The Fight You Won’t Win

I just finished my latest issue of The Rant — number 53, if you’re counting — and had a few notes left over I couldn’t fit into the 8 pages I allow myself for each newsletter.

So let me share that insight here: I was discussing human nature and the bizarre “cult of common sense” most people spend their entire lives laboring under (most folks believe they possess common sense, despite glaring evidence to the contrary)… and I was tying it in with the basics of world-class salesmanship.

If you desire to write truly good sales pitches, you must go deep with human behavior. The key is to get comfy with what people actually do… not what you wish they’d do, or what you believe they should do.

Or even what they think they’re doing. The hypocrisy of a Congressman, say, fronting a committee to abolish child abuse while simultaneously indulging in that exact social obscenity is appalling only for its obviousness. In much subtler ways, most people act completely opposite of the “mask” they’ve created for facing the world.

You should never be surprised when the straightest guy around turns out to be a hooker-obsessed drug addict in off-hours. And you should particulary doubt the ones who protest the loudest and claim self-righteousness with the most energy.

All sleep-walkers are hypocrites, aggressively blundering about the landscape unencumbered with self-doubt. And the majority of your target market is sleep walking… no matter what business you’re in.

Waking up and allowing the reality of our human condition to wash over you can be a jolting experience. It’s a BIG damn soap opera out there.

Yet, it’s absolutely necessary if you want to attain sales mastery.

Anyway, one example I couldn’t fit into The Rant concerned the idiocy of trying to educate people into buying your stuff.

A long-ago client created software that — in his view — eliminated the need for pen and paper on anyone’s desk. You could take notes with it, use it as an early version of the Blackberry for storing data and contacting people… everything that used to require writing stuff down.

I thought “Uh… okay”, willing to give it a go. Not the software — the ad. No way was I gonna get rid of my writing equipment. Ninety percent of the creative thinking I do is by applying pen to paper.

The client’s own staff was also not cooperating with this utopian vision. Despite an order to clear all desks of “outmoded” quill and scroll nonsense… everyone hid notebooks and pens all over the place. The boss went berserk on a regular basis — WHY couldn’t everyone just get with the program and admit what a genius he was, and how RIGHT he was about not using paper and ink anymore?

The project never gained traction. And no amount of evangelizing worked — people were just addicted to their “old world” ways.

And, while today many people do get by with mostly digital note-taking and such… I have never seen a desk of any creative worker that was paper-free.

I have, however, known many folks who have lost their entire database of phone numbers, calendar appointments, and important letters… because of a battery failure or power surge. (And some of them have been known to call me, desperate for a lost phone number, because they know I still log everything into my Rolodex by hand.)

Now, maybe we still will eventually move beyond paper and pen (at least until the latest Crackberry lawsuit over arthritic thumbs gets going)… but not because some software inventor really, really wants us to. This particular client’s vision consumed him — he saw a better way to live, and got pissed off when no one agreed with him.

He truly thought his common sense product could trump human nature.

This is why I often tell people not to try to market through education. If you have to “bring people up to speed” on the need for your product, you’re gonna fail. Much easier — and much more efficient — to find out what they already want, and offer them that.

Now, that said… I’m gonna back pedal a bit here.

A short time ago, I was having lunch with marketing legend Joe Sugarman and his lovely wife in Las Vegas. Great guy, Joe. An advertising genius who also works hard — and don’t ever bet against that combination.

But he had just heard me give a presentation at a seminar, and politely disagreed with my statement that marketers shouldn’t try to sell by educating.

And, mostly, he was right. His early ads were all about educating people on ion generators, and his great Blue Blocker infomercials educated people on the science of sunglasses.

So, in deference to a man I admire, I am trying to explain what I mean in better terms. Because once I explained myself better to Joe, he agreed with me, finally.

Here’s my advanced explanation: If you have to educate people as to why they might want what you’re selling… you’ve got an uphill battle, unless what you offer is still within their comfort zone.

In fashion, for example — people will, in October, proudly wear things they would have never dreamed they would like back in July. A thorough dousing of educational marketing by the fashionistas changed their minds… but no one is wearing sacks. The shocking nature of the new couture is still within reason. (And yellow is the new black, I hear.)

The first cell tower rights often went begging back in the 1980s… because few investors believed that cell phones were going to catch on. (Echoes of those brilliant men who insisted no one wanted to fly in planes, electricity had no practical uses, and ads run late at night on TV were destined for failure. Common sense idiots.)

And remember — well into the early days of the DotCom boom, industry leaders who should’ve known better were doubting that this strange new Internet thingie would ever become a common tool for regular people.

So here’s the rule I’ve developed — and I thank Joe for forcing me to think deeper on this, and not be so glib: There are 3 categories of advertising education.

(1) You will forever have trouble attempting to convert unbelievers to your side, regardless of how naive or ignorant you think they are.

(2) You will lose if you try to circumvent human nature, too. You may have lost hundreds of pounds with your special Spartan diet and hours of grueling exercise every day… but your gleaming example of self-reliance and discipline simply will not play out for the rest of your market.

(3) You CAN, however, perform “continuing education” to inform the “almost ready” segment of the market… people who are open to believe (or at least entertain) your premise, because they are interested in the benefits you offer.

Twenty-eight years ago, I discovered one of Joe Sugarman’s first ads for his ion generator machine. I was working in a Silicon Valley art department… and my pal Randy and I got so excited by what Joe wrote that we pooled our money and bought one of the new-fangled devices.

The other four people in the department thought we were nuts. While we had a passing knowledge of the science, and were open to the idea that flooding the joint with negative ions would do all these great things for us… the others labored under no such “delusion” (as they called it).

These people were actually afraid of the generator when it arrived and we plugged it in. Even when it collected black soot out of seemingly “clean” air, and even when they admitted to having better moods around it… they were NEVER ready to admit there was anything “to” this ion nonsense.

That’s a good way to describe what you’re up against when you buck the easy road, and decide to sell products that are not already accepted in the general public.

Joe’s long-copy ad did educate, by going deep on the science of ions. But he wasn’t out to convert anyone — he was after those “almost ready” folks who were open to joining the negative-ion underground. (Didn’t hurt that he was a world-class writer, of course.)

It is human nature to be hostile to new stuff. It is human nature to believe that everything contained in your private version of “common sense” is how the world actually operates (again, despite evidence to the contrary).

But it’s also human nature to want a better life, better health, and better everything else… and it’s often even more better when you get it all before anyone else.

So, by all means, use educational copy in your ad if you’re going after the “almost ready” folks in your market.

But don’t bang your head against the wall trying to convince pigs to climb up on the barn and fly into the horizon. Metaphorically, I mean.

Hope that covers it.

Stay frosty.

John Carlton

PS: One last quick story — when I first met Joe, I was introduced by Gary Halbert. This was many, many years after the ion ads had been out, succeeded, and faded away.

Anyway, I said “Hi Joe. Great to meet you. But listen — I bought one of your ion generators back in 1979, and it’s now broke… and I wanna know what the hell you’re gonna do about it!”

It took Joe a minute to figure out I was joking — I guess he’s encountered his share of nuts who are serious about such things.

But, eventually, I DID get him to make it right.

He paid for lunch in Las Vegas.

Thanks again, Joe. You are on my first ballot for the advertising hall of fame… and next time, lunch is on me.

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  • John,

    As usual, your wisdom speaks volumes.

    There are a few times where I have tried to educate those that do not see the value of marketing. It did not work so well, and the one I managed to turn to “the dark side” ended up being a pain in the butt anyway.


    As for Joe Sugerman, I would enjoy the opportunity to meet him for just 15 minutes…I have one of those ion generators too! =)

    Joseph Ratliff

  • Kip Lytle says:

    Hi John,

    thanks for the deeper, more clear explanation of “education” in marketing.

    I’ve read the “don’t educate” line from you before … and heard it live — but never really understood how you can/could sell a product with obvious human benefits …

    like Joe’s Ion Generator – which I think has now morphed into Sharper Images Ionic Breeze product — a several million dollar a year windfall!, or like our low level laser therapy products
    or email for a free information packet

    … WITHOUT educating a prospect about it.

    I was also conflicted because in some of early marketing training from Jay Abraham he touted the exact opposite – the importance of educating prospects to your products benefits.

    I now understand that I think you both were saying essentially the same thing – don’t waste your time with skeptics or non-believers — but educate those who are inclined to be interested to the benefits they will receive when using your product.

    And yet, at another level, it seems that some of the GREAT business fortunes have been made by those who have for-seen (is that a word?) a need/want well in advance of the general public’s perception of that need … and have persisted in educating the public that they really do need … cell phones, Crackberrys, Ion Generators (and low level lasers!) … and once the public finally understands that they need this product, the person/company REALLY cashes in.

    Thanks for keeping me “Frosty”!


  • Tim Horton says:

    You have written a great blog today John. You inspire me to have such skill of the written word someday.

    I have found myself felling like a person at your lunch with Joe. I kept saying to myself BUT?BUT…BUT?. Eagerly wanting to give my two cents (damn, good thing you have this comment section, or my day would have been shot).

    I have always thought of marketing and sales as educating with purpose to make a sale. Great sales people have always educated me to the point that I rarely have any buyer?s remorse. And I?m not talking about educating me on the technical jargon or the actually science of how the crap works.

    Like BOSE, they appear to be educating a person on how they get the big sound in to such a small speaker (funny, they rarely mention the LARGER subwoofer). But what they are really doing is marking the benefit of a small speaker with HUGE speaker sound. And the cost of the speakers is worth it cause of how much damn hard scientific work they put in to stuffing that huge speaker into the small space.

    Well, that is basically what average Joe tells me who owns these speakers. (If anyone actually went to a place and listen to them side by side you know what a HUGE speaker sounds like, and it don?t sound like BOSE)

    Opps, off track. Even with the ION generation (yes concept was new, new as lighting), I believe Joe educated one on the benefits of clean air more then anything else. Am I wrong? The science part severed one purpose, to back up the benefit of lighting strikes, I mean ION generation. (by the way I?ve own one of these units myself, don?t know if I got the benefit, but the air smelled nice).

    But in the end BOSE and ION generators are easy to for the consumer to try and live with regardless of the science behind them.

    But in the end Software to End The Need For All Pen And Paper is very difficult change. Did everyone have a laptop too to take to meetings and keep in the car? Or was note taking only allowed at their desk (Ya this product had success written all over it, no pun intended)

    What I really took away from your two views is this; Stay away from the products that are difficult or painful for the customer to use. (Make?s me think ?Set it ? and Forget it? ? Gotta just admire Mr Popeil)

    Thank again John; you have writing yet another great post. I can?t wait to read your newsletter.

  • The first copywriting client I landed was with Vedic astrologer (like I said, it was my first client…) who ran a consulting business.

    (For the record it was a serious business, not one of those “entertainment only” ventures).

    The first version of the copy I wrote for him failed terribly. It wrongly targetted the general public trying to convince them of the authenticity of this ancient form of astrology.

    It had a conversion rate of – 5%.

    I say it had a negative conversion rate, because the only response it generated was angry phone calls.

    The copy was trying to educate the “no way I’m buying into that” people as to why they should buy.

    We finally got it converting by focusing more on benefits and USP — at which point the astrologer decided he couldn’t deliver as promised and closed his business.

    (Again, it was my first copywriting job — and for the record I got paid in full).

    Thank you John, great post. Especially the reality check message at the beginning about working with your audience at the level they are truly at (not what we wish they where at).


  • Emette Massey says:


    I have a new title for you: MASTER OF MARKETING REALITY (Not to be confused with an old album of a similar name).

    Quite frankly I’ve been a bit puzzled with the “education in copy” thing. My problem was grouping education into the “more you tell, the more you sell” conotation.

    Now, thanks to your advanced explaination I’m beginning to see the light.

    We as master sales people (or students in my case) SHOULD be concerned with the reality folks live day to day–and try to connect with folks who are predisposed to hear your offer.

    It sure is a noisy world out there. The more we can understand how folks “tick” the better off we are as marketers (not to mention successful).

    I can’t help but believe getting into the prospects “space” and addressing her wants will drastically improve your sales message.

    As far as the “old fashion” quill and paper is concerned, I too am a big fan of writing it down.

    My day job, at least until my pencil is razor sharp, is working in IT. My colleague keeps harping on me to use my electronic contact manager/calender. I’ve seen too many PCs crash and burn, along with all the data.

    John, AKA Master of Marketing Reality, I sincerely thank you for sharing your wisdom.


    Emette Massey

    P.S. In case you actually read any of the comments posted, and particularly this one, you are welcome to use the phrase “Master of Marketing Reality” any time, any place (without charge or cost) Ha, Ha!

    Later Dude!

  • Lisa Manyon says:

    It all boils down to being aligned with your clients. I have a great example to share. I recently met with some lively ladies who wanted marketing and copywriting advice. I gave a complimentary consultation to see if we were a good fit. When they rolled out their tag line ?If you’re not happy, we haven’t done our job”, I was astounded. I tried to explain the conversation this positioning would promote in their potential clients heads. The response, “Well, that’s not what we’re saying.” Yeah, well, that’s what customers are hearing and the mere thought that I might not be happy or that they might not do their job was enough for me to walk away and cut my losses.

    On the technology front, it?s nice to hear I?m not the only one who still scribbles my information in a planner for safekeeping.

    Thanks again for sharing.

  • BrettFromTibet says:

    Great post!

    I just discovered this blog via Copyblogger and I already can tell this is
    good stuff written by a top-drawer cpopywriter.

    I’m looking forward to reading this regularly.

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