Salesmanship’s Black Eye


There’s a small brouhaha in the copywriting/salesmanship world. If you put all the participants in a room together, fisticuffs might be thrown.

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But the gist of it all concerns the role of salesmanship in the real world.

There’s a poster who insists that top copywriters should be able to sell anything to anybody. No matter what. This view has been offered by him after multiple professional copywriters (including myself) have both elegantly and inelegantly told him there’s no market for what he’s selling.

He’s adamant about being right. And that’s a whole other issue. (I often run into stubborn marketers who would rather lose everything chasing a failed scheme, than ever admit to being wrong.)

But what he perceives as the “motto” of pro copywriters is somewhat bothersome. If I have ever said I could anything to anybody, no matter what, I don’t remember saying it. And shame on me if I ever did, through some lapse in my thought process. Throughout my long career, I have been careful to qualify the limits of my abilities.

I may have said I could sell almost anything to almost anybody… and that’s something I can stand behind.

But anything? To anybody?

Naw. No one can do that, and keep his soul safe from brimstone.

There’s an old compliment that goes “He could sell ice to Eskimoes.” The image is, of course, that Eskimoes, surrounded by ice, would have to be subjected to one hell of a pitch to buy ice.

It’s a backhanded compliment, though, in many ways… because it implies an unethical transaction.

The joke about “I got a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you” is based in truth — during the time America was being flooded with refugees and immigrants from Europe (just before WWI), con men actually took money from gullible newcomers who thought they were buying the bridge.

That ain’t funny.

In my course “Kick Ass Copywriting Secrets of a Marketing Rebel“, I clearly make the point (in the introduction) that great advertising has the power to defy reason. A world-class piece of copy can sell the bejesus out of a bad product… in fact, it can (and sometimes has) sold a non-existent product.

But I make that shocking point as a counterpoint to the other side:

Bad copy can’t sell the best product on earth.

The marketing graveyard is crammed with truly fabulous products that failed because the marketing sucked.

I am also careful to admonish anyone burdened by the notion that learning great copywriting skills gives you the sudden voodoo to be able to jack people around. I write in the introduction that I very much hope you rot in hell if you use the power of salesmanship to do unethical things.

There is no lack of great products out there. There is no lack of niches desperate for new stuff, for information, for another way to indulge in their passions.

If you sell junk, you’re doing it because you’re a lazy sociopath. With the tools and advantages of the Web and new global ecomony, it is just as easy to create a valuable product as it is to work up a con. You have zero excuse for shirking your duty as a marketer to provide something of value and worth… especially if you sell it by promising such things.

Are we clear on this, then?

However, the fuss on the forum brings up another point:

Can great copy sell a product the market really doesn’t want?

The answer is: Yep.

You can sell it. You can write a blind ad that stretches the truth, inflates the worth of what you offer, and ignores the flaws.

You can sell it.

But you can’t make the sale stick.

And no copywriter with any self-respect would take on a job like that. It truly is whoring out your skills.

I’ve seen TV commercials for used cars where the blustery, evangelical salesman points at the screen and declares that no one walks home without a car at HIS lot.

And you know what? If you don’t count the homeless drunks who get tossed, his claim might be true.

And, if driving home in a car that is marginally “yours” is something you desire, then that can happen. You won’t have a very good deal going, you may stand to lose all the collateral you had to put up, and have the car repossessed in three months… but you won’t walk home.

But, really.

Part of the guy’s clownish behavior and shouting schtick is meant to scare off the part of the market he doesn’t want to deal with.

A rational, middle-class car enthusiast who insists on having a mechanic check out the ride, and who knows the standing market value, will give that salesman a headache.

He prefers the easy pickings.

The whole notion of being able to sell anything to anybody is silly.

And it keeps direct response advertising’s black eye shining. People understandably get royally pissed when they decide they’ve been “sold” on something they don’t really want, or have just bought something that doesn’t begin to live up to expectations.

I’ve known marketers who — either by design or by circumstances — have allowed shoddy product to go out under their name. You gotta have a thick skin to withstand the blowback from frustrated, angry buyers. This is why the classic con games involve lots of moving around — after you dump your evil payload on the local populace, you gotta leave town.

An ethical marketer will make good on all guarantees and bend over backwards to fulfill on all promises.

And, if he hasn’t learned the lesson of being clear (even on bold, outrageous promises) about how he’s going to meet expectations… he will soon learn it.

I run a damn good operation, myself. I’m the bottom line for most of the offers, through critiques and consulting and the exhausting fact that I write everything that goes out under my name. So when someone complains about something, there are only two reasons why it’s happening:

Either he has a legitimate reason to gripe (such as not receiving his package, due to some shipping problem either with us — hey, it happens — or with the shipper)… and we jump on fixing it.

Or the complainer is unclear on reality. (As in, yes, if you order something, we do actually expect you to pay for it, as agreed.)

There is a percentage of the population that is unclear on most concepts of modern life.

And there is a larger percentage of the population that feels entitled to exercise their drama queen behavior with your staff, just because they bought something from you. It’s the old 80-20 rule. And there’s no way around it… except to spot the trouble as soon as it pops up, and whack it down asap. (Yes, even if it means refunding a customer who didn’t ask for a refund. If you’re spending too much time with someone because their gripes never seem to cease, you may have been snagged in a high maintenance web. It’s fair to say you simply cannot work with that person, and offer a fair refund to end the relationship.)

So let’s be clear on this:

Salesmanship is powerful.

That power can be used for good, or for evil. The buyer in any capitalistic transaction has a responsibility to perform due diligence — “let the buyer beware”.

This is why I stress finding someone you can trust as a resource to help you stay on the shortest path to success (however you define success). There are several copywriting and marketing forums out there, and I recommend many of them because I know the guys running them.

These forums are such a great tool because — even if you’re trapped in the hinderlands, isolated from other marketers — you can still enjoy the brainstorming and the power of the collective. Working alone sucks. The virtual “family” of a damn good forum can change your life.

But you’ve gotta get over your idealistic stubborness, if it’s holding you back. Many people suffer from glaring ego problems, and are actually energized when the crowd disagrees with them. I know, I know — history is stuffed with people who were ridiculed for their ideas at first, who later succeeded wildly. So there’s always the chance that you’re right, and everybody else is deluded.

But the other part of that history lesson is this:

You may yet succeed… but you’ll do it without your detractors ever being convinced.

A lot of people died smug in their conviction that man could never fly, that electricity was a cheap parlor trick, and, well, fill in the blank with your favorite contrarian victory.

But really… if you can’t convince veteran salesmanship experts that what you have is worthwhile, then you’re kinda out in the cold. The advantage of brainstorming includes the very common realization that you need to dump the project you’re so in love with.

The thing is… while mastering salesmanship isn’t exactly like learning how to perform brain surgery…

…it nevertheless is a skill set that you do NOT understand until you take the time to be taught the lessons.

(You can learn them the hard way, as I did, over a very long time… or you can shortcut the process by trusting a good teacher.)

As I pointed out in earlier posts about the sales-challenged geeks… your belief systems can foul up all the incoming data, so you hear what you want to hear. The advantage of dealing with veteran copywriters is that they’re completely jaded about being pitched on “the next best thing since sliced bread”. All it needs is world-class copy, and we’ll all be rich!

You betcha.

No credible top copywriter I’ve ever known has ever claimed to be able to sell anything to anybody, no matter what. Not because they couldn’t actually do it, though. Because it’s stupid and wrong to distort or manipulate salesmanship in a way that creates unhappy buyers.

Learning great salesmanship includes learning how to judge markets and products.

Most of my longterm clients quicky included me in all discussions about future products, because they knew I was outside their echo chamber, and could see clearly what they might miss.

That’s the job of a copywriter who works beyond just slamming out ads.

The whole mix includes the vialbility of the product, and demographic value of the target market, and the hooks that will hit the sweet spot of the prospect.

Hope my logic in this post wasn’t too twisted for folks to follow — the point is worth making. It seems like it should be obvious, but my experience tells me it’s not (at least not in a way that people “get” easily).

People who understand salesmanship lead better lives.

Yes, the whole concept of being a good salesman carries some unwanted baggage — including a well-deserved black eye for all the scamsters out there abusing their skills. But that doesn’t negate the fact that salesmanship is the foundation of capitalism. The world isn’t perfect, nor is it always fair. Learning salesmanship at a deep level includes massive and continuing reality checks about human behavior… and after the initial shock, you discover it’s a good and necessary advantage to drop the idealism and see people as they truly are.

The human race is still loveable and the world is still full of fun and wonder.

But sometimes, even that product you know, in your heart, is fabulous and a boon to mankind… will be refused by the marketplace. It happens.

Successful marketers acknowledge the reality of the situation, and move on.

Yes, they could probably use blind ads to sell it anyway… but then they would have to deal with overwhelming returns, refunds, and pissed off buyers.

Life’s too short. Learn the lessons of the marketplace, and adapt.

You don’t need to sell anything to anybody.

You just need to master the basics of providing great value to a niche that appreciates it…

…and make sure you tell your story through the wonders of great salesmanship.

Do so in a way that your market gets the message and feels good about acting on your offer.

Okay, I’m done.

Stay frosty…


P.S. If you’re looking for even more resources to help you succeed as a marketer, look no further than this checklist right here.

P.P.S. Hope you’re enjoying your winter. Another one almost gone, but ain’t it a sweet season? Life truly is too short, and I’ve been reminding myself to slow down and experience the way the world is shifting through the heat toward autumn. It’s always High Definition outside, even in the melancholy gray days…

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  • David Craft says:

    Thanks John!

    Another insight and a lesson worth remembering. Just how did used car salesman get their reputation? I used to work on the PC’s in the sales office of a dealership and learned a ton of oddball stories. Most centered around the top salesman and how resentful most everyone else was of his success. Did they try and learn from him? Did they ask questions? Did they hang around to see what he did or how he went about it? I think you know the answer.

    They all commented about how slick he was, how smooth of an operator he was, how lucky he was. I met him and talked to him a few times and it was clear of one thing – he could be best friends to anyone who walked in almost immediately. He found out about them, what they wanted and answered their questions. Then he simply made the case of how the cars they had answered those questions, how it would make them feel when they drove it and it was clear they were sold before they ever took it for a test drive. It was a virtuoso performance every time but that’s the whole key. It wasn’t a performance, it was in large part who he was.

    While every one else was rushing and battling to put the squeeze on who ever even got near the lot, people gravitated to him naturally. People talk about mind set, affirmations and all sorts of tricks and triggers. The question is not what you can tweak out of yourself, it’s who you are. If you’re looking for tricks to sell, you may make some but you’ll never be nearly as successful as you could be. Are you willing to learn? Are you willing to look at another side of an issue? Are you willing to make mistakes and learn from them?

    You succeed by opening up to failure as success in process. The best salesman believed in himself and the people who became his new friends. No one’s a stranger, just a friend you haven’t met yet as my Dad used to say. Sure there’s always people who for one reason or another will never make the grade with you. Find out early and fire them quick. The best salesman didn’t make every sale, but every sale was special. It’s not about being able to sell to anyone, it’s about being able to sell. And that means it’s about you and your willingness to learn and share. Are you excited about sharing the exciting news about a new water hole to some thirsty friends? Or are you trying to snare another rabbit? Are you learning the latest tricks to sell or are you learning the latest tricks to spread the word in a better way? Do you even see the difference? Are you willing to?

    Thanks again for the amazing frosting on my cake…

    David C.

  • Ken Thompson says:

    Damn good post, John. Thanks.

  • Lisa Manyon says:


    Right on!

    Enough said.

    Lisa Manyon

  • Doug Barger says:

    Hi John,

    Thanks for the great post. There is a book by a man named Joe Girardi called “How to Sell Anything to Anybody” in which he outlays how to sell anything to anybody. I thought of that as soon as I read your post. I’ll have to check out the coaching.

    You are a legend.


  • Doug Barger says:

    Hi John,

    I have a correction. The name of the author of “How to Sell Anything to Anybody” is Joe Girard not Joe Girardi the major league baseball manager. Glad I caught this before any damage was done.


  • Singles says:

    John, re “A world-class piece of copy can sell the bejesus out of a bad product… in fact, it can (and sometimes has) sold a non-existent product.” – dont you think this describes the latest craze in “Million Dollar” follow-ups – namely, Million Dollar Wiki project? I keep seeing totally opposite opinions on the project: 1) Graham is the genius and you should snap at one page NOW! – you’ll be able to resell it for amount comparable with current cost of and 2) it’s a total crap – the man will make his own 1 Mln, but that doesnt extend to those who spends their $100s on his worthless pages.

    What do you think about – is it a non-existent product ?

  • Micah says:

    Hey John,

    An article that analyzes a recent landing page competition was just written. Pretty cool because it was a head-to-head competition and the landing page that won (no surprise here) was a long copy sales letter using solid salesmanship in print.

    You are even featured in the article. Anyway, it just made me think of this post. Nice work.

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