Are Marketers Liars?

This week’s Thursday Night Insight comes from Paul Hague – Managing Director of B2B International. In this installment, he examines Seth Godin’s claims about the honesty of those in the marketing industry…

Calling someone a liar is a real insult.  There can be very few of us that would happily admit to lying.  And yet Seth Godin, American marketing guru, accused us all of this offence in his book All marketers are liars. What is going on and surely he can’t be right?

Of course Godin is making a dramatic point, one that causes us to sit up and take notice.  If he had called his book “How to write a customer value proposition” it is unlikely it would have sold 50 million copies – and yet that is exactly what the book is about.

Godin’s point is simply this.  All marketers have to put their best face forward.  They have to choose something about their product or service that appeals to customers and they have to talk about it.

He quotes the example of someone who makes expensive wine glasses, the type that feel good in your hand and from which your wine tastes terrific.  Wine could just as easily be drunk from plastic cups, but it just would not seem the same.  By promoting the glasses as the perfect complement to a good wine which will enhance its taste, the marketer is being truthful.  People are being encouraged to draw an association between the beautiful wine glass and the wonderful wine that is in it.  No one is pointing out that you could save a few bob and drink the same wine from a plastic cup – and why should they?  It is up to the plastic cup manufacturers to give us their reasons for buying their products.

Does this make us liars? Of course not. Does Godin think marketers are liars?  He certainly does not.  In fact, he gets very worked up about the small number of marketers that do mislead or lie about their products to persuade us to buy them.  Since there is a fine line between highlighting the virtues of a product and exaggerating them beyond reality, marketing draws in and encourages the quick buck snake oil salesperson.

Some years ago I was in a taxi in the US when we passed a company called “The Best Sprinkler Company”.  I was so taken aback by the bold and boastful company name that I blurted out to the taxi driver, “Look at the name of that company.  How dare they call themselves the best in the world.  How can they make this claim?  And anyway, what does “best” mean?  How is it best?”.  I ranted for a few minutes and when finished, the taxi driver said to me “Yes, but if they don’t tell you it’s the best sprinkler company in the world, who will?”.   The conversation is still live in my mind, many years on, and on balance, I think the taxi driver was right; marketers have an obligation to push their best features forward.

Culturally, Brits hold back on the puffery.  We like to under-sell and over-prove.  This is fine if you have 100 years to wait for word of mouth to do the rounds and to do the promotion for you.  However, if you need to move the metal quickly, you have to find some message to hit your customers with.  Make sure it is a big one.  And don’t lie.

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