Category: Marketing Mistakes


Imagine this going on for an hour. And you can’t stop it.

Learn a language in just 30 minutes a day! Sound too good to be true? It is!

Out of curiosity, I just clicked on a Facebook ad promising to show me the Secret Language Professors Hate–because, as we all know, and the video literally claims, Language Professors just want to get your money. But not Pimsleur. They don’t want your money at all; they just want to use up the 35+ minutes of your time to argue with you.

And that’s what this incredibly dull video does. Before you even know what it’s trying to sell you, it spends the first five minutes arguing with you (putting your straw man objections in your mouth for you, since there is no interaction). After that, it spends more precious minutes in which the perky narrator shares with us her own story of how hard languages were for her to learn in high school. Fascinating. Go on! (She does..and on, and on.)

All the while, the visuals are nothing more than a repetitive series of patronizing animations of adorable French mimes in berets,  cute camels in fezzes representing Arabs, and angry girls with steam coming out of their ears, all drawn on an imaginary whiteboard, with the salient copy points written at a helluva speed by a static hand with a Sharpie. What an original and economical creative technique! I could watch that all day.

I don’t know about you, but the very idea of a whiteboard is enough to make me nod off and wreck the car.

As I said, this tedium goes on for at least 35 minutes. It may go longer since there is such a thing as “longform” of up to sixty minutes, but I shut it off, even though I was curious to see how long it could go…and if watching my fingernails grow might be more exciting. But I just wanted to gnaw my leg off to get away from it. There is no interaction. No way to pause the thing. No way to jump to buy the product (even if you were sold in the first 10 minutes). No controls at all. Just shut up and listen…oh, look, a cute kitty!

Shooting Themselves in the Foot

This is what’s wrong with most Direct Marketing. Apparently, it seems to believe its mandate is to bore its audience to death. It presumes, going in, that there’s going to be resistance to the sale, so it wastes endless time listing those imagined objections and smacking them down.  It has no confidence that there might be an inherently attractive benefit to the product. And it takes forever to get to that benefit, giving its audience way too much time to rethink their initial interest…that is, if they hang around that long.

In the case of Pimsleur, an old and well-established language learning technique and brand, this is a ridiculous marketing approach. The inherent benefit of learning to speak and understand a new language quickly (versus writing or reading it) is self-evident. You’d think it would require no argument. But the rules of Direct Response say otherwise. Those rules mandate that you always go in arguing with your customer. That’s the way you make a sale. In fact, though I was intrigued about the Pimsleur technique, after the first ten minutes of listening to the straw man arguments against it (incredibly), the video actually started to sell me off the idea. It brought up objections I hadn’t even thought of. It was that good.

The other problem with this model of selling is that, even if I’d been sold on the product to begin with, they make it so hard to cut short the pitch and just buy it.  There is no pause button, no fast forward, no controls whatever. It won’t take “yes” for an answer. The link to the Add-to-Cart doesn’t show up for nearly 20 minutes. Who knows how many potential buyers don’t have the patience to wait that long and just give up? They might just go to Pimsleur’s site directly via an organic search, but then the DR company would have lost its commission, not getting credit for the sale.

Whoever produced this for Pimsleur was actually probably chasing good customers away. But you can’t tell them that. They’ve been producing longform DR videos for generations and they know “what works.”

As a know-it-all who has been selling stuff to people via advertising for…well, a long time…I’m going to open my heart like the selfless person I am and give some free advice.

Free Advice to Direct Marketing

1. Don’t hide the 1-800 number or the Add-to-Cart. Run it the entire time. There’s no conceivable reason not to. It’s not like they don’t know it’s a sales pitch. If your customer is ready to give you his credit card info, don’t get in his way.

2. Don’t argue with your customers. Concentrate on the product benefits. When you start arguing and putting anticipated objections into people’s mouths, you just piss them off. And a pissed-off customer is no longer a customer.

3. Don’t knock the competition. Especially if the competition are earnest and underpaid language teachers. This is really bad karma. And it has the other unfortunate side-effect of reminding your audience that there is competition. So you might, inadvertently, be advertising for them. The Pimsleur video takes several minutes telling you how expensive competition Rosetta Stone is, but also how it involves visual interaction…hmm, I should look into that.

4. Don’t cheapen your product. People will think something’s wrong with it. If you start comparing what you could spend for it, and then offer a price that is unbelievably low, people get suspicious. Did it fall off a truck? Is it defective? The Pimsleur video tells you Rosetta Stone costs $700, a language course at a university or night school can cost thousands, and a year abroad in a total immersion experience can cost as much as $100,000 (if your year abroad is in Dubai). But now you can get Pimsleur not for $30, not for $20, but for the unbelievable price of just $10. Unbelievable is right. What’s wrong with it?

5. Don’t insult your customers’ intelligence. The gratuitous use of the word “Free”, for instance, is insulting (the title of this section included). The Pimsleur video describes itself as a “Free Presentation.” And I ask myself, does a sales pitch usually cost money? Also insulting are unfair comparisons, like saying you could spend hundreds of thousands and decades learning a new language, only to fail, when you could master it in just five hours (in 30 minute increments) for $10. That’s insulting.

6. Don’t be dull. People need to be entertained. Show them love for stopping to listen to your pitch by making them laugh (and cartoony French mimes don’t do it). They are not duct-taped to a chair with their eyelids pinned open like Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange. They can get up and leave. Or click off. Or fast forward (if DVRing). So give them a reason to listen.

Apologies to Pimsleur

I’ve been picking on Pimsleur and their direct marketing vendor. They were just the most handy example, and, so as not to be a complete dick to them, I’ve linked to their site by way of apology (click on the screen-grab at the top–yes, I am a dick in that I’m going to make you scroll back up to the beginning). It may be, in spite of what their pitch may lead you to believe, worth looking into.

But the problems I saw in the Pimsleur video, I’ve seen rife in the whole DR industry. There is no reason, no constitutional amendment, no statutory injunction, no FTC ruling, and no mother’s warning preventing DR advertising from following all the Rules of Marketing. Just because it’s direct, doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be creative, or show love, or be simple, or have a compelling message, or reflect positively on the client’s brand, or do all the other things that “mainstream” advertising should do. To the people looking at it, it’s all advertising. They don’t distinguish. So you shouldn’t either.

By the way, I can teach you conversational Marketingese in just ten minutes. What would you pay? $1 Million? $2 Million?




No, Eric, it doesn’t make you look douchy at all.

Okay, aside from the dorkiest thing to have come along since the fanny pack, Google Glass promises to be one of those things that will have tremendous unintended consequences.  You get the feeling that the developers have gotten so carried away with solving the universal problem of people looking down at their smartphones while walking into traffic (or bears) that they probably didn’t anticipate that they were opening up a whole new can of chili. And not just fashion chili.

Google Glass is another example of “just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.” Like X-ray glasses (a technology that  kids from my generation are still waiting for). Or rocket packs. Or robotic lawn-mowers. Or helicopter-cars. Or the morning-after pill for men.

An old friend of mine used to call it the Neatness Counts rule of product development; “That’s neat! Let’s do that!” But just because it would be neat, doesn’t mean you should not think about the implications. It would be neat to have a nuclear powered motorcycle between your legs. But should you?

So what could possibly be wrong with it?

Here are the various, salient objections to Google Glass so far:

  1. They are a further violation of privacy, inasmuch as everyone, all the time, would now be Big Brother, recording everything you do or say and uploading it to a gigantic server in the black heart of Google Mountain.
  2. They are, in their current iteration, highly susceptible to hacking.
  3. They are still a distraction to driving, walking,  operating heavy machinery, and running into bears.
  4. They are clamping a non-ionizing radiation transmitter to your temple, like sticking your head into a low-watt microwave for days at a time (like who wouldn’t do that?).
  5. That they would accelerate the social alienation that smartphones have already started in society. But this time, just because someone seems to be looking at you doesn’t mean they are looking at you. Or listening to you.
  6. That they are the ideal stalker device.
  7. That they could be used to illegally record copyright-protected performances.
  8. That they could be used to upload pictures of you or (more sinisterly) your kids to the Internet without your knowledge.
  9. That they could be used to cheat in casinos (in fact, most casinos have banned them already, and they aren’t even on the market yet).
  10. And a whole bunch of Homeland Security issues I’m not at liberty to discuss with you.

There are other objections I’ve been reading, but I don’t want to lose my train of thought (oh, that was one, too: 11. That you’d lose your train of thought, and walk right into a bear).

To most of these complaints, I’ve read gushing enthusiasts and Google spokesbots just say “pfft.” One even said that he had heard no objections to his wearing his beta version from any of his colleagues, even when he follows them into the restroom. And Google Chairman Eric Schmidt said (and I’m not kidding): “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.” If ever there was an Orwellian statement, it had to be that doozy.

Don’t be evil, Google. Remember?

It makes you wonder if Google’s initial slogan, “Don’t be evil,” has really been directed at us, the customers, all this time and not to themselves. Maybe we’ve been misunderstanding it, like that in that classic Twilight Zone episode in which the seemingly benign aliens bestow on earthlings a book entitled “To Serve Man”…which turns out to be a cookbook. (Ooops, have you not seen that episode? I’m so sorry.)

In other words, Google isn’t interested in what the objections are. This thing is so neat. And the reviews are just fulsome with praise. And they can’t wait to get it out there. And we can’t wait to strap it to our foreheads and start cooking our pre-frontals.

Besides, they can’t stop now to reflect; they’ve sunk so much into this thing.

One of my favorite comedians, Eddie Izzard, has a running gag he calls, “But we’ve come all this way.” In one bit, he describes how the Crusades got out of hand. A Crusader is hacking and hewing at the Muslims in Jerusalem:

Crusader: “I hack and kill you in the name of Jesus.”

Saracen: “No! No! Jesus is a prophet in our religion. We kill you in the name of Jesus!”

Crusader: “Do you?…hmmm….I didn’t know that.  …well, I kill you for your dark skin. Jesus was a white skinned man… from Oxford.”

Saracen: “No he wasn’t. Jesus was from here. He was dark skinned, such as we.”

Crusader: “Really?…hmm [reflecting] … but we’ve come all this way.”

I think that’s the dilemma Google finds itself in. It’s come all this way in developing this amazing new technology–a little temple-mounted computer–that they can’t stop now to reflect on the societal, health, and legal implications. Inertia is carrying them forward. This thing is so neat.

Wait a minute…what’s this button do?


Mass extinction onestarbucks-latte





One of these two pictures is of something awesome.
Can you spot the difference?

There are some words that have been overused and abused and lately one of them is “awesome”. No, the word itself isn’t awesome…well, it is…but it isn’t, especially when it is used as a malaprop. I don’t need to clarify, right?

Oh, okay…if you insist:

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first definition of “Awe” is

“Awe: 1. Immediate and active fear; terror, dread.”

So unless that pizza you  took a picture of with your phone (a phrase that is guaranteed to confuse a time traveler from the past) to put on your Facebook Page is about to smother the surface of the planet in a tsunami of molten cheese, causing a mass extinction event not seen in 65 million years, it probably isn’t awesome. Neither is the vente soy caramel no-whip latte your barista pronounced as an “awesome choice” (except in its tsunami of planet-smothering adjectives).

The OED’s definitions of “awesome” itself are:

1. Full of awe, profoundly reverential.
2. Inspiring awe; appalling, dreadful, weird.
3. a. In weakened sense: overwhelming, staggering; remarkable, prodigious. colloq. (orig. and chiefly U.S.).
b. In trivial use, as an enthusiastic term of commendation: ‘marvellous’, ‘great’; stunning, mind-boggling. slang.

Note the third and last definition, “In trivial use…”

What bothers me, a writer, about the overuse of words like “awesome” is just this trivialization. Words like “awesome,” “passionate,” “content,” and “engagement” are used so frequently and without thinking that they soon lose all meaning, all the life sucked out of them. They end up like packing peanuts, bulking up our language without adding anything of value.

My grandfather, a farmer, used to say that a weed is any plant that’s growing where it doesn’t belong. Some words are like weeds, choking weeds. And “awesome” is the Himalayan blackberry of adjectives. Of course, if the Himalayan blackberries engulfing my backyard continue at the current rate, they are liable to become awesome.

My friends and family recognize this as a running joke with me (and roll their eyes). My co-author and business partner Cathey Armillas now uses the word “awesome” just to tease me (as she does with gratuitous exclamation points, another peeve of mine). And I, in retaliation, put two spaces after a period, which drives her crazy. We know how to goad each other. Other friends and colleagues also use “awesome” too much, but now, when they post or e-mail me, they put a smiley face behind it and tag me.(See? It’s a self-marketing device.)

So at least I’m getting them to be more conscious of it. (A ploy to get people to change their thinking and behavior–also marketing.)

English is a dirty language.

Some people are defensive about “awesome” and challenge my complaint with the argument that language evolves and the current usage of the word means, “something pleasant.” You know, democracy overcoming meaning. I’m not challenging that. After all, the current meaning of the term “terrific” means “wonderful” where it once meant “filled with terror.”  And the term “fag” once meant bundle of sticks, then cigarette, then a demeaning name for a homosexual, and now just a jerk, regardless of his orientation.  Or how the word “literally” which used to mean “in the exact, actual sense; not figuratively” now  also  means “intensely” or “figuratively.” English is terrific that way (in both senses of that word). Yesterday’s “decimated” (reduced by 10%) has come to mean reduced by 100%. Definitions are now crowd-sourced (see the many entries for “awesome” on Urban Dictionary).  And democracy always wins.

In fact, English is itself an impure language. It is a living, dynamic means of communication and evolves all the time. It’s a mongrel tongue.  In a way, it’s a hyper-creole. As it exists today, the majority of English words are not English at all (in the original Anglo-Saxon sense) but French, Hindi, German, Japanese, West African, Spanish, Dutch, or just made up by Shakespeare (an alien). The OED estimates that there are over a quarter million words in the modern English vocabulary. English just gobbles up other innocent languages and digests them, growing and growing to engulf the world. It’s the Himalayan blackberry of languages.

But that’s good because it means we have, on the tips of our tongues, a vast resource of expression. If language is power, we have one of the most powerful languages that has ever existed. So we should use it wisely.

Tiny vocabulary. Tiny thoughts.

George Orwell’s theory of language was that a limited vocabulary leads to limited capacity for feeling, or thought, or ideas. At least that’s what he has one of his characters say in 1984. The character, a word-destroyer in the Ministry of Truth, explains that “…the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought. In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible because there will be no words in which to express it. Every concept that can ever be needed will be expressed by exactly one word.” Like “awesome” for instance. Not being a psycho-linguist, I can’t answer to the validity of this theory, (well, I could, but I’m too lazy to look it up), but as a premise, it has persuasive appeal.

One problem with having just one default adjective for the whole range of positive feeling is that when it’s a word like “awesome” you’ve got no place else to go. If your pizza is awesome, what word are you going to use to describe a mass-extinction event? Or even just something a little nicer than that pizza? (I know, but it could happen.) You’re already bouncing against the ceiling of potential human reaction, like an escaped party balloon. You’ll just have to pop when the shock wave hits you. Speechlessly.

But this gets me to my real point. Finally. I’m not decrying the promiscuous use of the word “awesome” based on some Grandpa Simpson in-my-day crankiness. What I’m decrying is the laziness of people’s speech. And this is nothing new to this or any generation. With a quarter million words to choose from, why is it that so many people can only think of one adjective to describe something pleasant, or delightful, or tasty, or refreshing, or exciting, or invigorating, or comforting, or inspiring, or even terrifying? English is a pretty versatile toolbox of ways to express nuance, scale, complexity, abstraction, and feeling. And a lot of us are smarter than Frankenstein’s monster grunting “Food goooood! Fire baaaad! You awesome!”

So we should use all of our words. They’re free after all. And we should collect more and use them (correctly) in sentences.  ‘Kay?




Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.

ATT Video Bill 1I don’t know how many of you have received your AT&T Wireless bill as a video recently. I’m not kidding.  So now, what used to take, oh, 15-30 seconds to log on, scan your bill and pay it, now walks you through a playfully animated video that takes two-and-a-half minutes to endure enjoy. It’s so cool because there’s your own name, right there in the video and spoken so personally by Happy Lady Voice, (OMG! How’d they do that?  I absolutely love her! And now she knows my name!). And there are your actual charges, also animated (the miracles never cease!).  The cartoon runs you through all the exciting new features of your bill, features you might have had to once view statically, without flying colors and foot-tappable music. Oh, this brave new world we live in!

But I have to wonder; who sold them this? How is it supposed to be an advantage to view your bill as a video instead of just as a plain page with a “Pay Now” button? Does it make the bill more exciting? Does it make up for the high price, the surprise charges, the dropped calls, the slow download, the two year lock-in contract?

ATT Video Bill
This is not my actual bill. Don’t get excited.

I happened to be in a coffee shop when I checked my e-mail and up popped this video, blaring out of my mobile’s tinny speakers and annoying the people at the seat next to me while I frantically fumbled to mute it. (Heh, heh. Sorry.)  Do the marketers who embrace these new “customer engagement technologies”  think of things like that? That they might be annoying? That they might waste time? That maybe I don’t want their bill all wrapped up in dancing graphics with blaring music and read to me by Happy Lady Voice?

It’s still  a bill. Just give it to me.

If you  search on YouTube for a sample of this, you’ll notice that the “Dislikes” outnumber the “Likes” by four-to-one.  I hope somebody at AT&T is noticing that.

Just because you can do something with a piece of technology, doesn’t mean you should.

The Oddest Spot of 2013

Gain revolving door
We may be in here a while. How does he taste?

I’m still having a hard time believing this Procter & Gamble Gain commercial is real. Or that it isn’t some satire of the old Brand X comparison concept of the ‘sixties.

It starts off with an oddly framed shot of two people in a laundromat; in which the Gain-using man’s arm is inexplicably foreshortened to make him look deformed. It took a couple viewings to ascertain that he wasn’t an amputee.

But then the most ridiculous comparison is made: A distinctly soporific voice-over claims that  “a single scoop of Gain gives more freshness  than a whole box of this other stuff.” The “other stuff” clearly being an ill-disguised Arm & Hammer, which is also shown as half the size of the Gain box.

They never define what they mean by “freshness”. But as the spot unfolds, you get the idea that it means perfumes because the man gets trapped in a revolving door with several other people and they start sniffing him with expressions of rapture on their faces. Clearly he smells good? I guess?

Now, the idea of being trapped in a revolving door with a crowd of people all sniffing me is not my first idea of bliss. Could they be thinking, “we may be trapped in here awhile and we need to think about who we’re going to eat.”? So it was definitely an odd demonstration.

I’m sure they thought it was creative. But the analogy I got was, using Gain is about as much fun as being trapped in a tiny space with carnivorous zombies.

At the end of the spot, a hero shot comes up and the soporific voice delivers the product promise, “Get more freshness from Gain. Or get your money back. Guaranteed.”

More freshness than what? Does this mean that if I can prove there is not as much “freshness” in their box as they claim, I get a refund? How would I prove that? What do they mean by “freshness”? Is there a freshness scale? Can you run it through a mass-spectrometer or a freshometer to calibrate the freshness?

And “Guaranteed?” A guarantee of squat.

Of course, all this spot did for me was to remind me why our family uses Arm & Hammer to begin with; precisely because it’s free of perfumes and dyes. So thanks, Gain, for reaffirming our brand choice.

How not to brand your business

Recently there was a scandalous story in Portland, Oregon about a bakery owner that not only refused service to a same-sex couple trying to order a wedding cake for themselves on the grounds that the very idea offended his religious beliefs, but proceeded, apparently, to personally berate the patrons to the point of tears.

This reminded me of a similar, larger story last year involving Chick-fil-A’s CEO Dan Cathy making anti-gay (pro-traditional marriage) remarks on a nationally-syndicated, radio talk show. Or years earlier, Carl Karcher, Carl’s Jr CEO, taking a similar, very public, anti-gay stand. Karcher, Cathy and the bakers in Oregon all said that the issue was about their 1st Amendment rights to practice their religion and voice their beliefs.

But the real issue is brand suicide.

When you’re in business, everything you do is marketing. And everything you do colors your brand. I don’t want to get into the constitutionality or  rights of anybody to practice and proselytize their personal religious doctrines. (There are already far too many self-appointed constitutional experts in the world.) But what I do know is that, constitution or no constitution, when you publicly make a spectacle of yourself, it can’t help your business.

Following the Chick-fil-A incident, thousands of people flocked to the fast-food restaurant to show their pro-traditional-marriage (or anti-gay, depending on your point of view) support. But then the story and the cause subsided and what was left was a bad taste in millions of other people’s mouths about the Chick-fil-A brand, millions of people that didn’t need to be offended. Millions who otherwise really liked the taste of Chick-fil-A.

What good does it any business to go out of its way to offend a significant percentage of its customer base? The foot-traffic bump the chain got from Dan Cathy’s public opinions and Mike Huckabee’s call for a Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day was more than offset by the long-term damage to its brand and sales. In fact, in the months following Cathy’s remarks, CfA, which had been rated quite high among QSRs (Quick Service Restaurants) by the market research BrandIndex, plummeted by 60% of its previous high ranking in measured brand perception. What good did that do anybody? Especially innocent, leave-me-out-if-it CfA franchisees.

In the brand CfA’s defense, Cathy only uttered his anti-gay (or pro-traditional-family) opinions when directly asked on a Baptist-oriented call-in show. He didn’t go out of his way to offend customers, as the Portland bakery owners did. And my hunch is, that in a city as indigo blue as Portland, the  brand-hit on a tiny business like this little cake maker will be far more harmful than that on Chick-fil-A.

In another example, here’s a case–not publicized at all–of a company, long known for its strong, socially-responsible, community-sensitive positions, allowing one of its stores to unthinkingly offend customers: Starbucks. I have old friends, Palestinian-Americans, who were shocked one day when they patronized a Starbucks in midtown Manhattan, only to find that it was running a little one-store campain to raise money to support Israel’s right to build settlements on the West Bank. I’m sure the manager had his heart in what he thought was a good place, but what he ended up doing was alienating a whole lot of otherwise loyal customers who will never, ever go into another Starbucks–even ones completely unaware of what happened at the one in New York.

I can’t imagine Starbucks corporate headquarters knowing about this, or allowing it. And I was at pains to explain to my understandably offended friends that it probably wasn’t the company’s policy. But the bell had been rung, and they didn’t want to hear reason. They were pissed. And Starbucks needlessly lost customers for good.

Can’t I just eat a hamburger without making a federal case out of it?

Now, admittedly, it’s getting so everything is so polemical lately that you can’t even buy a bag of sweat socks at Penny’s without making a political statement. I’ve never seen so many angry mobs trying to boycott this and rally around that. Most of us are just reasonable. We want to enjoy our soy Frappuccinos, our iPads, our bacon-chipotle cheeseburgers, and our organic, gluten-free kale chips in peace.

But if you’re in a business that depends on customers from a wide cross section of humanity, you might want to think twice about going out of your way to use your brand to flog a controversial cause. Some causes are, equally admittedly, strong enough to warrant the flogging, even with the risk. But consider the risk and calculate; can your brand take it?

And if you’re more offended by the lifestyle, sexual-orientation, race, religion, body-mass-index, gender, age, politics, citizenship, or ethnicity of your patrons than their money, then maybe it’s time to think of selling your business.

Here’s my advice to people trying to run a business: Its success depends on your customers. And every time you are dealing with customers, you are marketing not just to them, but to their entire network of friends. So, while you may not approve of some aspect of their lives–or even like them personally–remember, they are still your customers.

Just think first.  That’s all.