Friday 01 March 2002

Bozo marketing

Chris Locke 'interview' in e)mag Coming back on the plane from Melbourne last night, I started to flip through e)mag, a Sydney Morning Herald “magazine” for the Netgen (“inhabit the future,” says the tagline on the cover). Dinner was served, just as I turned to page 26 and saw Chris Locke’s self-portrait (“Rough edges and digital manipulation by RageBoy”). I opened the red cardboard box: pastrami with coleslaw and potato salad. I folded e)mag, opened and drank my Spring Water, poured vinaigrette on the salad, buttered my bread roll, asked for and was given a tonic water.

Rearranging the “magazine” so that it peeked out from under the tray-table, I started to eat and read. It was the typical puff-piece one associates with any new book, movie, play, concert, car, floor wax, dessert topping… in this case, Locke’s Gonzo Marketing: winning through worst practices. There were no tough questions, nor any startling or insightful replies:

e): The shortest statement you can think of to start a good conversation with a complete stranger…
CL: “Hello, Beautiful! Can I buy you a drink?” (Works best with really stiff-necked corporate execs.)

What happened to:

3. Conversations among human beings sound human. They are conducted in a human voice.
4. Whether delivering information, opinions, perspectives, dissenting arguments or humorous asides, the human voice is typically open, natural, uncontrived.
22. Getting a sense of humor does not mean putting some jokes on the corporate web site. Rather, it requires big values, a little humility, straight talk, and a genuine point of view.
27. By speaking in language that is distant, uninviting, arrogant, they build walls to keep markets at bay.
75. If you want us to talk to you, tell us something. Make it something interesting for a change.
79. We want you to drop your trip, come out of your neurotic self-involvement, join the party.

Victor hates the Cluetrain. I don’t. When I read the Manifesto again tonight, it engendered exactly the same response as it had a couple of years ago: genuine insight blended with humor to accurately describe the gulf between companies and markets plus realistic suggestions as to how that gulf might be bridged.

In this interview at least, “the infamous custodian of RageBoy and co-author of The Cluetrain Manifesto” offers us marketing as usual. The marketing that has, in recent years, gutted journalism, current affairs, and criticism. The marketing that has stripped the Sydney Morning Herald of any usefulness and turned it into the passive catamite of the PR industry.

I must have been distracted by the image of our beleaguered Governor-General on the inflight news because I looked down to discover a big dollop of potato salad partly covering this sentence:

The first time IBM’s Web page tells me to piss off, it’ll get my undivided attention. But I don’t forsee that happening any time soon.

That’s right. It won’t happen “any time soon.” For that to occur, marketers and advertisers would have to adopt a “don’t-give-a-damn attitude:”

That I’d love to see! But, of course, they can’t—not and remain ‘marketers’ and ‘advertisers’ in any usual sense of those terms.
It’s a koan, a conundrum. Business is impaled on the horns of a dilemma it has created for itself.

It’s not a koan, nor a conundrum. It most closely resembles an untestable assertion. If it is a dilemma, it’s not one manufactured by business.

“Business” annihilates dilemmas, by pragmatically confronting, analyzing, and dissolving every obstacle it encounters, whether self-created or not. Even if don’t-give-a-damn marketing were to be granted a few additional milliseconds of airtime, what difference would it make? Shock-the-bourgeois ads come and go; at the end of the day, when we switch off the tube, the only certainty is that tomorrow business will resume as usual. Nothing has changed since Brecht observed that capitalism gratefully swallows any poison it is offered, transforming each dose into sustenance.

Which is not to suggest that all is lost. The Happy Tutor assures us:

…you don’t have to leave America, or opt out of the Market to live in a democracy, and to participate in a vibrant civil society. You can stay right here in America, use famous brand name toothpaste, and still spend your best energies on something other than commerce. You can do that, on your own time, even if you are CEO of an advertising firm.

Maybe the Cluetrain authors were thinking along these lines when they wrote:

88. We have better things to do than worry about whether you’ll change in time to get our business. Business is only a part of our lives. It seems to be all of yours. Think about it: who needs whom?

Business is only a part of our lives. We want to spend our best energies on something other than commerce. Perhaps that’s what’s missing from the Cluetrain: they’ve spent their best energies on commerce, even as they recognize that commerce represents only a part of our lives. They imagined that marketing—if done correctly or well—could make us all better off. Marketing has a negligible impact on creating better lives, unless you’re directing your message to someone like Johnny Rocco, the gangster played by Edward G. Robinson in Howard Hawks’ Key Largo:

“You have everything,” says one of his henchmen, “what could you possibly want?”
“More,” replies Rocco, “I want more.”

In that world, which is not an imagined world but rather the world we inhabit, marketing is just as much the problem as a solution. For the things that really matter in our lives, marketing can be little more than a hindrance or a distraction.

As I cleaned up the mess with my napkin—I’d already decided to have the e)mag page framed as a gift for Victor—I recalled a ChristianityToday review of Who Killed Classical Music? Maestros, Managers and Corporate Politics by Norman Lebrecht. When I got home, I sought out Lionel Basney’s thoughts about marketing:

…there is a deep flaw in the principle that “it’s all a matter of marketing,” a flaw that was caught by Bradley Morison and Julie Dalgleish a decade ago in a fine study of audience-building for the arts. Art, they observed, has its own agenda, which cannot be altered or ignored by the marketer without destroying the art. It is “inherent in the end goal itself,” wrote Morison and Dalgleish—that is, in finding the orchestra an audience—“that the audience… participate for the right reasons.” Otherwise, whatever happens in the concert hall, the music and its meaning are not being shared.

You do not have to equate Beethoven’s Ninth with the gospel (as Higginson of Boston did) to see the problem. Marketing is not a value-free enterprise; it changes the thing it sells. If the item for sale has no “commanding reality” of its own (to quote Albert Borgmann), the marketing changes will not matter. If it does—if it is an art, or a moral stance, or an instance of charity, or the gospel itself—then marketing cannot change it without destroying the enterprise it meant to support.

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Comments

Well, now. Doesn't this promise to be interesting? I can't wait for Victor wake this morning and log in for his early morning read.

Posted by Burningbird on 1 March 2002 (Comment Permalink)

A wolf in sheeps clothing is still a wolf.

Posted by Michael Webb on 1 March 2002 (Comment Permalink)

Great piece Jonathon. It's not too often I see someone with the verbal dexterity to combine catamite and a quote from Christianity Today! Well done. Certainly not "ad-style copy".

Posted by victor echo zulu on 1 March 2002 (Comment Permalink)

Excellent comments on Cluetrain and Chris Locke's new book. Somehow, seeing the flaws made so visible, leaves me feeling sad. You know Derrida's one-liner? "There is no outside of langauge." For many of us "there is no outside of marketing." The authors have nowhere else to go, than back to Companies who will buy their books, pay their fees, put them on an agenda for a speech. The message always has to be: "Marketing sucks, but I can help you make it better." If the altenratives are private life, political action, or volunterism in the nonprofit sector, will our conversations turn in that direction? No one is going to pay us big bucks for organizing, or voluteering, or fundraising. But, if we are going to instigate worthwhile change, it won't be by making marketing better and better, until we mistake the market for Democracy, and Chris Locke for George Washington.

Posted by Phil Cubeta on 1 March 2002 (Comment Permalink)

Phil any time you seek to influence another marketing is at play. The success or otherwise of your venture depends on 1) the strength of the cause to you and your team and 2) the effectiveness of your marketing effort. Marketing isn't an optional extra in life, nor is it the bastion of the capatilist pigs. Marketing is everything. Without is you have just you and a pipe dream. With it you have a cause and the ability to make a difference.

Posted by victor echo zulu on 2 March 2002 (Comment Permalink)

If it's the email interview I think it was, the questions came to me and you're right: they weren't very interesting. I was also not what you'd call real inspired in answering them. I am always a bit amazed by the sweeping judments that are formed -- as in this item -- on the basis of third-hand reports. I haven't even seen what they did to the text I sent them, so I can't respond to what you read. I wonder if you read any of the actual Gonzo Marketing book. even the couple free chapters on www.gonzomarkets.com? if not, please do. if you still think I suck, fine, but you'd at least have some idea of what I actually wrote.

Posted by Chris Locke on 2 March 2002 (Comment Permalink)

Chris, thanks for taking the time to comment. I never said that you suck. If we met and decided we weren't going to be pals, I still wouldn't cast aspersions on your character here. Instead I tried hard to follow Phil's suggestion to "Attack the position, not the person holding the position."
In writing the piece, I attempted to draw attention to: * what I saw as a contradiction between the values expressed in The Cluetrain Manifesto, which -- as I noted -- I still find insightful and the values expressed in the interview; * what I experienced as the glib tone and vacuity of the interview, which epitomizes the decline in journalism & criticism -- a decline that I attribute largely to the pernicious influence of marketing imperatives on our mass media (including once-serious papers like the Sydney Morning Herald, which is the Australian equivalent of the New York Times); * my belief that marketing, although it may be unavoidable or even necessary, does not promise salvation from any of the problems that threaten to overwhelm our social structure and, in many ways, exacerbates these problems; * the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle of Marketing -- that marketing is not a value-free enterprise; it changes the thing it sells.
Nor did I offer any criticism of or make any sweeping judgements about your Gonzo Marketing book -- I haven't read it. My concern was with the gap between how I saw the book being marketed and the ideas and ideals of the Cluetrain.
That you may have been unfairly represented in the interview strengthens rather than weakens my argument since it highlights the tendency for contemporary media to trivialize most everything they touch.
I will take a look at www.gonzomarkets.com -- thanks for the suggestion.

Posted by Jonathon Delacour on 3 March 2002 (Comment Permalink)

Check out http://www.fishrush.com/4342709327.shtml
for another take on this ;-)

Posted by Allan on 6 March 2002 (Comment Permalink)

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour