Monday, May 29, 2017

Ocean Breeze Soap Will Get You Clean

In a classic scene from The Muppets Take Manhattan, Kermit the Frog stumbles into a frog-operated advertising bureau struggling to come up with a new product slogan.  He tells them his name is Phil the Frog, and they introduce themselves as Bill the Frog, Gil the Frog, and Jill the Frog.

BILL: We advertise for Ocean Breeze Soap.
KERMIT: I've never heard of it.
FROGS: We know!
GIL: Our jobs are on the line.
JILL: We need a new slogan!
BILL: How about, "Ocean Breeze Soap: For People Who Don't Want to Stink?"
JILL: Be frank, Phil.
KERMIT: I don't like it.
GIL: You don't?
JILL: Oh no!
BILL: How about, "Ocean Breeze Soap: It's Just Like Taking an Ocean Cruise, Only There's No Boat, and You Don't Actually Go Anywhere?"
KERMIT: Seems a bit long.
GIL: Oh!
JILL: Ohhhh....
KERMIT: Have you tried something simple like, "Ocean Breeze Soap Will Get You Clean?"
(the FROGS are stunned.)
BILL: Wait a minute!  Wait just a second!  You just say what the product does?  Well, no one's ever tried that!
GIL: Well, it's, it's crazy.
JILL: It's madness!

After which Kermit promptly becomes the bureau's newest employee, and sales of Ocean Breeze Soap skyrocket.  There is a lot we can learn from a bunch of frog-shaped puppets, folks.

Advertising jumped the shark so long ago the shark doesn't even remember the impression of its passage.  It is as slick and psychologically manipulative as money can buy, and a moment later it can be as crude and rudimentary as the lack of money makes necessary.  Nobody beats Mitch!  There are tender moments amongst the crudity, as well: boundaries stoke creativity.  But they don't guarantee it, and I've seen enough zero-budget red-herring banality to know that integrity hasn't set up its tent at either campsite.

The head-shaking thing of it is, countless hours, pages, melodies, and pixels of advert copy are produced as tires spin in runny mud, because people naturally tune out manipulative or deceptive ads.  Yes, yes, I know the psychology: you'll catch some of the people some of the time.  But once burned you don't get that person back.  And in an emerging world when anyone can find out any information at any time with a device in his or her pocket, any remaining room for arbitrage between the time a pitch is delivered and the time the mark is made aware he's been conned has narrowed to the eye of a needle.  Nobody buys white van speakers any more, folks.  You have zero minutes to swindle that stranger.  As an exercise in cost-efficiency and ROI, surely it's now more optimal to steal their wallet outright than to engineer some elaborate scheme and drape it with a veneer of legitimacy.

And all along, seriously, just playing it straight is going to have a decent hit rate of selling any product or service worth its name. (Which, if true, suggests that any inferior product or service will surely have to be marketed deceptively, which, if true, suggests that the purveyors of perfectly decent products and services are even more foolish to cede the moral high ground of playing it straight, which, iiiifff trrruuuee.... OMG INCEPTION!)

Look at the top equity brands of the present moment.  In some order, Apple, Google, Tesla, Coca-Cola, Trane, Costco, Southwest Airlines; even if I've missed a few, those seven are surely amongst the top twenty, yes?  And across the board those brands build their equity with wholesome marketing.  Apple doesn't even talk about their products in their adverts, they show what people make with them.  Southwest sets up funny skits where the punchline is always how nice it might be to take a vacation.  Trane is even more basic, their "It's hard to stop a Trane" slogan feeds advert campaigns of their HVAC devices taking extreme punishment and chugging along.  One can make a legitimate complaint that Coca-Cola handwaves away the nature of their products, sugar-syrup drinks that will kill you with diabetes if the aspartame in their diet drinks doesn't destroy your circulatory system first, but their marketing is always an inclusive message about connecting people.  Or anthropomorphic animals, as the case may be.

One would think that the example those brands are setting would resonate down the chain.  And, with depressing frequency, that's absolutely not what happens.

I scarcely need to provide non-hobby-industry examples.  Basically all door-to-door sales, all telemarketing, every pop-up window you ever saw, and the vast plurality of adverts otherwise, are festooned with gross distortions, tricks, misdirection, deception, and outright lies.  This is, again, a big part of why people learn to tune out advertising.

Here in the hobby industry, here are some of the worst offenders I see.

PITCH: (Facebook photo of some guy holding up a money card) "These cards got cracked at our draft last night!  Where were you!  They could have been yours!"
MISLEADING SUBTEXT: Players at our store have better-than-normal odds of opening good cards in booster packs.
REALITY: Casinos love it when people are dumb enough to fall for this pitch, because the odds are merciless and never change.  The contents of every booster pack are Schrödinger-approved.  You will never, can never, know what you will open until you do it, and the laws of probability are the same no matter where you are or which pack you are given.  At most you could say that over given spans of packs you're likely to get a slightly smoother yield of rares, and that's going to be the same no matter what store you play at.  Moreover, that means that if you see someone open a jackpot card, due to the same mathematics, for a little while afterward that store is actually less likely to feed you a booster with the same money card.  Given the volumes involved at the FLGS level, the odds return to chalk very quickly.
MORE HONEST PITCH: (Facebook photo of some guy holding up a money card) "Thanks to everyone who had fun booster drafting with us last night!  Join us next time and it might be your night to open an awesome foil card like this one!"

PITCH: (Facebook photo of a bunch of big money cards) "We buy awesome Magic cards every single day!  Come to Grinder's Gulch where our inventory is the best!"
MISLEADING SUBTEXT: Our entire inventory is top-end stuff and we have a limitless supply of it. Other stores that don't are just holding out on you, or don't know what they're doing.  Don't go to other stores.
REALITY: Every store's card inventory is made up of typical ratios of glitter vs trash.  In fact, the larger that store's inventory is, the more variance is eliminated, making it in the aggregate strongly resemble actual print ratios both among expansions and within expansions.  DSG actively purges bulk and it still doesn't change the proportions much in the grand scale of things.
MORE HONEST PITCH: (Facebook photo of a bunch of big money cards) "Look what just landed here at TopDeck Paradise!  We're always buying great Magic collections so we can bring you the cards you want!"

PITCH: (Facebook photo of a room full of tables of players) "Come win boxes of Magic at our weekly Modern win-a-box tournament!"
MISLEADING SUBTEXT: You're probably going to walk away with a full box, valued over $100, after buying in for ten bucks.
REALITY: There's so much wrong with this shortening.  Disposing of the rarer case, for those stores that still do actually award the box to 1st place, only the winner gets that, and the store is exaggerating the likelihood of victory considerably by phrasing it to suggest that all comers are likely to win.  It literally cannot happen.  This is why lottery and casino adverts and such give actual odds and/or say things like "for entertainment only" or "player results and outcomes may vary" so as not to float an unprotected claim that showing up suffices to guarantee BIG WINNINGS.  In the more common case, the pitch is even more misleading, because "Win-a-box" tournaments these days usually just mean at least a box worth of packs is in the prize pool, and it will get split among top finishers.  So literally nobody can "come win boxes of Magic" at that event.  The pitch actually becomes a complete and direct lie.
MORE HONEST PITCH: (Facebook photo of a room full of tables of players) "Come test your Magic skill at our weekly Modern win-a-box tournament!  Booster box or more guaranteed to the prize pool as long as event fires."

PITCH: (Facebook photo of a pile of video games) "We pay top dollar for your video games!  Call us to see what your old video games might be worth!"
MISLEADING SUBTEXT: With our electronic tendrils planted deep in the hearts of our competitors' computers, we can top their offers every time.  And you're surely sitting on a gold mine; you need only pack it up and bring it all in.  What color Land Rover you gonna buy with all that cheddar?
REALITY: Everyone sells used stuff at market price and everyone buys at a ratio of market price that hinges on market demand.  Virtually every independent uses Pricecharting.  Even when you look at Gamestop, which is forced to buy extra low to support its massive overhead and pricey leases, they at least use the same ratio mechanism.  An independent can legitimately claim they outpay Gamestop, and they mostly will, though it's bad marketing to name your competition in your adverts.  But for one video game store to claim its buy prices are always better than another independent?  Unlikely.  They're banking on the fact that a typical person trading in or selling will unload at the first place they visit, and not want to truck their totes full of games all over town.  Moreover, they're going to quote a moonshot price on the phone and then walk it back in person by pointing out every tiny condition detriment to the customer whose goods are on the table.  The thing is, it's so much easier to earn that visit and make a customer happy without being a filthy liar.  Watch:
MORE HONEST PITCH: (Facebook photo of a pile of video games) "Bring us your unwanted video games and trade for new ones or walk away with cold hard CASH!  Always buying, no collection is too big or too small!"  And when they show up, certainly take condition into account, but just explain what you're doing in a matter-of-fact way and most customers will respect you being up front about it.

PITCH: (Facebook photo of a paint rack) "Painted figures roll better!  Get your paint right here at Bob's Game Emporium and blast your way to victory!"
MISLEADING SUBTEXT: If you buy enough paint, you'll surely have enough stored-up dice advantage to win your next game of Warhammer.
REALITY: Dice behave the same regardless of the hopes and dreams of the person rolling them.  This one isn't quite as coarse as the TCG pack odds pitches, but in being milquetoast enough to avoid any real objection, it legitimizes the lie.  That's a direction the otherwise-wholesome miniatures hobby ought not to go.
MORE HONEST PITCH: (Facebook photo of a beautifully painted army) "Get the job done and look good doing it!  Paint an army worthy of the Emperor.  All the colors you need right here at Tabletoppers."

Have I personally used some of the misleading pitches?  Despite my best effort not to, I'm sure I've fumbled some phrasings and let slip a questionable beckon one at some point or another.  I'm sure it was an exceedingly rare case, and I actively attempt to avoid doing so now and forward.  I don't want you to have to take my word for it.  P.T. Barnum himself warned about the perils of believing any merchant's own "humbug," knowing that in being observant about the entire market, the honest merchants would become evident.  One pitch at a time, I know if I am being reliable, the good reputation will follow.  Better to struggle to maintain that, than to allow misdirection and deception to ruin one's reputation so much more quickly and easily.

Come have fun playing games at my store.  Come browse my wares and find collectibles that tug at your nostalgia strings.  Come check out comic stories that will immerse and engross you.  Come buy games you'll enjoy, alone or with family or friends.  Come get cash for your unwanted games.  I'm always buying.  Come entertain yourself and let's see if I can amplify your ability to do so by means of my humble business.  Come enjoy your hobby.  Ocean Breeze Soap will get you clean.  Why should I ever want to lie to you about any of that, when the truth serves both our purposes so much better?

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