Well, happy new year, and I’m going to start on a really positive note: talking about things that annoy me. Today, I’m thinking about a rhetorical figure that I’ve started noticing in advertising copy: the attempt to judge and define your audience according to some predetermined interpretation that you’ve arbitrarily laid down, as a way to try and get them on side. I think some advice must have come out recommending that marketers address the audience with lots of personal pronouns (well, we did do that stuff in GCSE English Language) and then subtly ‘guide’, or rather create an image of, their thoughts, under the pretence of really understanding them.
It’s not a tactic I recommend.
I’m thinking of email copy along the lines of ‘I understand why you haven’t signed up for xyz. You’re just too jaded/unhappy/hopeless. But that’s why xyz will help you!’ Well, actually no, marketing whizz, I’m an independent human and just don’t fancy your product right now. But well done for not crediting me with that possibility and thereby alienating me.
Whilst coming up with a wonderful product, it’s a good idea to do some market research and try to understand your intended customers, and then to try to write in a style that will appeal to them. It’s less cool to adopt an overbearing manner and patronisingly insinuate that you can actually read their minds. You’re there to be of service to your customers, not to order them about.
The insinuation is that if you are planning to behave in a way that I don’t find ideal, I can find an explanation for it that goes beyond your simple inclinations. Because you simply not really wanting me or my offering is really unbearable.
I’m reminded of an admittedly slightly unhinged man on a random railway platform somewhere in the West Country (it was probably Westbury; Westbury is, as everyone knows who travels by rail in the south of England, the centre of the world). The man saw my violin, saw his cue (this happens to me a lot) to engage me in a long discourse about his grandmother who played the violin, and ended things by asking me to come out for a drink sometime.
When I said that I probably wouldn’t manage a drink, railway-platform-man said: ‘Ah, I see. Loved up already, are you?’
Now, I know that this sort of exchange is quite common. It’s as though the personal inclinations of the object of your affections are not enough; only fact of their being ‘taken’ by another will make you back away. You’re supplying an explanation that suits your purposes, however flexible its relationship to reality.
Whenever I’m irritated by something like this, I try to remember the beginning of The Great Gatsby. The slightly vulnerable-looking chap probably wasn’t a wicked chauvinist. He was clearly a little uncertain about social manners, so I’m not going to get all self-righteous about him. I expect his ego simply wasn’t strong enough to bear the thought that someone would not want to spend time with him.
It’s an analogy worth considering, though. If your copy disingenuously says, ‘I know why you don’t want my product,’ and proceeds to run through the possible objections the customer might have, you’re taking the same line as the man who needs to believe that the woman who chooses not to go on a date with him makes that choice because she’s already in love. Maturity means letting people choose, and sophisticated marketing makes a more compelling case.
I wouldn’t put a sign in a shoe-shop window that said, ‘I’ve noticed that you haven’t come into this shop yet. I know why. You’ve given up on your horrible feet. And also, you have no taste. But come in here, and we’ll help you out! And take your money!’
This attitude in advertising can be funny. There was a time, I’m sorry to say, when I shopped at Jack Wills once or twice; it was in my late teens or early twenties. (Their tag-line is, or was, ‘Fabulously British’. I worry that this wouldn’t work terribly well at the moment. I adore this country but we don’t seem to be giving a particularly fabulous account of ourselves on the world stage). I remember this esteemed retailer furnishing me with a very, very short denim skirt. Anyway, as happens to impressionable youth in shops, I got press-ganged into getting their catalogue in the post, and when I eventually got around to unsubscribing from it, the box to tick in order to do so was next to a sentence that read, ‘For some bizarre reason, I no longer want to receive this Handbook.’
Now, at least this is moderately funny. It’s entirely brazen and tongue-in-cheek. It’s making fun of the advertiser’s desire to influence the subject’s thoughts.
And I’m happy to say I wasn’t too hurt. I got through. Reader, I managed it. And as a consequence my bank balance hasn’t overly suffered from the purchase of expensive but not ‘wonderfully made’* little tweedy things in imitation of classic style.**
The king of this kind of tactic is Brutus, when he defends Caesar’s murder in front of an upset crowd in the famous speech in Julius Caesar, Act 3 scene 2 (because this is the digital age, it’s here):
Who is here so base that would be a bondman? If any, speak; for him have I offended. Who is here so rude that would not be a Roman? If any, speak; for him have I offended. Who is here so vile that will not love his country? If any, speak; for him have I offended.
Brutus lays out the entirely negative reasons that would lead someone to disagree with his actions. It’s just like the copywriter and the man who wants a date. They interpret you on your behalf.
Now let’s judge them for their motivations. Out of Brutus, the copywriter and the lonely man in the train station, the least objectionable is really the last. He’s trying to make himself feel better and making a bit of an ass of himself in the process, but he’s not really trying to influence you. The others are knowingly using rhetoric to try to plant thoughts in your mind, so that things will then go their way.
And for Brutus, it works, for a bit. Surprisingly enough, no-one wants to admit to Brutus that they are base, rude, or vile: the options that they are given.
But as we all know (see! I’m possibly alienating you now whilst trying to draw you in!), it stops working as soon as Antony speaks, with his emotional appeals (and guilt-tripping. I’m not saying Antony, who talks hard-headedly of his effect on the crowd once everyone’s gone, is a speechifying paragon of genuine virtue).
Things don’t end well for Brutus. Enormous amounts have, of course, been written about the rhetoric in this famous scene. I like an article by a legal professor who’s used the scene to teach aspiring lawyers; the article describes how Brutus falls down on thin detail, a too-short speech, and lack of evidence.*** An audience will pick up on unsubstantiated conclusions eventually. The Romans didn’t buy Brutus’s false choices.
Moving on from Rome via Shakespeare, here’s the lesson. Try out all the rhetorical tactics you want, but advertise positively. Reach out, but respect people’s intelligence and capacity to choose. Inspire by describing what your product can do and why it’s relevant, and keep the focus on what you know, instead of pretending to read people’s minds. Don’t try to pre-empt people, because if they sense a flaw in your argument, or an attempt at coercion, then they won’t give you what you want.
**Admittedly I must also credit them with a cute (and also very short) white cotton dress which I found in the sale in perhaps 2010 (but which I can no longer find) and a fairly nice cardigan (found in Oxfam last autumn). There is some nice stuff there, if you look past the somewhat stingy cuts and the horrible branding which makes it clear that you are actually far too old to be wearing this stuff, and if you don’t mind having a picture of a very smart pigeon placed embarrassingly prominently somewhere on your person.
***Newman, Stephen A., and Stehpen A. Newman. “Using Shakespeare to Teach Persuasive Advocacy.” Journal of Legal Education 57, no. 1 (2007): 36-59. http://www.jstor.org/stable/42894007.