When marketers try to create disgust and embarrassment or any other experience for their audiences.Microsoft Dinosaur

I usually think Dan and Chip Heath, the authors of Made to Stick, are right on in their analysis. I’m an avid fan. Which is why I was so surprised that they were off the mark in their June 2008 article, and off in such a fundamental way.

It’s a despicable practice, they say, for marketers to create social stigmas to sell products. The problem is that the thesis misconstrues what it is that marketers (or influencers of any stripe) can do.

Marketers, when they’re at their most persuasive, don’t try to create shame, disgust, embarrassment, or social stigma.  Nor for that matter do they try to create joy, pride, esteem, acceptance, or any other experience. Instead, the most successful influencers tap into the already existing dialogue running through their audiences minds and find a way to connect their products or message to what their audiences already want or fear.

Yes, some marketers try to conjure possitive or negative responses to their products or the conditions their products treat.  Unless the associations were there already to be tapped, it doesn’t work. And companies who have tried, have lost millions.

You don’t have to go far to find examples. Seven pages deeper in the same issue of Fast Company, you’ll find Ellen Gibson’s critique of the “Evolve” ad campaign Microsoft ran in 1995 trying to stigmatize as dinosaurs (literally) people who weren’t upgrading their Microsoft Office software. The ad campaign has been roundly derided. Ellen called the ad lame and insulting. CNN quoted brand consultant Kelly O’Keefe saying the ad was sophomoric. Steve Rubel (MicroPersuasion blog) simply called the campaign a waste.

The Heath brothers stumble even in the examples they supply in their article. They cite, for example the ad campaign running is running trying to embarrass lunchers for paying cash instead of plastic. This campaign isn’t working either. In fact in his article Ads We Hate, Seth Stevenson of Slate Magazine singles the ad out as an example of the worst commercials on television. That critique was based on his judgment as well as emails he’s received such as this:

I would humbly suggest you review the horrendous Visa commercial which depicts customers at a cafeteria like cogs in a machine, until one gums the works by forcing the cashier to deal with—gasp!—cash. We in the workaday world should, of course, realize that we are mindless automatons à la the workers of Lang’s Metropolis. But advertisements should not remind us of this fact.
—Ben Scott

Ask yourself who you know that actually feels embarrassed for not drinking their vegetables as a result of Campbell’s latest V8 juice campaign.

It doesn’t happen. Marketers can’t conjure shame in us. We don’t bite. And when marketers try to make it stick. They just waste money.

Sure, we feel shame in response to some marketing campaigns. Wisk’s Ring Around the Collar campaign is a good example. But we only react that way because the association, the stigma, was already there for the ad to tap into.

This is the lesson for you as an influencer. Don’t pin your success on your ability to drum up feelings in your audience from whole cloth. You’ll exhaust yourself and attract derision. People don’t do things because they should, or because you tell them to, or because you try to make them feel bad if they don’t. They do things because they want to. Your leverage is finding out what your audience wants and fears and making clear how you, your product, your initiative, your company can get your them closer to what they have dreamt of and farther from what they have fretted over–before you even showed up.

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Filed under: Change ManagementInfluence and PersuasionLeadership

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