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Here's the pitch ...
Photo by Jerry Beall via Flickr

Advertising works when you suspend critical thinking.

This may seem very simple and self-evident but there's more.

(Hat tip to my daughter Michelle Blumenthal, a Communications major at the University of Maryland, for sharing her research paper with me.)

The success of the pitch depends on narrative. More specifically, my interaction with it. Where I am confronted with an image, immediately construct a story, and engage with it in a positive way.

Once that is accomplished I no longer want to examine the subject matter critically. I value having "found" my identity more, and am happy to say: "That's me." 

For example:

  • Those commercials for Volvo where the down-to-earth mom makes fun of the snooty mom doing her makeup in the other car. The one for Volkswagen, with the '80s song "Take On Me" playing, is good too. I already have a car, but there is something about the mindset behind those commercials that makes me want to do a test-drive.
  • The Target holiday ad where the lady is happily setting up a table for her friends to visit on the holidays. I hate cooking, dread formal social occasions, etc. But I like the whole scenario. So I may not make the party, but prefer to shop there.


Generally speaking advertisements are boring. They lack skill. Either they just give information in a "pretty" way, or perhaps focus on the functional benefits to the user.

But a great pitch totally sucks you in.

Here's another example, from a sales presentation I viewed.

The salesman was pitching a wholesale travel club unfamiliar to me. Here's how he played the game, and by the time he was done I almost wanted to buy:

  • Likened the club to brands I was familiar with and appreciated as part of my life: "It's like Sam's Club or Costco."
  • Made himself one of the audience: "I know you don't want to listen to this." "You're thinking this makes no sense." Even said out loud what we were thinking: "Are you wondering how I get my hair to stand up like this?" (He even talked about such personal problems it left the audience gasping...who gets up and shares this kind of thing with a group?)
  • Shamelessly played multiple fear cards - now you are worn down and ready to get engaged in the story: "How much time do you have left on this earth?" "If you just work and pay your bills, what kind of a life is that?" "Play together, stay together."
  • Created a mutual enemy: "The competitor is trying to take your money, I'm here to advocate for you, the customer."
  • Then, and only then, showed concrete "proof": "Here is their price, here is mine." Over and over, side by side we saw the numerous and comprehensive comparisons.

In the end there were lots of signs that one should not trust this pitchman - the crazy high price, time pressure, lack of ability to independently verify what was being said.
But I couldn't help but think, these are tools that any presenter can use.
  • You reel people in by showing how you're just like them. 
  • You keep them in by engaging them with a story - but they get to fill in the details. 
  • You seal the deal with a concrete, logical proof of concept.
Some people might think that having a "formula" for marketing and sales is kind of unethical. But that kind of logic makes no sense to me. Why is it morally superior to be boring? Nobody will ever listen that way, no matter how good your product or service is.

Here's hoping you use the most sophisticated methods of marketing and sales well. Help make the world a better place.

* All opinions my own.

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Comment by Bobby Caudill on December 11, 2013 at 11:05am

As a marketer, I wanted to congratulate you on your detailed assessment of this sales pitch, especially, your conclusions.  You are absolutely correct in your assertions that the tools he used are viable and, used properly, quite ethical. 

It is HARD to get people to see things from a new perspective and such methods as you've called out are very useful. So, if you are a representative of a government agency that has something new/useful/helpful/interesting for citizens that the citizens just aren't "buying", perhaps it's not a problem with the program, but an issue of getting people to think differently.

Like any tool or approach, it can be used for good or NOT so good, as the case may be. Using these tools with "enforced" time pressure, wild assertions and no credible, verifiable sources of additional information, for sure, creates a disagreeable situation, one that is generally associated with a "slimy sales rep".

However, taking out the time pressures and adding in credible resources for additional information makes this approach viable for many well-intended purposes.

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