John - If I am driving to work and I see a little dog walking on the street by itself, and I stop and I pick that dog up and I put it in my car, and I drive a little further and I see a sign with that dog’s picture— “Lost Dog. Mitsy” and a phone number. I know with 100% certainty that when I call and they hear my voice, and I tell them that I have found their lost dog that mine will be the voice more than anyone else on the planet that they’re most excited to hear. Imagine that everything that marketers marketed followed this pattern. You know that you have the thing that the consumer wants more than anything else. You know the moment, the timing. You don’t need to worry is it too late for me to be calling. Everything is lined up. As marketers, we need to ask ourselves what are the things that don’t fit this pattern of making our connections with our audiences ideal, and then we need to stop doing those things.
Matt - Hi, this is Matt O’Leary, and you’re listening to the Influence Hacker Podcast.
A couple of exceptionally optimistic business partners, John Lenker & Kevin Delaplante, who you’ll get to know throughout this season, have joined together to right the wrongs of garbage marketing and renounce the shallow, soul-sucking tendencies of our cluttered information age... and I want to see if they’re onto something.
You just heard from John Lenker, founder and Leading Strategic Marketing Planner of Lenker Consulting. John’s a modern renaissance man with too many accomplishments and professional endeavors to name.
When I met John in June, a casual coffee date turned into a riveting four hour conversation covering everything from The Island of Dr. Moreau to the Death of Socrates… and that’s how almost every meeting’s gone since with the guy.
The lost dog is John’s perfect marketing scenario, and one that encapsulates his vision - to make the value in your value proposition absolutely undeniable - to challenge businesses to prepare a product that meets that unwavering standard, and to ask you and me to expect nothing less.
I’m a high school counselor and about as far from a marketing expert as you can imagine. Maybe it’s that we noble breeds in education tend to snub our noses at the corporate and commercial, but I definitely had some questions for John when he tried to sell me on this podcast idea... first among them, ya know, well why me? and WHY another marketing podcast? If anything, John seemed to welcome and be energized by the interrogations like a mental obstacle course of sorts. As I’ve spoke without reservation, opening myself to new ideas and ways of thinking about this vocation of marketing, I’ve learned A LOT. and it’s these rich insights I’ve felt compelled to share.
Before we forge ahead, I want to make something absolutely clear - this podcast is for marketers AND consumers alike, as both have an equal responsibility to drive the industry forward through the integrity of their business and consumer practices. Every single day we wade through the muddy waters of marketing messaging, this world of social jockeying that bombards us with the first glance at our phone in the morning. In a messaging and media-saturated culture, our attention spans are constantly under attack, and our discernment tested. If we’re not going to be lambs led to the slaughter… or the ones slaughtering the lambs, we have to get smart - we have to think this through.
Kevin - We’re in the middle of this interesting technologically powered engine of social influence… we’re participants in it and we’re subjects of it as well… and understanding what’s going on in the world, we need some tools to help process, and the more tools the better.
Matt - That was the Chief Knowledge Officer at Lenker Consulting, Kevin Delaplante. Kevin spent a couple decades working as an academic philosopher and was the chair of the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Iowa State University.
This environment of social influence that Kevin describes is one component of the ubiquitous problem of information pollution, that is, the overabundance of superfluous, unsolicited, and unhelpful information out there. The relationship between information pollution and what John & Kevin call “poverty of consciousness” is tough to tease out - it’s complex and nuanced and requires some serious analysis before we get to the insights needed to overcome it…
I know from my counseling experience and training that we have to be careful to not get ahead of ourselves here. In our desperation for easy, Buzzfeed article answers, we might naively avert our eyes from the problem itself, making our solutions generic or cliche.
Before we jump to solutions in the realm of marketing and influence, we have to understand the problem in its dark, grotesque complexity. So in this introductory string of episodes, we’re going to try our hand at answering this question:
John - What is information pollution? I’ve been throwing that around for years, but really what is it? Think about any kind of pollution, well it smells bad, it makes the environment look ugly, it’s bad for the environment, it’s bad for animals, ya know, it can spread disease. There are all these impacts of not being careful about what we put into our environment. In the same way, I think there are impacts on our consciousness when most of what is hitting us in any given moment is spam.
Matt - The pollution metaphor kind of makes it seem as if any and all information is a contribution to the problem, but what about that lost dog then?.. that product or service that’s presented at the perfect moment to make people’s lives better... We’re not going to rail against commerce or business itself, because the market is morally neutral, and we can use marketing for good or for evil. So we could make sweeping generalizations about what’s good and what’s garbage, but we have to keep in mind that there is some bit of subjectivity to this.
Kevin - there’s probably not going to be a theory about what kind of messaging is always going to be positive or negative… some people like one thing differently than others, there’s taste, there’s different life situations where that message right now is really relevant and helpful to me. It wouldn’t have been relevant and helpful to me a year ago
So, Garbage marketing’s not always perfectly obvious, but there’s gotta be something we all agree on. What are we up against? Up next, we’re going to start to find that consensus, to identify the forms of marketing that at our very core, we so firmly reject. How do we perceive marketing messaging, and when does that messaging become indisputably cancerous? We’ll get out of this doom and gloom though this all leads to our key insight, the idea that fills us with hope purpose, and makes this all worthwhile.
John - Our minds are like sponges in a sense, but any sponge can only hold so much water and then it starts seeping the water… it’s lost, it’s wasted… so when you pour too much into something that it can’t handle it, it goes beyond its capacity, it spills over, and it just becomes a mess. When you get to a point where you’re getting so many inputs in any given period of time, we have no cognitive ability to absorb it, and we start tuning it out… and it just becomes something that we’re fighting against, something we have to protect ourselves from. Yet, marketers don’t seem to be sensitive to that. They’re not like, oh you seem to be really.. There’s a lot on your mind, I was gonna tell you about life insurance, but I think I’m gonna wait til you’re feeling better or a better time… but actually with artificial intelligence that’s something we should be able to do… but most marketers are just like, think of a bunch of people trying to exit a burning building that’s on fire… no one’s thinking how can I do this decently in order… all they can think is how can I cram myself through that door and I don’t care who I step on on the way out. Everyone’s in such a hurry to get the brain cycle of that person that they’re just turning up the volume turning up the volume. As people are working harder to tune your message out, you’re working harder to turn up the volume, ratchet up your efforts, and to break through. And you become part of the problem and not the solution
Matt - This is to say that the redundancy of the visual information we subject ourselves to and are subjected to, many people obsessively, has had a gradual numbing effect.
John - for example, if you’re just scrolling through Insta or FB, and after a while, the kinds of things become very very mundane, and even the things you’re interested in have less and less impact... almost like when you’re on some type of drug - to get the same kind of high you need more and more of the correct stimulus, but it gets weaker over time]
Matt - This example makes me consider the different types of environments I’m in throughout the day, and how my perception of messaging is mediated by these environments - say I’m at a baseball game, I’ve been to a couple recently because the Twins had a pretty great season, and I’m a fair weather fan, I’ll admit it. Target Field, that place is packed, corner to corner, with brands and ads, normal baseball occurrences and technologies paired with seemingly unrelated products, like an instant replay sponsored by Schweigert Sausage. The field itself, fair territory that is, is the only sacred place left in there. Luckily there aren’t yet TVs installed above the urinals. Yet this is exactly what we’d expect at a densely populated spectator event nowadays, this maximal, crowded sensory experience.
Whereas if I were reading a book in my porch on a lazy Sunday afternoon, I expect the quantity of info in my surroundings to be very low, so a simple knock from the Amazon Prime guy as he drops off a package might be an unwanted intrusion.
John - Things that are familiar and expected fit into what Krome Barrett referred to as the pattern of the mundane… and the things that are mundane you don’t really attend to or notice, and the things that are introduced into your field of perception, that stand out, generally get your attention… so, as you’re sitting there in the stands watching the baseball game, unless it comes to your mind, what’s the score, you probably won’t notice a change in the scoreboard, unless you look for it specifically. However, if somebody runs out naked on the field to disrupt the game, everyone instantly is going to take notice of the introduction of a stimulus that breaks out of the pattern of the mundane
Kevin - One of the main differences I pay attention to is whether the marketing environment you’re in is a disruptive environment, or if it’s simply passive... disruptive is when someone says, hey you! Hey you! And they want to direct your attention to something new. Whereas passive, if you’re simply sitting on a bus, and you have all that signage around you, that’s all passive, baked into the environment, and you’re basically experiencing this steady state. No one is interrupting your attention in that moment. If you choose to get lost in your own thoughts, you’ve got that freedom to do that
Matt - These disruptive, interruptive marketing tactics might be obnoxious, but as far as garbage marketing goes, they pale in comparison to the slimey deception and corruption (QUALITY) that John & Kevin lay out in gory detail.
I mean we’re talking about humanity here - we know that selfish motives run rampant. And although we’re in some ways becoming more discerning in our cynicism of the establishment, vulnerable populations are still preyed upon. John reflects on some of the most egregious examples of these failures in the quality of marketing messaging.
John - I think of some of the products that are marketed to children. When I was a kid, no one was talking about those things, and all the sugary cereal that we were buying and eating… the level of sugar is clearly toxic and poison, and it’s not like we just learned this stuff, scientists knew this way back when, but society wasn’t holding them accountable. I wonder, what kind of person am I when I’m part of an engine that is influencing young people to consume something that’s harmful to their development, and a cheap substitute for real nutrition.
Matt - The naivete and innocence of a child is an obvious vulnerability, but there’s nothing worse than a business that exploits a market of people experiencing fear, instead of seeking to alleviate that fear. With the elderly, it’s often the repetition that does it.. Of flipping from the Price is Right reruns to infomercials, watching the news every morning or every night, that mere exposure.
John - precious metals, reverse mortgages, and completely useless medical devices that promise some kind of relief from pain. That’s the trend right now.
Matt - Of course with these type of deceptive sales techniques, there are laws against blatant lying, so these scams have to be stealthy...but Kevin pointed out, there’s an intermediary grey space where marketers with questionable motives feel comfortable lingering, where crafty lawyers can wordsmith policies and arguments that obey the letter of the law, but not the spirit - container foods can be labeled as diet and “l-i-t-e” but just add sucralose instead of sugar, or make their slices a little thinner.
Kevin - people who are career advertisers working in agencies will tell you, and here’s a quote. I have it right in front of me… Here’s an advertising insider who writes - “ The usual thinking informing an advertising campaign is first, what can we say to sell the product best. And the second consideration is, how can we say it effectively and get away with it, so that 1) people who buy won’t be let down by too big a promise that doesn’t come through, and 2) the ads will avoid quick and certain censure by the FTC” This claim shows you the common tendency to equate what’s legal in advertising with what’s moral in advertising… and it’s precisely this outlook that leads to advertising behavior of all kinds of dubious status. I’m interested in, not only that people will say that and think it’s okay, but how did well meaning people come to the point in their careers where this is a normal thing to say? What are the institutional factors, what are the structures that have driven the industry to this place. That I find fascinating. But if I can also be a voice within that industry that pulls it back from that, that offers a reminder that there are other value considerations at play here then simply what’s legal, then I feel good about that.
Matt - So there’s a glimpse of Kevin’s vision right there - to, at the very least, not contribute to that dumpster fire of a culture. As John & Kevin unravel their argument and mission over the coming episodes, this is something we can keep closely in mind. If you’re not actively contributing high quality content to your marketplace, whether it be with your startup company or in the teacher’s lounge at lunch break, you can at least, first, do no harm.
But the question remains, what are the forces that lead to a professional culture that produces reverse mortgages or triple-choco blast crunch cereal? Or just advertisements that seem so shallow and brainless. Are the writers of really awful late-night tv commercials stupid?
John - What I learned is that nothing could be further from the truth, at the highest levels of mgmt within the world of advertising and marketing and in the corporate world. Some of the best educated people in the world are running these campaigns… and you think, if they’re so well educated, why do they create such dumb stuff? And the reason that they do, it’s deliberate, because they find that if you overeducate the market, they become more discerning, more demanding… in a sense they want the market to function like a herd of useful idiots… you tell em to jump they jump, you tell em you want this latest thing, well now it’s available in the color pink, so buy the new one… They create dumbed down messaging because they want a dumbed down market… historically that’s been the case. You don’t want to be engendering in the masses the ability to have too much discernment, you want them to just say “okay, oh that sounds good, I guess I’ll get one of those too.”
Matt - Kevin distinguishes between the more all encompassing term influence, and his own hybrid of a phrase, rational persuasion, which reconciles the historically divergent disciplines of formal argumentation and communication & rhetoric. More on rational persuasion and Kevin’s ideas in future episodes, but for now, let’s keep honing in on this unsophisticated type of influence. There’s a fallacious argument that would be associated with the sophists, but that’s not what I’m talking about necessarily. There are crafty sales techniques from smooth talkers, but still, that’s not exactly it. I’m talking about these empty-headed ads as a separate category of garbage marketing.
Kevin - That’s a persuasion where I’m not interested in trying to get you to buy my product, or service, if what I’m doing is trying to bypass your conscious, rational thinking processes, and just trying to target your reptilian brain mechanisms. If that’s my goal, then I am undermining the thing that makes you distinctively human. I’m using as a means to someone else’s end, instead of treating you as an end in yourself.
Matt - To supplement the more conversational style of future episodes, there’s the Influencer Hacker Journal. In our 2nd article, John outlines the payoff matrix, or the possible roles of an influencer. Marketers who violate the maxim of quality, who communicate in disingenuous, misleading, or underhanded ways, fall into the realm or archetype of The Crook. Crooks win at the expense of their market, and when we consider money-making schemes, we’re thinking of the crook - the bully with the backwards hat on at the playground who used to flip a coin and say, heads I win, tails you lose.
But the phrase information pollution conjures up something else in my mind - I think of this cloud of noise, of noxious gas wafting out of an urban cesspool. And while the crook is part of that toxic brew, those deceitful types don’t quite match up with that picture. I think more of copycat marketing that’s crowding the market and ultimately IRRELEVANT, where the value that’s being offered isn’t a cool glass of water to the thirsty, but an unsolicited attempt to siphon off of someone else’s good idea.
John - The hard part is the thinking process around innovation, that’s the thing that’s rare, ya know, is originality.
Matt - Then finally there’s the communication that’s so UNCLEAR because there’s too much excess fat to trim and no discernable value proposition there at all. If you’ve ever unsubscribed to an email list, you know what I mean here.. The tedious daily spam, filled with offers and information that’s so far removed from your initial purchase and designed to cash in on the few and far between who take the bait.
John - The problem comes in when we as an industry get into a pattern of conducting marketing that is uninformed such that it is not serving the purpose for which it was initiated. Think of an incandescent lightbulb… I mean, the purpose of a lightbulb is to illuminate, not to heat.. right… and yet something like 80% of the energy used is dispersed as heat, so the efficiency of the lightbulb is like 20% in terms of its illumination power.
Matt - It’s easy to assume the worst intentions with these types of marketing schemes, especially from a distance. Our suspicion for the rich and powerful can be masked by a veil of virtuous empathy for the exploited. This makes me think of Hanlon’s Razor, which is a caution to never attribute to malice what is adequately explained by incompetence. But John said there are times when this clunkiness is purposeful. If that’s the case, then what goes wrong? What leads the human psyche down this path?
John - and the way that we can do that is that we start by lying to ourselves… that’s the first person that we lie to is ourselves…. Oh it’s no big deal, oh it really doesn’t do that much harm, I really haven’t thought about it that much. We all know people like that, you know, they’re hurting other people, they seem oblivious. We steer clear of those people, and in business it’s the same thing]
Matt - Something that’s been really interesting to me as I’ve been creating this podcast, as my curiosity’s grown about the state of thinking in this field, is how vastly disparate the perception of this profession is from my own. When people think of a philanthropic vocational pursuits, there is possibly no greater distance between any two, on paper, than counselor and marketer. When I’ve told nice old ladies at church what I do for a living, there’s a resounding response of gratitude, warmth, and admiration. People will tell me, I could never do that, but thank God that you do. So I wonder, what do grandmas say to an ambitious college student when they come home for the weekend, who’s studying marketing?
This negative societal impression of marketing seems so ingrained, that to shift it in any way would seem to take a radical effort & ethic.
Kevin - Let me set up the first sense of the marketing paradox, the one that seems more obvious. The marketing paradox in this sense is about the counterproductive way that so many marketers try to get our attention. They flood the customer with messages that they haven’t invited, that aren’t necessarily relevant to their needs, and our response as customers is that we want to avoid this type of messaging. We want to block it out. This creates this feedback loop where the marketers are just trying harder to get our attention, by shouting louder. Our response as customers is that we’re more disposed to resist this messaging. So that’s the sense in which it’s paradoxical. The marketers trying to get our attention and the very thing they’re trying to do is causing us to resist their message.
The second and more significant sense of the marketing paradox is how we diagnose and try to address this problem. The diagnosis says that our marketing communications are the source of the problem, so it’s tempting to say that marketing is the cause of the problem—the root cause. But our view is that problem isn’t so much with marketing itself, but the way that marketing is done. So the solution isn’t to get rid of marketing, it’s to change the way we do marketing. If we can bring to marketing a different philosophy, a different mindset, then we can reduce the sorts of problems that we’re talking about here. So this is paradoxical in the way that you think that the perpetrators of some problem are the ones responsible for cleaning it up.
Matt - This marketing paradox really hits home for me because it seems to be really about personal responsibility. When I’m working with a student and something’s gone wrong for them, I’m not really that interested in parsing out blame. Time spent defending yourself or trying to justify past actions is wasted time, in my book. It’s what politicians do, and look where that ends up. Whether you’re 99% to blame or 1%, the most mature and productive response is rational self reflection. So no matter where I find myself in the market, no matter how vigorously I might despise the exploiter, the crook, the sly salesman. My best bet to focus on what I can control.
Being cynical is the easy part.. Ya know it’s really easy and tear something down, especially in a dismissive or snide sorta way, but the hard part is erecting something useful and innovative in place of the wreckage. As much as this episode’s focused on the failings of marketing, the bad and the ugly, I want to be careful not to place ourselves on the outside looking in or to revel in cynicism. If we assume that we personally have been part of the problem, we just might be able to transcend the pollution we find ourselves in.
Kevin - These days a lot of my colleagues are asking me: What am I as an academic philosopher doing in the marketing business. A good idea can change the world, but a good idea in itself needs an audience, it needs to be shared, it needs to be manifested, it needs to be brought to the attention of an audience who can bring it into practice, who can make something real out of it—and that’s not something you can do in the ivory tower. That’s not something you can do in the classroom when you’re only talking to 30 or 40 students every year. The good ideas have to come out of our intellectual silos and be made real. I believe in the power of ideas, I believe in the power that they can have on people and on the world, but I’ve come to appreciate that good ideas don’t have that power all by themselves. They need to be shared, they need to be spread. Good ideas need to be championed, and they need to find the audiences that can most benefit from them.
Matt - It’s safe to say we’ve got a lot of stuff to sort out… and my sincere hope is to give a voice to the consumer, by giving my own opinions, but also just talking to people. But, I’ll also be seeking wisdom from business professionals and those with something significant to say in the industry, and the performance to back it up.
In our next episode, we’ll share our talk with one of the nation’s leading voices in fighting childhood obesity, Dr. Robert Lustig. This guy really understands the depths of the food industry’s propaganda, and raises this fascinating question that really gets a rise out of John & Kevin - what is the difference between propaganda and marketing?
Over the course of the season we’ll continue to poke and prod at the ethical questions, but with the ultimate goal of examining the convergence of the art and science of hacking influence - How can you have an activating effect on the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors of the people you interact with? Psychology, sociology, anthropology, philosophy, even physiology & linguistics play a role here.
For further explanation of these phrase - the marketing paradox, poverty of consciousness, and so on you can read the first three companion journal articles now by following The Influence Hacker Journal on Medium, and can help us get this off the ground by sharing with friends and family.
The Influence Hacker Podcast is Executive Produced by John Lenker and Kevin deLaplante. Our mixing and mastering engineer is John Sloan. The producer of this podcast, as well as the writer of the narrative and original music, is yours truly, Matt O’Leary.