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Day 24 - The Power of Subtle Suggestion

Jul 03, 2024

My grandparents were married for 67 years before Granddad passed away. They taught me a lot about communication. Granddad used to say, when being told to do something, always… 

“Listen, smile and nod. Agree if needs be. Then do it the way you believe it should be done anyway.”

Granny says:

“You plant an idea seed. Then leave it. A few days later when he suggests your idea, agree, telling him it’s wonderful. That’s how you get things done the way you want them done.”

It seems Granny was familiar with the power of subtle suggestion, and poor Granddad was none the wiser. Or was he?

Point-of-Purchase Chocolate in Ireland:

Granddad’s family moved to Emmet Street in Dublin when he was very young. Well, they didn’t actually move. In fact, they were run out of Northern Ireland during a period known as “The Troubles." He and his siblings were smuggled into their house in Dublin at night time so the landlord wouldn’t know there were children in the house. That left him with a healthy distaste for all things English, except their chocolate.

Pat (Granddad), started working in Cadbury’s sometime in the 1950s, in the original Ossory Road factory. Synchronistically, some 60 years later, I would live in a small cottage on that very same road. For 40 years or so, he was a sales representative, travelling the length and breadth of Ireland. I remember helping him set up lavish displays of private-selection chocolate in hotel conference rooms before corporate events. He was also a qualified window dresser, with a very creative eye whose attractive displays lured many a Cadbury’s client onto their books (and taught his granddaughter a lot about eye-catching merchandising). It also changed the face of chocolate displays in stores around the country – so he told me.

This is Granddad’s story. I can’t corroborate it, but he recounted it numerous times over the years, and it never changed, so I’m trusting it.

Market Testing:

“When I was working on-the-road for Cadbury’s in the early 1960s, I got on very well with a few store owners around the country. I couldn’t understand why they kept the chocolate hidden on the shelves in the main part of the stores. It took a bit of convincing, but eventually a couple of them agreed to test displaying our chocolate beside the cash register. Of course, it worked! It made sense that when you put the chocolate in front of them, they’d want it. People act on impulse.”

Next, Granddad brought the idea to his boss at Cadbury’s. He loved it. Now all they had to do was convince supermarket owners. Feargal Quinn, famous for the development of the Boomerang Customer Service Principle, was one such person. Mr. Quinn was one of the most well respected businessmen in Ireland. My Dad learned much about customer service from him, then passed it down to me, but that’s a different story for a different day.

When they first pitched the idea to Mr. Quinn, his immediate response was, to quote my grandfather:

“Nobody will buy it just because it’s in front of them. People buy what they need.”

Nonetheless, a shrewd businessman, he agreed to a meeting with Cadbury’s and his top store managers.

“So how did you convince them?” I asked, every single time he told me the story.

“Exactly the same way we’d convince customers to buy it,” Granddad would say, with the cutest smile, “subtle suggestion.”

The Meeting

On the day of the meeting, Granddad’s boss, following his employee’s instructions, set up the room in Superquinn headquarters before everyone arrived. (Superquinn is now SuperValu, a large supermarket chain in Ireland).

The meeting began.

Cadbury’s made their pitch. The men discussed it. One manager echoed Feargal Quinn,

“But nobody will buy it just because it’s in front of them. People buy what they need.”

A small, knowing smile broke across the face of Granddad’s boss.

Looking Mr. Quinn in the eye, he said:

“Look around the table, Mr. Quinn. What do you see?”

He paused, for glorious effect.

Before the meeting, I placed a bar of chocolate in front of each seat at this table. Now, all I can see is empty wrappers.”

Another pause for effect.

“Did you realise you were eating the chocolate, Gentlemen?”

The deal was done.

“People are impulsive. They buy what is at the forefront of their minds. Subtle suggestion works.”

And so, point-of-purchase Cadbury’s chocolate displays began rolling out in Ireland’s Superquinn stores. Other supermarkets would soon follow suit.

 

Granddad was a salesman. His job was to boost Cadbury’s chocolate sales. Needless to say, he told this story with a measure of pride. It makes me proud as his granddaughter to think of the impact he had on the marketing world in Ireland. However, I cannot say I support the practice.

It was around the same time as Granddad took his merchandising qualification that a man named Edward Bernays was changing the world of public relations. Bernays, the nephew of Sigmund Freud, is widely considered to be the father of “public relations counselling.” In other words, shaping public opinion by drawing on the social sciences. In 1955, he called it the “The Engineering of Consent.”

From a marketer’s perspective, the discovery that people buy on impulse was like finding one of Willy Wonka’s Golden Tickets. For the customer, it was the dawn of a new era…one that would see them cajoled and convinced to spend money they often didn’t have, on things they didn’t need, without realising what was happening until it was too late. It was dangerous.  

Subliminal & Spot Advertising:

Have you ever thought you saw a Coca-Cola can flash up on screen during a movie, but questioned yourself immediately afterwards?

What happened?

First used in 1957, but banned in the US, UK and Australia by ’58, subliminal advertising flashed images and words quickly enough for the subconscious to see them, but not for so long that the viewer was aware. Subliminal advertising isn’t technically permitted anymore, but you’ll still see “The Good Wife” sipping a glass of wine every evening after work.  

“What does that matter?” you might think.

Let me ask you. Is it possible that you or someone you know has picked up a habit of having an after work vino while watching evening TV?  Product placement, branded or not, still exists, normalising behaviours which can become unhealthy and cueing cravings for particular brands of alcohol.  

Spot advertising is another example. This is when an advert is place before, in the middle of, or directly after a TV Show. Seeing the ad immediately before or after a show we enjoy immediately makes our brains associate the positive emotions of the TV show with the product.

An Ethical Dilemma:

In Year 2 of my Business & Marketing Degree programme (2002), I wrote a hefty research paper on “The Ethics of Advertising to Children.” Toys were commonly spot advertised during children’s TV programming at the time, prompting a call for such ads to be banned during prime viewing hours in Ireland.

Pester Power was paramount! Parents were being put under ever-increasing pressure to find and buy the toys their children demanded to receive, no matter the cost. Sweden had already brought in the ban. Ireland didn’t Ireland follow suit. In fact, the most expensive advertising spot in Ireland in 2022 was during “The Late Late Toy Show”, Ireland’s advertising Super Bowl equivalent. A cool €86,000 for a 30-second slot.

After graduating in 2005, I started a Postgraduate Diploma in Advertising. During a class discussion one day, I questioned the ethics of a practice we were studying.

The lecturer looked at me and said,

“If you have a problem with the ethics behind this, you’re in the wrong classroom.”

How wonderfully supportive she was of the critical thinkers she was entrusted with training. I was 23 and travelling up and down to Dublin every day to do the course. My stubborn, ethics-driven, young adult self promptly stood up, and said,

“OK.”

And I left. I walked out in defence of my morals and ethical principles, losing the first €5,000 of over €10,000 I would ultimately “invest” in programmes that were wrong for me. That good sales people convinced me to buy. Should I have stayed? In hindsight, yes, not only because of the investment I’d made, but also because the only real way to create change is to be in the thick of the trouble. My lessons were expensive ones. But like all lessons, needed to be lived.

Almost 20 years later, despite having studied marketing to master’s level, my principles haven’t changed. It seems in fact, that the new age of marketing, 5.0 for some, is in fact, catching up. Today’s buyers want, research has found, innovation, sustainability, values and convenience. They won’t be quite so easily tricked as the buyers of my generation and before, for the most part.

Yet the trickery continues, works as well as it always has done, and is becoming even more dubious. My generation needs help to develop awareness. It’s time people were enlightened to the games marketers play with their pain. It’s time more people called bullshit.

How Marketers Play with your Vulnerabilities:

In 2020, COVID hit and I, like many, lost my job. I’d recently gone back to English teaching and teacher training in the International Education Industry after 5 years in sales, operations & business development. Luckily, I’d just completed my Neurolanguage® Coach training, which, when blended with my other qualifications and experience, gave me a unique selling point in the English Communication and Pronunciation coaching industry. I started coaching professionals.

At the same time, I was in a narcissistically abusive relationship that I’d been cycling in and out of for 5 years. In 2021, while living in my then partner’s hometown in Poland, survival mode triggered a physical defence response in my body, and I became incredibly ill. I continued showing up for my clients. We continued to achieve success. But I was afraid I wasn’t going to make it.

I was vulnerable.

I’d seen Mel Robbin’s 5-second rule talk. My emotions were buzzing. I found a “course provider” who’d show me how to make €10,000 a month from webinars.

54321 – ACT!

That decision almost cost me the reputation I’d spent years building on LinkedIn being myself, got me banned from Facebook groups as soon as I started implementing the techniques, and set me back another substantial amount of money that gave me no return other than some new connections who’d also been ‘convinced’ to buy only to lose.

I’d bought into nonsense marketing techniques because I was vulnerable and didn’t see the truth behind the sale.

The offer was the perfect example of what I remember Mark Ritson once writing:

  1. Customers don’t really want it.
  2. Companies aren’t really delivering on it.
  3. Competitors have something very, very, similar.

I acknowledge that I made the decision. I bought into the fluff and flair. In a moment of wisdom, I even contacted people who’d been on the programme before buying. In hindsight, I hear what I didn’t hear on those calls. I see what I didn’t see or wasn’t capable of seeing at the time. There’s that hindsight gem glistening again!  

I learned new lessons this time. The best lessons, in my opinion, are the ones that teach you what you don’t want to become known for. Over the past two years as I’ve healed post-relationship (yes, I left), recalibrated to my ‘normal’ aware self, and begun again reading into the reality of what’s being put in front of me, I am grateful for it all.

It’s helped shape part of my mission - to empower those I work with - as I continue to empower myself. Each lesson equals a new degree of empowerment. Confidence works the same way.

Don’t Let Them Play with your Pain:

I first wrote this article two years ago. I didn’t post it because I used the word ‘bullshit’ too much and was afraid it wouldn’t be received well on LinkedIn, where I was publishing it. One year later, after watching Steven Bartlett’s “Diary of a CEO” interview with Alex Cooper, I recorded a podcast and braved an old, but somewhat new, level of courage.

Calling ‘bullshit’, I explained the marketer’s dance of deception, which toys with the vulnerabilities and confidence levels of customers. I also shared tips and techniques on how to build confidence, from my own experience, with a bit of research on confidence thrown in for scientifically backed good measure. I continue to witness predation on vulnerable business owners, particularly female. The more awareness of it, the more it is called out, the less of a negative impact it can have.

This is the second mark I wish to make. I’m all about confidence, connection and communication after all. Everyone has a right to understand how they are being sold to and have the tools and techniques to self-coach before making ill-considered “54321” decisions, particularly those which involve financial investments they may not be able to make.

What was Subtle Selling (or Bullshit Marketing Artistry) in 2022?

It was, and still is, webinars that take 50 minutes of your time, telling you they’ll teach you “How to do X, Y and Z” but spending the first 15 minutes alerting you to your pains and problems, the next 10 about the speaker’s amazing results, the next 10 convincing you they have all the answers, regardless of your business model, 7 or so more blending some tips and tricks with clever loops to your pains and how their offer is the ‘painkiller’. The final 10 minutes is the kicker…the “surprises” they told you about before dropping the offer.

It was, and still is, neuromarketers telling you why you’re suffering, convincing you that they have all the answers to take your suffering away, before dropping the “buy it now before you miss the VIP option” sale and adding bonus after bonus for 10 minutes until they’ve reached their sign up sales target for the event.

It’s a stunning combination, and more, of what Mark Ritson talks about here.

One Person’s Gold is Another’s Silver:  

The human brain is wired to move away from threat towards reward. I understand why it’s used and why it works. I’m not knocking the sellers. I watch these kinds of ‘training’ offers. I buy into some of them if they align with what I want. It would be naïve for me to say I don’t. Everyone does. That’s the nature of marketing communications.

Those who work their campaigns well make a lot of money. There is room in the world for everyone and everything. Some people are quite happy to move through the world buying on impulse, unaware of the reasons behind their decisions to spend.

But many of those who aren’t aware also spend beyond their capacity, leaving them in debt, with a product or service they neither use nor achieve any success with. If you find yourself doing this, the next part is for you. 

Power Up Your Bullshit Radar:

The next time you’re thinking of buying into a high-energy sale, and you count 54321 – take a breath – count back up – 12345, and ask yourself…

  1. What is being sold?
  2. How much do I need this?
  3. How important is it to me?
  4. What do the words mean in the tagline / offering?
  5. What is the investment realistically going to return? When?
  6. How does this approach fit my approach to life/business?
  7. What would my best friend say to me if I told them about it? 

Then, go to bed. Speaking to someone you trust. Go back to bed two more times. Then make the decision after consideration and distancing yourself from the emotional charge.

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