The Arrogance of the Informed

Also posted at the american street.

I wrote at american street a while back about “tiers” of voters, and how there are informed voters – namely us online, the readers and writers of news sites and weblogs – and then there are concerned but less informed voters, and how I think it was those voters who heard only the short, last-minute characterizations of messages – “Dean angry” and “Edwards nice” and Kerry Vietnam vet.”

Many months ago I had a long phone conversation with Mathew Gross, until very recently the blogger for the Dean campaign. In that conversation he asked if I thought the power of the Internet and weblogs would be enough to go around the media and get Dean’s message out to people directly. I quickly said I didn’t think so. I said it almost before thinking, sort of instinctively. Of course, up until a few weeks ago, with Dean 30 points ahead of Kerry everywhere, I felt like that would be one of those stupid statements – me of little faith – that I would regret for years. But now I think that perhaps my age and experience was leading me to understand something that is going on here with our views of blogging and politics and the electorate.

[I’m not saying here that Mathew thought they would or wouldn’t be able to bypass the media – we were bouncing around ideas, and this was long before it started to look like the Dean campaign actually would be able to use the Internet to reach a wider audience.]

Let me tell you how I learned my most important lesson about marketing. Many years ago I was an engineer who had wound up running a software company. I was approached by a direct mail consultant with an idea to sell something to my customers using direct mail. I agreed that the idea was a good one and we got started, but very soon I became uncomfortable with the sales pitch that the consultant was writing for use in the letters. I felt the language was insulting and obvious, even slick and sleazy, and that the customers wouldn’t fall for that kind of trash. So we decided to put it to a test (that’s the beauty of direct mail, you test everything) where I would write a letter and we would mail each of our letters to several thousand people and see what happened.

I wrote by far the best sales letter I had ever written or even imagined. It was a letter I would read if it came to me, and that would cause me to purchase. It was extremely respectful of the customers, used the best grammar, gave details and described features… anyway it was just superb. He, on the other wrote a sleazy, trashy, salesy typical direct mail letter that had nothing technical in it at all, nothing about the features – that said this remarkable new breakthrough product was being offered exclusively to them and only them and only for a very limited time so they must act now or lose out and by the way if they bought NOW they would also get a free gift that was so valuable… – a letter that I would have thrown out immediately assuming I even opened the envelope.

We mailed the letters and a week or so later the orders started to come in. After two weeks the results were becoming obvious, and after three weeks and his letter outselling mine almost four to one I wrote out by hand and FAXed to him a long letter that said only, “I will never question Jim Johnson again. I will never question Jim Johnson again. I will…” which went on for three pages so that it would come out of his FAX machine as one long scroll. I understand he still has that FAX hanging up in his office.

So I learned a very, very important lesson: There is a REASON that direct mail is all so similar and reads the way it does. BECAUSE IT WORKS! Because they have been doing it for decades and have studied it and refined it and refined it and tested it and refined it again, and it makes money – more money than other things they have tried because more people respond to it. And by extension, I came to understand that there is a reason that there are all those stupid ads on TV that we all hate, and ads in magazines, and billboards, and posters in subways, and huge ads on the sides of buses. And I came to understand why big companies spend BILLIONS on advertising when they are otherwise so cheap they ration pencils to their employees. BECAUSE ADVERTISING/MARKETING WORKS!

And I came to understand why they use such stupid appeals that are insulting to me. Because it works on most people, even if it does not work on me. And this is because I am informed BUT MOST PEOPLE ARE NOT.

Years later I worked for a while as a consultant, mostly helping other engineers who found themselves in the position of having companies learn from my mistakes, and helping turn the companies into real businesses – setting up Boards of Directors, and other businessy things. The very hardest part of that job was convincing engineers that they really didn’t understand marketing, and that they needed marketing professionals to handle their marketing. The engineers invariably were much like I was before that direct mail challenge. They assumed that other people were like them, knew what they knew, and understood what they understood. They were dismissive of stupid and obvious marketing appeals and felt they had read and knew a lot about marketing and could do a better job themselves. They felt they could certainly word things more intelligently, that they understood their products better, and that people would flock to buy the products because they are better. I only occasionally succeeded in convincing them to bring in professional marketing people AND allowing those professionals to do their jobs with minimal interference – and the companies that did not almost universally failed eventually.

So where is this leading? How many of you think you are too smart to fall for ads and blatant sales pitches? You probably are, and that is the problem that I am trying to write about today. The very fact that you are reading this means that you get your information online, and that you seek out alternative sources of deeper information than you get from your newspapers and TV. I am trying to say that you and I are informed and that blinds us to some realities. The very fact of OUR awareness can mislead us about most voters because most voters are NOT particularly informed at all. And they are busy or have other reasons that they are not likely to ever become highly informed about what is going on. Our state of informedness causes us to lose sight of what it is like to only hear what I call the “surface” messages that circulate – messages like “Dean angry” and “Edwards nice.” I think THIS is the reason that 50% of Americas STILL believe that Iraq was responsible for the 9/11 attack – because what news they DO hear has the President using 9/11 and Iraq in the same sentence repeatedly. Things like that. It isn’t going to change. We need to learn to hear what THEY are hearing, and understand how those things are going to affect them.

As I like to say, the people behind the Republicans are the people who sold tobacco – people so skilled they convinced others to kill themselves and to hand over their money in the process. They are people who DO understand regular Americans. We should learn from them. That bulge in Bush’s flight suit and the Marlboro man are are both designed to convey simple, basic, short messages on an emotional level to specific target audiences. That’s marketing.

Simple, basic, short messages that reach the target audience on an emotional level, repeated and repeated.

I fear that we online consumers of news suffer the arrogance of the informed. I think we all, bloggers and readers alike, might benefit from taking a step back, seeing a bigger picture – one that encompasses millions of less informed voters – and trying to understand what THEY think and how THEY react to things they hear.