A Quick Trip Up The Political Yin-Yang

I just had one of those Homeresque “doh!” moments… where I finally realized the blindingly obvious answer to something that’s been bothering me for a lifetime.

And I’d like to share it with you… because there happen to be profound business applications to this realization.

But we have to lower ourselves into the muck of politics first.


Here’s what’s up: In my role as a businessman and teacher, I normally follow the bar-room rule of never discussing religion or politics. Why? Because, no matter how delicately I couch my views, I’m sure to piss off anywhere from a quarter, to half of my audience just by floating the most basic opinion on controversial issues.

I learned this rule the hard way, of course.

As a young man, I had some fairly typical idealistic ideas of how we could all get along, and I entered the political fray of the time with almost suicidally-naive optimism. This was the age of Nixon, Vietnam, civil rights, women’s lib, and a whole raft of other poli-social upheavals. (I notice that most of these issues still aren’t settled today.)

I joined massive student-led protests that were, essentially, tantrums. My generation had been schooled to think for ourselves and expect answers to questions… and it was a friggin’ shock when the real world became enraged at our impertinence.

I found it hard to believe that otherwise nice, rational people could also hold such hateful, wrong — and yes, stupid — views on the “way things ought to be”. And to want to throttle me for questioning their wisdom.

Every single political discussion I had with anyone outside my little coterie of do-it-yourself sociologists degenerated into a furious argument.

Neither reasoned debate, nor well-crafted presentations of facts and figures could stanch the vitriol.

It just seemed that people took up a position, and then used emotionally-fueled anger to support it. Heads got bashed in.

I lost my idealism — and avoided jail and the emergency room — when I realized that most of the girls I was chasing considered politics boring. That’s how shallow my beliefs were.

I’ve continued to be a political junkie, though — I’m just careful who I discuss it with these days.

It was good to back away from the red-hot core of the fight, too… because I actually liked and respected many of the people who were blowing their tops over political issues. As long as we didn’t crawl into the slime, we got along great.

And when I discovered Dale Carnegie’s “How To Win Friends and Influence People” — also known as “the salesman’s bible” — I even experienced a new kind of power: By allowing the other guy to have his say, and not argue with him over any point… you can actually get AROUND the anger, and even defuse it.

And then — wonder of wonders — once the fury has receded (because it cannot be sustained without an opposing view to bounce off of)… the now-calm other guy will often be startlingly vulnerable to a non-political pitch. Even eager to hear what you have to say.

In other words: Letting a prospect blow off some steam can be part of a bonding process.

It’s very Zen (though I doubt Dale, back in the 1930s, had ever heard of the Eastern art of non-resistance). And, as far as being a form of social engineering, it’s about as devious as smiling.

Really. It’s a simple rule of classic salesmanship: No one’s mind, in the history of mankind, has ever been changed by arguing. So… don’t argue.

Instead, listen. You don’t need to agree — just keep your clever retorts and superior grasp of events to your own bad self.

What’s more… forcing yourself to listen, with a pleasant look on your face, may even enlighten you to a few things.

(Side note: There is stunning power to being a good listener. Long before I studied salesmanship, I observed that — in the many jobs I applied for during my drifting years — there was a direct correlation between how little I spoke during the interview, to me getting the job. The more the interviewer jawboned… while I listened intently, nodding and smiling non-committedly… the more I knew I was already hired. Weird social observation…)

Now, of course, I’m not suggesting you start your sales pitch by getting your prospect worked into a lather over politics.

Though, I know marketers who do exactly that. (Mostly with disastrous results.)

No. I started out with politics, because it’s such an obvious example of the way people get mad at each other.

The advanced lesson here is based on the observation that even seemingly-innocent issues in marketing — like choosing Pepsi over Coke, for example — still involve the same parts of the brain that get people into pissing matches over who is and who isn’t a fascist pig. (Or which conspiracy theories are bunk, and which are “obviously” true.)

This is where my own “doh!” moment comes in.

I recently stumbled onto a bunch of articles on the wonders of new neuroscience discoveries — the study of how our brains work. The boys in lab coats have been using “magnetic resonance imaging” (MRI) to monitor what sections of the brain act up during specific emotional events.

Like, oh… political discourse.

And what they found explains a lot about the irrational behavior of most folks. (Which includes all of your target market.)

Turns out that any strong opinions you have are very likely hard-wired into your brain. The “reasoning” areas just shut down when you are confronted with ideas, facts, or discussions that run counter to your beliefs. And your “emotional” sections light up like a Christmas tree, to protect your original stance.

So, illogically, the more your opposition presents facts and statistics, the more you feel convinced — absolutely rock-solid convinced — that you’re “right”, and the guy with all the logic is “wrong”.

Once your mind is made up… your brain makes it mostly permanent by not allowing reason to interfere.

When reason butts up agaginst emotion, forget about it. Emotion wins, hands down, every time.

It’s not even close to being a fair fight.

Now, researchers haven’t experimented with any salesmanship-style social engineering, so this discovery is really just a starting point for a long look at human behavior.

But it sure explains why Dale was so right-on about doing end-runs around arguments in order to get the desired result.

When you’re writing copy, there is often a logical urge to pile on the stats and figures. You want to scream “Just LOOK at the preponderance of facts here! How could you possibly not want this product, given the rational TRUTH of its fabulousness?”

This logic will get you exactly nowhere.

Your prospect will trump your facts with emotion. Game over.

This is why we saddle up every feature with a benefit. When you’re selling a new product, in an uncrowded market, this is how you establish your baseline advantage over competitors, when they arrive.

Features please the rational side of your brain.

Benefits tickle your emotions.

I’ve been using the Pepsi vs. Coke example a lot lately, just because it’s so cool. For something like 70 years, in blind taste tests people have consistently said that Pepsi tastes better.

Then they go to the store and buy Coke, just like they always have. The percentage of worldwide sales between the two sugar-water giants hasn’t budged much since before you were born.

This is why Coke can say in its ads “Buy us, because we’re better.” It’s only a slightly more complex move to essentially say the same thing in politics.

Go ahead — throw all the facts and figures you want at me. Even the inconvenient fact that I agree with you in a blind taste test.

I’ll just say “Nyaah, nyaah”, stick my tongue out… and vote or buy the way I was emotionally leaning anyway.

This new neurological evidence has finally made the connection between emotion and action clear to me.

I know — you’d think I would’ve made this connection a long time ago, being a salesmanship expert and all.

But I didn’t. I “knew” that emotion was the key to making sales… but I remained baffled at how people could confront incontrovertible facts that made their long-held beliefs look silly, and not give an inch.

I “get” it, now.

I’ve always written as if my prospect were the most stubborn person in the world. Turns out, I was right all along.

Still… all this also emphasizes how important it is to master classic salesmanship.

Because the punch line is this: While you won’t ever “win” an argument with anyone… you can still persuade them to change their minds, once you understand the neurological process that must occur to uproot emotionally-cemented beliefs.

As I’ve said before — great salesmanship isn’t part of your original equipment, and it’s often counter-intuitive.

So it takes most of us a few “doh!” moments to finally understand the really advanced stuff.

Okay, I’m done.

Stay frosty…

John Carlton

P.S. People have been bugging me about this upcoming “semi-secret” seminar/workshop I’m possibly planning for this Fall.

So let’s get something straight: I’ve only offered 3 workshops before… and they were all limited to “Insiders”, or people from my inner circle. I have to limit attendance, because I always offer so much personal attention. These events look like no other seminar you’ve ever heard about — in the Copywriting Sweatshop I held a few years ago, I spent hour after hour deconstructing and reworking specific copy brought in by attendees.

There were no other speakers — just me, and the small group I allowed in.

It can be a truly transformative event. It’s all about you, the attendee. No pitching, no distractions, no bullshit theory.

Just hard-core workshops getting your skills honed to dangerous sharpness.

So, I have never allowed anyone not already involved in my courses to attend. It’s a closed group.

And anything I offer will never be a large event. We’re talking about a dozen or so people. Intense, personal, and effective.

A lot of folks have been thinking I’m gonna offer some huge seminar, and that’s just not the case. I do small workshops. I like to get specific results, and I like to work closely with attendees.

Hope that clears it up for you.

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  • Daniel Sweet says:

    How DARE you say that my customers are irrational! I have 27 PowerPoint slides, 6 charts, and 4 graphs telling why you’re wrong!

    What I’d be interested in is how do deeply held convictions get settled in our minds in the first place. There has to be a point where we go from “it could go either way, I guess” to “No! I’m right! Lalalalala I can’t hear you! I can’t hear you!”

    Either way, though, if we get good enough at salesmanship to tap into the “abandon all logic and reason” areas of our customers’ brains, id’s sure make a difference in sales.


  • quadszilla says:

    “When reason butts up agaginst emotion, forget about it. Emotion wins, hands down, every time.

    It’s not even close to being a fair fight.”

    Brilliant marketing insight.

  • This is very similar to trying to talk to someone about a vegetarian or vegan diet.

    Regardless of their experience, people will hold on to their own beliefs like their lives depended upon it.

    “But you gotta have your protein” they will argue. It’s either that or a bunch of other uneducated garbage they spew out of their mouths.

    99% of the time, these people have never tested alternative diets themselves, yet they seem to know what is best for them. And they will argue their point ferociously despite not having 1 iota of direct experience.

    I quickly learned to avoid talking to ignorant people if at all possible.

    Of course if they have a credit card in hand, I’ll shut up, nod my head, and say… “Yes indeed, I hear ya. I’m with ya man”.

  • K says:

    This is the second time I’ve heard you mention the Pepsi vs Coke taste test with Pepsi the winner.

    I know you’re looking at this from the Pepsi side
    because I’m certain the results from Coke would “prove” the opposite.

  • john-carlton says:

    Hi K. I’m a Coca-cola man, myself. Always hated Pepsi. I’m citing supposedly-scientific taste tests from long ago that have become part of advertising’s narrative. Coke, to my knowledge, has never conducted such tests.

    Still, I’ll do a little digging and see what googles to the surface on this matter… if I’m gonna keep using the analogy, you’re right to ask me to back it up.


  • john-carlton says:

    Ah, the wonders of the Infomation Age.

    Turns out, there are tons of references to “Coke vs. Pepsi taste tests” on Google… but truly scientific studies have discovered (through fMRI applications) that your preference for either has as much to do with the hard wiring in your prefontal cortex, as to actual taste.

    Score one for branding and big ad budgets.

    However, my main point stills stands. Researchers chose the cola debate because of the fervent dedication people show to one or the other brands… and yet, both products are so similar, they cancel out enough “x” factors to allow the docs to feel their fMRI images reveal good insight to brain function.

    The thing is, they’re both sugar water products. The good readng for marketers comes in the comments that accompany these articles — where people get downright nasty passionately defending their choices and trashing the alternatives. For sugar water.

    Here’s one stop that explains the 2004 study: http://www.hnl.bcm.tmc.edu/cache/eurekalert.org.htm


  • K says:

    Coke has done their own taste tests.
    Any responsible company does competitive testing.

    And why would they mind the Pepsi ads?
    Everytime Pepsi mentions Coke in their ads,
    Coke’s sales go up.
    (One of those marketing “rules” – don’t spend your money advertising someone else’s product)

    BTW… I’m a fan of Coke because they don’t market their colas directly to children.
    (And yes, I realize that this Coke policy was prompted by a legal ruling WAY before my time)
    Pepsi, on the other hand, hires child spokespeople.

  • mark grove says:

    Christ! when I talk and listen to people,and even when I write articles, I’m doing it from my point of view totally.

    Guess I better get my brain in gear and just let people say what they want without prejudice.Then write from their view point as well. Not just to make money,but not to take their bullshit and waste my time listening.


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