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The New Snake Oil Salesmen

By Paul Chin

Originally published in Intranet Journal's Chin Music (30-Jan-2008)

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Does the prevalence of hidden advertisements and stealth marketing blunt the message they're meant to convey? Does it mar the media that carries it? Moreover, do people really fall for this type of marketing?

I'm convinced that regardless of whatever new media that may arise in the future, advertisers will use it to market something. We see it everywhere already. You call your ISP's technical support hotline because you're experiencing connectivity problems and instead of helping, the tech support agent tries to convince you to upgrade to a faster plan. You play an online racing game and can't help but notice driving by several giant energy drink and "Join the Army!" billboards. You visit a Web design blog and you're not sure if you're reading the opinions of a Web design expert or a marketer selling a new suite of design tools.

And it's not only big corporations that are riding this wave. There's plenty of shameless self-promotion on the Internet in the guise of something else. It's not uncommon to browse an online discussion forum and spot shills who pose as satisfied customers to their own businesses, or people who steer a conversation by asking and answering their own questions. This goes back to the days when a so-called patient of a snake oil salesman swore by a concoction that cured him of his rheumatism and his stutter.

What's worse are those who respond to genuine questions or requests for assistance on discussion forums with a poorly veiled attempt to sell something: "Yeah, I know how you're feeling. I went through that exact same problem last year... Oh, by the way, I've written a book on this subject. You can order a copy at www.ImaStinkingWeasel.com."

When you respond to someone's question on a discussion forum and bury a pitch in the response—unless what you're offering is offered free of charge—you're no longer a genuine person offering advice, you're a salesperson with an ulterior motive trying to make a sale. It's no longer altruism; it's marketing. To truly help someone is to do so in the complete absence of personal gain.

There's a great speech in the movie The Big Kahuna where Danny DeVito's character, an industrial lubricant salesman, says to his much younger and inexperienced colleague, "It doesn't matter whether you're selling Jesus or Buddha or civil rights or 'How to Make Money in Real Estate With No Money Down.' That doesn't make you a human being; it makes you a marketing rep. If you want to talk to somebody honestly, as a human being, ask him about his kids. Find out what his dreams are—just to find out, for no other reason. Because as soon as you lay your hands on a conversation to steer it, it's not a conversation anymore; it's a pitch. And you're not a human being; you're a marketing rep."

That sums it up perfectly, doesn't it?

It's getting more and more difficult to distinguish real information from marketing schpeel. But blogs disguised as advertisements, shills lurking in discussion groups, marketers manning tech support hotlines, product placement in video games are nothing new. I thought I had seen it all until I visited my mother over the holiday.

I had the displeasure of turning on her TV and stumbling across a Chinese-language program that I can only adequately describe as a "sitcommercial". The weekly show revolves around a mail carrier for a well-known courier company that I won't name here.

In between the typical one-liners and pratfalls, the occasional blatant advertising gimmick would break out with little subtly. Our hapless mail carrier, decked out in his company jacket and cap, would be flirting with a cute secretary with embarrassing results when the tone of the dialog takes a dramatic turn.

"Oh no! I forgot to send this package! It must be in Taiwan by tomorrow morning! If my boss finds out, I'll be fired," laments the secretary.

"Don't worry. I'll take it for you. We offer next day delivery to any location! We guarantee it," says the mail carrier cum knight in shining armor.

"Thank you so much! You're a life-saver! It's so great to have your company here to help us out of these sticky situations," says the relieved secretary.

"Don't worry! That's why we're here. We provide timely, courteous, 24/7 service with a smile. You can call us any time, day or night, and we'll be here in minutes to pick up your package. It's our mission to..."

The next thirty seconds sounded like a talking corporate brochure. This charade was capped off with the camera zooming in on the mail carrier handing the secretary a business card with the courier company's 1-800 number in clear view.

Now cut to me: Wide-eyed and jaw agape, staring at the TV in bewilderment and wondering, "What on earth did I just see?"

Not surprisingly, the courier company is one of the show's major sponsors. I guess it was just a matter of time that advertisers graduated from buying airtime during television shows to making them themselves.


Copyright © 2008 Paul Chin. All rights reserved.
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