Two Lessons from the Dark Side of Marketing

Two Lessons from the Dark Side of Marketing
Positive lessons from the worst of marketing

Marketing is like a baseball bat. A baseball bat is primarily used for enjoyment and recreation. It is an aid to your general health. It gets you outdoors and gives you a good, upper-body workout. It also helps your mental health by relieving stress and laying down happy and long-lasting memories.

But It can also be used as a terrifying, brutal, and intimidating weapon. It all depends on who is swinging the bat.

Marketing also has its dark side. When used positively and ethically it improves lives. It creates value and makes customers, shareholders and employees happy. It creates jobs and helps the economy to grow. It raises money for good causes. It increases awareness of important issues. It encourages desirable activities. It can reduce anti-social behaviour.

But can also persuade people to smoke. It can increase sugar intake among children and exacerbate the obesity crisis. It can damage mental health. It can harm the environment.  It can create an opioid public health disaster. It can Increase alcohol consumption. It can encourage irresponsible behaviour. It can agitate voters to make questionable political choices.



Intrinsically, of course, marketing is neither good nor evil. But it can be used in support of both. Morality is not an inherent characteristic of marketing. It’s who is doing the marketing that counts. Like the baseball example earlier, it all depends on who is swinging the bat.

This article is not simply to point out that marketing is not universally a force for good. That much is self-evident. Rather, it is to look at two of the ways that marketing has been used successfully in promoting products and beliefs that are questionable. And then to identify the specific elements that worked so well, in order that we can prise them from the fingers of the scoundrels and put them to good use.

The Positives of Dark Marketing

So, this is a positive take on two dubious deeds. Panning for gold nuggets in shit creek, if you like. A search for the silver lining hidden inside the dark clouds. A robin hood exercise where we will steal from the bad to give to the good. Ok, I am labouring the point, let’s take a walk on the dark side.


Trump and Brexit – Positioning: The power of a positive message

Before we get to marketing products, we should look at the marketing of ideas. 2016 delivered two democratic outcomes that seemed unlikely, to say the least. Before the votes were counted, the chance of a Trump win was calculated at 28% and the chance of leave winning the Brexit vote was calculated at just 18%. We all know what happened next.

Before we delve into these campaigns, I think an explanation is in order. Including these two examples in an article on the dark side of marketing implies they were both bad ideas sold with good marketing. At the time of writing it is not clear that they will both fit that description.

Maybe history will recognize that the Trump presidency was a fantastic success and that Brexit turned out to be the smartest move a country ever made. Or maybe they will both be seen as catastrophic, cataclysmic, apocalyptic, monumental calamities. The jury is out.

Let’s at least agree they are, at best, questionable decisions. If it turns out that are seen are examples of people effectively voting against their own best interests, then we need to understand why.

There are many factors involved. Too many to consider in detail but perhaps the single most important was the simplicity, positivity, clarity, and resonance of the slogans. Trump had ‘make America great again’, Brexit had ‘take back control’. What made these so powerful?

They are both messages of hope that rely on an implied fear. The capture both pessimism and optimism. They both hark back to the supposed golden age when America was great, and Britain was in control. They tapped into an underlying, and often unspoken, fear that ‘others’ were somehow spoiling things for everyone.

They were both light on detail but had simple rebuttals whenever they were challenged. Trump had ‘fake news’ Brexit had ‘project fear’. This removed the need for their most ardent supporters to consider any alternative reality. When confronted they simply say, ‘fake news’ or ‘project fear’ and feel they had won the argument.


How to use it  

Make you position or message simple and memorable. Use as few words as possible. Make it positive and optimistic against an underlying and implied fear. Tap into the unspoken concerns of your target audience while offering hope and salvation. Think of IBM’s famous slogan ‘nobody ever got fired for hiring IBM’

Charities have learned this lesson. In an experiment conducted by social scientists Jennifer van Heerde-Hudson and David Hudson. They wanted to understand how best to position a charity appeal.

They created two campaigns for the same charity. One showed a malnourished and sick child with the slogan ‘donate now before it is too late’ the other showed a smiling child, in similar poor circumstances, holding a sign stating, ‘future doctor’ and an appeal that ‘giving a little can make a big difference’.

The future doctor campaign was a huge success. It accentuated optimism against a pessimistic alternative if no action was taken.

Make your messages simple and positive with an underlying hint of fear or peril. There is an art to getting this balance right but look at the results when is pitched perfectly and resonated with the target audiences’ current perceptions.

Opioid Painkillers – segmenting and targeting

The United States of America is in the grip of an opioid crisis. Since 1999 over 450,000 deaths may have been caused by opioid overdose. The scale of this public health disaster is one of the biggest mistakes in modern medicine. Before we get to the marketing aspects of prescribed opioid painkillers, a little background.

The pain-relieving and euphoria-inducing qualities of opioids have been known for thousands of years. They were widely used as painkillers during the American civil war leading to widespread addiction among returning soldiers. This ongoing recreational and medical use continued until the Harrison Narcotics Act of 1914 that regulated opioids and curtailed their therapeutic and general use.

The generally accepted belief that opioids were too dangerous and addictive even for general medical use continued until the 1990s when academics and researchers challenged the status quo. The claimed that the benefits of chronic pain relief outweighed the perceived risk of addiction, which they estimated, erroneously as it turned out, at less than 1%.

This scientific green light encouraged pharmaceutical companies to invest in opioid-based pain relief medications to service the millions of Americans suffering chronic pain. As a consequence, opioid prescriptions for pain relief grew to astronomical proportions.

One of the main players saw sales of its branded opioid painkiller grow from $48 million in 1996 to over $1 billion in 2000. It wasn’t the only opioid pain reliever on the market, and it was no more effective than its competitor’s products. So, what was the secret of its success?

As with Trump/Brexit, the factors are too numerous to list but the most important was how the company segmented and targeted doctors. They segmented doctors based on their history of prescribing strong pain killers. This should have identified doctors with a high number of chronic pain patients. But it could also have simply identified the less discriminating doctors with a preference for prescribing opioids.

They invited 6,000 of these identified doctors and other health care professionals to pain management conferences and symposia where the benefits of their product were promoted. They offered a lucrative bonus system to their salesforce and doubled the number of reps calling on these doctors. They offered patients starter coupons a free 7 to 30-day supply. Over 30,000 of these coupons were redeemed.

In short, they identified a segment of doctors most likely to prescribe opioids and aligned every aspect of their marketing activity around creating a compelling and attractive offer to them. In marketing terms, it was a huge success. In public health terms, it was a tragedy.

How to use it  

A segmentation strategy is not suitable for every business. Sometimes you are better making a general offer to the entire market. But in cases like the above, the approach made perfect sense.

In any large potential customer population, some will be more attractive to you than others. Identifying the most attractive potential customers and aligning resources to focus almost exclusively on them can give you better results than stretching yourself too thin.

It can allow for more targeted messaging and more relevance for the target market. And it is not just for new product launches. In 2016 Eurotunnel used segmentation, as part of their 25-year anniversary celebrations, to market their Le Shuttle service that takes cars, by rail, between the UK and France.

They focused on the most valuable potential customers with relevant and compelling messaging. The campaign resulted in a 20.8% increase in cars using the service and generated a return of $11.00 for every $1.00 spent.

Sometimes it’s better to talk to fewer people.

The Dark Side Doesn’t End Here

This article could have gone on to look at cigarette marketing, the sugar lobby, dating sites that encourage extramarital affairs, alcohol, gambling, and many others. Maybe we will get to those another day. The point is that even when marketing is used as a tool for promoting the dubious or downright harmful there are lessons to be learned.

So, study the bad guys, see what works for them and use it for your own, presumably, ethical campaigns. Just make sure when you sup with the devil you use a long spoon.

Don’t turn to the dark side.


Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *