. Some of those folks work at radio stations or use Grokster. And they spread the song, playing it over and over (for free) to people who don’t like new music. After awhile, it’s not new to those people, so they buy it.

The lesson isn’t on the dark side, folks. You can’t change the way people do things. What you can do is enter a population with your idea via an easier route and let the people who want to spread your idea spread it to those willing to listen to a friend.

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The Salvation Army

 Have you ever given money to the Salvation Army?


It’s one of the biggest charities in the country. What is it about the way they ask for money (or what they do with it) that makes them so much more successful than other charities? Is it that they are more efficient or helping people in a highly leveraged way? Or is it something else?

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Does a story that’s irrelevant matter?

When you think of a thumb, do you think of Wendy’s?

Does it make you less likely to eat there?

Sales are off as much as 50% in some California Wendy’s. Not because there’s any chance in the world that you’re going to find another thumb. Or even an index finger. In fact, Wendy’s is probably the safest fast food place in the world when it comes to appendages just now.

The reason sales are off isn’t about the truth. It’s about the story we insist on telling ourselves.

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Your Coffee Worldview

 At a recent seminar at my office, I had two coffeemakers set up. One had decaffeinated swill in a standard Mr. Coffee carafe type thing, and the other was a fancy Capresso machine.

I noticed that people didn’t choose which machined based on caff vs. decaf. Nope, they picked based on a machine.

If your worldview says, “I like gadget, premium, hyped, tweaky coffee” you went for the fancy machine. If your worldview was, “I like to settle, take no risks and be safe and predictable with my coffee” you took the other. It didn’t matter which was better. It didn’t matter which cost more. It mattered what you had decided before you even got there.