7. At the Heart of Bitter Truth #1

Here’s an example of Bitter Truth #1 in action from another marketing classic, Selling the Invisible: a Field Guide to Modern Marketing by Harry Beckwith (see Bibliography):

Joel and Judy Wethall are driving from Tampa to Disney World when they are struck with hunger. They begin watching for places to eat, then choose a Burger King restaurant.

Their choice seems odd; they dislike Whopper hamburgers. Why did they choose Burger King?

Their alternatives were two unknowns: two local restaurants with nice facades and hints of quality. Had they tried either restaurant, they would have enjoyed juicier hamburgers, fresher salads and friendly personal service, right to their table.

What were the Wethalls thinking? What almost every prospect for every service thinks. They were not looking for the service they wanted most but the one they feared least. They did not choose a good experience; they chose to minimize the risk of a bad experience.

This intelligent couple was duplicating what happened all over the country that day, among people choosing accounting firms, remodelers, dry cleaners, cleaning services, human resources consultants and thousands of other services. They were not expressing their preference. They were minimizing their risk.” (Emphasis added.)

At the heart of Bitter Truth #1 is fear: the customer’s fear of wasting her money, making a bad decision, having a bad experience or otherwise getting ripped off. Despite the fact that we live in a hyper-consumerist society—or perhaps because of it—most people have a natural reluctance to, or fear of, spending their hard-earned money. “People do not look to make the superior choice,” says Beckwith. “They want to avoid making a bad choice.” That’s a big reason why companies need to spend billions of dollars marketing and selling in the first place: to overcome that fear. Believe me, they wouldn’t spend it if they didn’t have to.

In his book, Beckwith points out that the fear can be particularly strong when what you’re selling is not a tangible product but an intangible service. A product, after all, can be examined, inspected, tested (for instance, by Consumer Reports or the consumer herself) and warranted. A service cannot. You don’t know what your new haircut will look like before you actually get it done, for instance; and even if you go to a top stylist, he may be having an off day. Ditto for restaurant meals, home construction, auto repairs, legal services and any other service you can think of.

And for politics.

Fear and the Political “Sale”

The fear factor described above also applies to “sales” of political and social viewpoints. Politics is intangible—although, like most intangibles, its consequences are very tangible. When selling an intangible, one of the salesperson’s primary duties is to paint as vivid an “advance picture” of its benefits as possible, so as to relieve as many of the customer’s uncertainties and fears as possible. That’s why the hairdresser shows his customer a picture of a haircut in a magazine and asks if that’s what she wants, and why the activist works to connect the dots, for her audience, between a political viewpoint and its consequences in the “real world.”

Regardless of how good a job the activist does, however, the act of “buying” a political viewpoint remains fraught with fear. It can, in fact, be far scarier than buying a normal “product.” Along with the fears mentioned earlier—of making a poor decision or getting ripped off—the political “customer” can fear one or more of the following:

• Family or societal disapproval.

• Inconvenience (for instance, feeling compelled to attend a meeting at the end of a busy or stressful day, instead of simply going home and relaxing).

• Economic loss (for instance, having to forego a lucrative career path because it now seems unethical, or feeling compelled to buy a more expensive hybrid car instead of a less expensive gas-guzzler).

• Cognitive dissonance—the uncomfortable feeling we often get when we realize that two or more of our thoughts or ideas conflict with, or contradict, one other. (In an activist context, this often means a new idea conflicting with an older one.) Cognitive dissonance can be a very uncomfortable feeling, and many people seek to avoid it by consciously or unconsciously shutting out new ideas.

• The realization, and consequent remorse and/or shame, that often arises from knowing one has been wrong in the past.

• The realization, and consequent remorse and/or shame, that often arises from knowing that, through one’s errors, one may have caused himself or others pain.

In many cases, these fears are well justified. An article entitled “Swingtime: Former Bush Voters Advertise Their Disaffection” in the August 23, 2004 issue of the New Yorker describes how family, friends and neighbors reacted when Mississippian Rhonda Nix decided to switch her vote from Republican George W. Bush to Democrat John Kerry in the 2004 presidential election:

In January, Nix planted a John Kerry sign in her yard, and in July she found it pulled up and “stabbed to death”—torn and battered, with the words “Burn in Hell” scrawled on it. . . . “When my friends and family realized that my priorities, that my values were shifting in a whole new direction, I found myself arguing a lot with them, almost like I was trying to change what they believe in and trying to give them reasons. But then I realized I couldn’t change them. I can only change myself.”

A lot of unpleasant consequences devolved from Nix’s seemingly “simple” and “common-sense” decision.

The English language itself reflects how challenging it can be to take on a new viewpoint: we merely “purchase” or “own” a new item, but we “adopt,” “hold,” “embrace,” or even “espouse” a new viewpoint—and eventually we become “wedded” to our long-held ideas. And although people can bond very closely with their material possessions, and even grow to identify with them, it’s generally not as strong an identification as occurs with a political or social viewpoint. Even the most impassioned car owner, for example, doesn’t go around saying, “I’m a Mercedes,” the way many people say, “I’m a Democrat,” “I’m a Unitarian,” or “I’m an environmentalist.”

The truth is, when you’re asking someone to buy into your viewpoint you are actually asking him to make a profound and scary change. (And we know from Part III how scary even small changes can be. . . .) This, in turn, should give you a greater appreciation and respect for:

• Anyone who is willing to even contemplate such a change, even if he doesn’t follow through—or does follow through, but not in the way you would like.

• You and other activists who do the difficult work of selling social change.

A major goal of the marketing and sales processes I discuss starting in Chapter 21 is to help allay your customers’ fears so that they are more likely to buy whatever it is you are selling. But why are people motivated to buy in the first place? The next chapter answers that crucial question.