Tag Archives: selling

Mindful of the Bullseye on Our Backs

I wonder what it means to carry the awareness that we have bullseyes painted on our backs.

There’s something inherently disconcerting about being a “target.” The lethality implied in the early use of the term is still with us, more than it should be, but its also obvious that its meaning has clearly broadened.  Even so, the 17th Century origins of the term are grammatically consistent with how we still use it today, namely: to be the object of another’s attempt to have us yield. In the noun form, a “target” is a person. As a verb, to be “targeted” means that we are the quarry of someone else. A word rarely heard by our ancestors is now firmly in the canon of common usage.

In different language, the idea was even a rule of thumb for Aristotle, who instructed citizens of Macedonia on how to assess audiences, adjusting verbal appeals to match their characteristics.

What is so striking about the modern use of the word in marketing and every kind of communication is that it has become ubiquitous. A pitch for almost any ideology, service or product is strategically designed to convince anyone identified as falling within the target audience. This is still standard lingo of Marketing 101. My guess is that even children as young as eight or nine understand this form of exchange in what is too often a one-way transaction. Sellers often seem to reap benefits from their “core demographic” that exceed what comes to the buyer. This “margin” is a bedrock of American consumer culture.

I wonder what it means psychologically to carry the awareness that we have bullseyes painted on our backs. Our daily consciousness can’t help but remind us that we are being tracked for what we represent rather than who we are. We cannot live in this culture without the knowledge that others are interested in us less as free agents and more as bodies ready to comply with particular appeals. Add in just enough delusion, and someone within a target audience may be flattered by the apparent attention. But those who are more aware know better. Even so, the wary will still be among the consumers who collectively lost $3.3 billion in 2020 from online scams and other offers of things or services that were never delivered.

We now occupy a world where software makers target us with appeals to buy computer protection to ward off many others who target us for personal gain. On the internet, easy anonymity and clever algorithms mean that the odds can favor the grifters.

The side calculation of estimating our trust in others

To be sure, targeting is not always easy. It must happen amid an overload of channels and platforms, reducing the effectiveness of any one appeal. Selling today means aiming for prey concealed in a forest of competing distractions. Being noticed is one problem; being persuasive is another.

But the game persists. The uber-strategy of targeting has altered the ways we relate to others. The awareness of being in the crosshairs and about to receive another’s self-serving messages makes us wary. We are often unsure who we can trust. Interestingly, the idea of a person with “good character” who merits our confidence was Aristotle’s gold standard for effective persuasion.  In his words, who we are often speaks louder than what we say. Now, we must now constantly do side calculations to determine who among our many contacts will not violate our the faith we have placed in them.  Every calculation pushes us further into defensiveness and suspicion: realms that, among other things, are fertile ground for conspiracy theorists.

So, rhetorically, we now sit in a very different place. The strategy of the “double game” played for laughs in old classic films like The Music Man (1962) or The Sting (1973) has now taken on the attribute of  a common norm applied to messages that come to us from beyond the small bubble of family and friends. What was once a plot device has become a dominant and darker transactional pattern.

On the Make

                                                      Pinterest

Selling things or promises is our common national heritage, usually featuring a mixture of shameless persuasion and outright ‘cons.’ 

Most cultural observers note that Americans these days are perhaps better at selling stuff than making it.  It’s an understatement to note that we have a knack for marketing services and wares to each other.  Our economy is largely propelled by consumption.  And while we can still design elegant products like phones, cars and electronics, many if not most of their parts are made elsewhere.  On the other hand, selling them is something we still do well, sometimes too well.

Even Americans with modest incomes are drowning in stuff. There’s a store and product for nearly every budget.  One sign is the spread of the American idea of franchise stores, with familiar brands now in every corner of the world.  Think of McDonalds or Marriott.  Another sign is the common problem families face in finding places to store all of the things they have accumulated.  In most neighborhoods garages originally built to hold cars are now used for storage.  Especially in the West, the family car is usually relegated to the driveway.

Cultural historian Daniel Boorstin was among the first to offer a seminal account of the typical American “go getter” continually “on the make.”  (The Americans: The Democratic Experience, 1973). Our common heritage is selling and buying medicines, household products and goods that promise happiness.  CNBC’s popular reality show Shark Tank continues the trend and represents it in miniature. It features investors with cash whose hearts quicken when they hear a good sales ‘pitch’, often from strivers who have more optimism than judgement.  Some may be natural entrepreneurs.  But it’s equally likely that others are attracted to the idea of making a pitch as a pathway to celebrity.  Everyone knows the story of actress Lori Loughlin’s daughter, Jade, who used her ill-gained admission to the University of Southern California not to become a serious student, but because of the ego-boost of being a social media “influencer” on campus.  We can also look to the current President as an example the ultimate “man on the make.” Given recent evidence of massive business losses over the years, Donald Trump appears to have little talent for anything except selling his “brand.”  In this sense, his ‘cons’ make him less of an outlier then we might think.

 

The pitch is the thing; the product, not so much. 

Observing this long-running streak from the communication side makes it plain that little has changed since the days of P. T. Barnum, or the medicine shows that once toured the country.  Today, many students beginning their college careers are still enamored with the apparatus of selling as represented by ad agencies, public relations firms, social media, electronic media and other ways to attract willing buyers. In my own institution the fields of marketing, sales and communication studies easily attract more students than fields like engineering or education.  And while a professor of persuasion should delight in seeing communication as a subject of special interest, it’s apparent that this fascination often comes with less thought in what the content of a given message should be. The pitch is the thing; the product, not so much.  And so the campus television studio remains high on the list of places for future communication students to visit. The excellent library can wait.

Consider another case. A recent New York Times article described the rising popularity of entrepreneurial summer camps around the country.  Parents can now enroll their eight-year-olds for weeks of immersion in the business world.  Highlights typically include stops at a “personal branding station,” in addition to the chance for these youngsters to make their own television commercials for products they will presumably think up later.  If their fantasies eventually come true, they may design a campaign around some plastic thing they can pitch to the rest of us as a product “as seen on TV.”  The American love affair with selling continues even in the pristine woods and away from our screens.