Sunday, September 08, 2013

The Emperor is Naked: Marketing and Reverse Psychology

A good writer friend is frustrated with lagging sales on his books and so he confided in me a new strategy to get people to buy more books by using Hans Christian Andersen's tale of The Emperor's New Clothes. You might know the story by its moral: The emperor has no clothes.

The idea is simple and, I have to admit, diabolically clever. By planting reviews and essays about by the books, purportedly by unknown reviewers, the education and intelligence of the reader is questioned. To whit, if you find difficulty in grasping the concept of the book because of a lack of education or exposure to literature outside the common appeal of writers like Stephenie Meyer and the authors of the Dick and Jane series (See Dick run. Run, Dick, run. See Jane fall down. Spot is a dog. Dick and Jane like Spot.) then this novel would not appeal to you. With the use of layered descriptions, inner monologue, and subtle concepts, an understanding of the English language at the college level is necessary.

I told him that, while his idea was brilliant, it was also rude and demeaning to the average reader. Basically, he is challenging the reader to step outside his/her comfort level and consider his novels too intelligent for them.

"Yes," he said. "That is the point. It's like the emperor walking naked through the street and people being afraid to admit they are stupid and can't see his wonderful new clothes."

"It's a fraud."

"It's also reverse psychology."

I had to stop and think about that for a moment. What if he was right? What if some recognizable reviewer or celebrity were willing to go along with his plan and challenge readers to read outside their comfort zone, stretch themselves to see what was always there to read? In his case, the emperor is wearing rich robes. Maybe too rich for the average person reading at a 3rd or 4th grade level, as many modern scholars (and reading statistics in MS Word) claim. Has my friend challenged people to be better or forced them to lie rather than admit that their reading compression is well below where it should be?

I am reminded of every time I was told not to do something and promptly found a way to get past the limits set on me and do what I wanted to do anyway. What was put out of my reach was a challenge to find a way to reach it. Isn't that the essence of human experience, always reaching for the ripest and hopefully tastiest apple at the top of the tree or looking in every possible hiding place until where the Xmas presents were hidden was found?

Don't touch becomes a spur that goads us to touch. How many of us can resist the bench on which a wet paint sign hangs? I certainly cannot. I want to know the truth. Is the bench wet? I've come away with paint on my finger enough times to doubt the truth of a wet paint sign, but this is different. His marketing idea cuts through a little wet paint on the finger and goes right to the heart of who and what people think of themselves. He's basically calling them stupid and daring them to prove him wrong. Is he helping people to reach beyond themselves, step out of the comfort zone, and stretch to reach a book on the highest shelf that has been forbidden?

Think about it. Isn't that what clever book cover art and expensive packaging and advertising do? Put something out of reach just so we can reach out and touch it? Isn't book marketing -- advertising in any form -- placing a wet paint sign and daring us to touch?

How many people really believe that true love can be had for the price of a bottle of perfume, an assortment of makeup, clothing that hugs the body and flows gracefully (and exposes all the lumps, bulges, and hanging flab)? And yet we buy it, buy so much of it that companies spend millions of dollars on advertising that challenges our intelligence and goads us into action, the action of buying their products. Companies give away products, not out of charity or benevolence, but the same way a drug pusher lets perspective customers sample the merchandise, to get us hooked.

Considering what is already out there -- food that makes us fat and unhealthy, drinks that destroy the lining of our stomachs and calcify our livers, cars that begs to be driven beyond the speed limit, and so much else that is harmful -- why not use the same marketing tools to get people to buy books, books that are subtle and intelligent and beyond the capability of the average reader? If it sparks sales and turns his modest reputation into a world wide sensation, what is the harm? What is lost but our ignorance? What is gained but an expanded vocabulary and a better understanding of people and the world around us? It would be the difference between hearing about Schopenhauer and Aristotle and really reading and understanding philosophy, or at least a small part of philosophy. It would elevate us rather than dumb us down even further. What is the harm?

I guess it comes down to the mule and the carrot on a stick. The carrot remains out of reach no matter how far the mule travels unless the person who tied the carrot to the string on the stick out of the mule's reach relents and lets the mule have the carrot. With such a reward at the end of the mule's labors, he would be willing to keep following the carrot on a stick as long as the end result is the same. He gets the carrot.

The problem is that people are not mules, however much they may resemble mules in their behavior. The average person would find a way to get the carrot and not have to keep moving forward, thus proving a law of physics. A body in motion tends to stay in motion and a body at rest tends to stay at rest.

In other words, most people, while pretending intelligence, prefer to remain ignorant. It's easier.

I doubt my friend's plan will work, but I will keep watching and see how it goes, and if his reviewers decide it's better to pretend to be smart enough to understand a subtle book or will remain ignorant and keep writing, "I didn't get it," while giving him 1- and 2-star reviews and making sure his sales continue to lag.

NOTE:  Picture courtesy of Monica Rodgers

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