Acquired Immunity To Viral Marketing Part 1

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I’m a huge fan of Jay Conrad Livingston and his line of “Guerilla Marketing” books which are some of the most clever and informative series of works in the history our industry. It’s not a stretch to say that he was the founding father of modern promotions. “Guerilla” is also a great way to define his message. He used the word as a metaphor for his brand of marketing although it is a term that initially entered the modern vernacular with negative connotations.

I remember when I first heard the word “guerilla.” I was watching The CBS Evening News anchored by Walter Cronkite with my mom, dad and big brother. The details escape me because I was so young, but I remember it was about bad guys in Lebanon. My father also had to explain to me that Mr. Cronkite wasn’t calling these bad guys “gorillas.” It was my first lesson on homonyms, but I digress. It helps to remind ourselves that Mr. Livingston’s message succeeded in spite of the negative connotation, not because of it. No one believes his intention was that we’d take his terminology literally and start shooting up Beirut whilst passing out branded tchotchkes. He was just telling us there was another way to get our point across which involved tactics not unlike a guerrilla ambush on an unsuspecting—but ultimately grateful—public. Juxtapose that tactic with what’s happening now; he took a negative term and turned it into a positive euphemism. The exact opposite is happening in the marketing world today. 

Allow me to set the stage: We’ve all been exposed to euphemistic rebranding of negative terms in the sterile corridors of the corporate world. Long ago and in more pragmatic times, we may have heard someone say something akin to, “We have a problem and it needs to be fixed.” It was clear, concise, to the point and we understood there was a problem and it needed to be fixed. No further explanation was needed. However sometime in the last 20 or 30 years, some mid-level manager raised on Dick & Jane and new math (and who may have just been subjected to sensitivity training), proselytized that people ran for cover when hearing the word “problem,” lest their self esteem be irreparably damaged as a result of the exposure. By some decree, the word “problem” was substituted with the word “challenge.” After all, everyone likes a challenge, don’t they? When “Challenge” lost its luster (after a very short while, incidentally), it was unceremoniously replaced with “issues.” That wasn’t good enough either and now we actually call problems “opportunities.” Good grief. Isn’t it sad to think that soon, that wonderfully positive word will be laden with negative connotations? 

Euphony has its place in the lexicon though. When someone’s vital signs cease to be apparent, it blunts the trauma to survivors when we say this person has “passed on” or “passed” versus this person “died.” We don’t get buried, we get “interred.” In fact, life insurance companies go so far as to tell survivors that the policy in question had “matured.” We can forgive euphony in businesses that deal with death, but for the rest of us, it borders on ridiculous and it implies that everyone on the payroll is an easily traumatized child. I think it’s time to come full circle; indeed we have a ‘problem’ and it needs to be fixed. You’d never know it, with all the “Johnny-come-lately-me-too” terms in the marketing world we are being subjected to. I believe these new buzz words and phrases try in vain to capture the clever and whimsical spirit and vibe of the late Mr. Livingston’s epiphany. For instance, can we all agree that ‘viral marketing’ is a vile term? Why must our industry come up with these negative-sounding names to describe what we do? Viruses are bad. No one wants one and if we can help it, we’d never seek one out to bring home to the family.

This blog will appear dated very shortly as I’m certain we will stop using this buzz term shortly (wishful thinking?). But I can’t help thinking it will be replaced with another, even more negative sounding name. ‘Disruptive’ is another gem. It’s as if the only way to get the attention of our target consumer is to disrupt them (read: Piss them off). If someone disrupts me while I’m busy living my life, I can tell you with complete certainty I will not be investing in their product, company, cause, or service. I would also maintain that I’m not alone in this sentiment. You get the point; I’m illustrating, with absurdity, the absurd. What we do in marketing and promotions is an honorable endeavor but with names like “Viral Marketing” floating around out there defining what we do, at best you’d think that we’re up to no good and at worst, trying to infect the public with something that may kill them. If we just call what we’re doing “marketing” and “promotions,” we’re being honest with the consumer. If on the other hand, our product, service or cause needs to be spread by such disgusting sounding names as ‘viral marketing,’ we shouldn’t be surprised when our demographic target moves from our sights and hides where we can’t find him or her. It may be for the aforementioned reasons we have to keep on reinventing, or ‘mutating’ ways to get our message in front of consumers. No one wants our viruses; hence the name of this blog, “acquired immunity” and I believe these terms and tactics are creating an ever-resistant strain of consumer. Note that the author is keenly aware that ‘viral’ is a metaphor, but words have meaning and by continuously using negative words in our communications, it reinforces negativism. Keep in mind the term, “guerrilla marketing” is the exception to inverted euphony; it worked. Most, if not all the others, don’t. 

Come back soon for Part 2

Thanks!

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