Sunday, December 27, 2009
The Mysteries of Marketing
As the retail season stumbles to a close for the year, in this a global recession, an old thought rose up in my mind: If I had to sell anything for a living, I'd likely starve.
Advertising, marketing, salesmanship all require a persuasive art form that I simply do not possess. I know people who are in sales and are very good at it, but I simply don't have the knack. Long ago, thankfully, I worked for an advertiser and was surrounded constantly by salespeople. They were a fun-loving, gregarious group of people, and wacky hijinx often ensued. One of their favorite games was to have chair races in the parking lot, where they would duct tape themselves to office chairs and race down the slightly inclined parking lot with one of the other members of the sales team acting as the driver by pushing the taped associate. That ended on the day that one of the sales people decided to let go of his assigned chair.
A trip to the ER featuring sutures resulted, and it became company policy to ban chair races. That was easily the weirdest memo to ever circulate through an office, by the way. "In light of recent occurrences involving Brad's face..."
But that's not why I'm a terrible salesperson. I'm naturally introverted, but learned to overcome that. I appear to be very outgoing but am actually just a shy person who learned to compensate.
That and there was my first job at a drugstore which I am certain made me associate sales with wanting to vanish through a handy gap in the floorboards. The drugstore in question had a training technique, if a customer asked for a specific product and we didn't recognize the name, we were to ask what its use was as products were grouped by use. So the cold medicines were on aisle three, foot care items aisle two, etc. Doesn't sound like it would be fraught with peril but it managed to mortify me the very first time I tried it out.
A nice looking man of about 35 entered and spied me standing behind the counter. I was sixteen and, as you can see from my profile photograph, I have exceptionally dark hair combined with incredibly fair skin. This combination does not seem to broadcast "sturdy, unflappable, extremely practical" and it also means that when I blush, people seven counties away likely see a glow on the horizon. The man looked at me and hesitated, I smiled and he tentatively approached.
"Excuse me, miss, where are the prophylatics?" he asked politely.
Now, I'm reasonably well-read, and I was at sixteen also. I have a fairly extensive vocabulary and it is pretty difficult to stump me in terms of language use. It happens to this day, of course, but at sixteen I knew exactly what prophylatic meant; preventative. How peculiar, I thought, about fifty percent of all products in a drugstore are used to prevent something.
"What's it used for?" I asked with great cheer, and a confident smile. Then I wondered why the man was looking at me as if I was entirely deranged.
"You know, Trojans?" he offered.
I did, of course, who doesn't? Concealed in horses and all that. I stared at him as I pictured a Trojan Warrior in my head, clearly not comprehending his meaning. The man was staring at me as if I was extremely simple and then began the mortifying litany.
"Condoms! Rubbers! Ways to not get pregnant!!"
There ended my brief foray into being the super salesgirl. In fact, when I think of why I associate having to sell anything with dire levels of embarrassment, it has to do with that drugstore, and frequently with those blasted prophylatics. There was also the time I was busily affixing price stickers to a gigantic vat of condoms when before me appeared a Catholic Nun, who I'm still convinced the universe must have imported specifically to make me want to perish on the spot. I lived in Princeton, NJ at the time, a place not exactly stuffed with convents. I literally had the things piled around my feet, and onto my knees, so when I stood up to take the nun to the aisle she needed, I accidentally showered the feet of a bride of Christ with rubbers.
That killed off any sales, or marketing abilities within me. Yet, I've always been fascinated by the ability to sell because it is a skill I so decidedly do not possess.
Marketing in a recession is particularly tricky. For several years I didn't see many commercials because we have a digital video recorder, and at our old house, I couldn't see a TV from the kitchen. The only time I watched TV was when I was seated on the couch, fast forwarding capability at my fingertips. Now thanks to our new house, I can switch on the TV, access a recorded program, and watch while I cook. This meant exposure to commercials for the first time in years.
Trying to get people to buy anything in a recession is a challenge, and it seems that most companies settled for a vibe that can only be described as awkwardly uncomfortable. Target has a series of ads that are best termed the Passive-Aggressive Olympics with things like a young woman receiving a gift of jewelry from her (rather frightening looking) boyfriend. A terribly gaudy thing, which she accepts with a less than gracious, "I didn't know we were there yet." and her cringing boyfriend assures her it didn't cost much; cue Target logo. This is the advertising equivalent of my encounter with that poor man in the drugstore, who probably wished my father had donned a rubber, rather than produce me lo those many years before. That's just one example of the weird ads out there this year, but there were plenty.
I guess the thinking runs that people aren't comfortable spending money, therefore the commercials should reflect that feeling of discomfort. It's a strange way to sell. Smiling was also out this year, it seems, leading to things like a Levis ad with a creepy voice-over and nary a grin from the beautiful young people doing things like swapping their jeans.
So I sent my TV many a questioning glance in between pulses of the food processor, and occasionally even stopped to stare, whisk aloft, jaw drooping slightly. I had my head down, picking stems off of blueberries when I heard what I think was the 43rd bastardized rendition of Carol of the Bells, a favorite among advertisers. I used to love that darned thing, but it has several mutant forms that are rather unpleasant. When I heard the familiar tune, my spine stiffened as I de-stemmed, then:
One Foreign Yeti, Hikes with a Teddy
That was the line that got me to look up. The entire commercial was nonsense lyrics with accompanying images. I put down the blueberries, walked into the family room and rewound specifically to see the commercial.
Later I would see this:
Yipes! There's the clown!
You know, I may not know how to sell anything, I know that about myself. I'm also probably featured in a couple of tales told by other people as "That idiot clerk" but I do know something else: If you want to make me buy something, you're better off making me laugh, rather than reminding of the various uncomfortable situations in my life.
And indeed, I ended up asking my mother, "Hey, do you want a GPS, by any chance?"
She did, and way to sell, Garmin.