The Pied Piper of Marketing – Getting Hooked Without Knowing It

Author and marketer Lynn Serafinn examines how Deception and Distraction played a part in a recent advertising campaign for a major UK mobile network provider. (The image on the left shows a stamp printed in Germany that depicts the medieval story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin who was said to have led 130 children away from their village never to be seen again).

Many of us have heard the story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. There are many variants of this story, but the gist of it is that the Pied Piper used his magical charms to lure others away– blissfully and unwittingly–to their demise. While the legend has a fascinating history (look it up on Wikipedia sometime), what is even more interesting is how the Pied Piper has become a metaphor for a particular personality type exhibiting a particular type of behaviour. Merriam-Webster Dictionary Online suggests these definitions for the term ‘Pied Piper’:

  1. One that offers strong but delusive enticement
  2. A leader who makes irresponsible promises
  3. A charismatic person who attracts followers

I’m sure for many of you these definitions may bring to mind images of dodgy politicians, cult leaders or (hopefully not) people you might have personally known over the years. But today, I’d like to ask you to consider how this metaphor can equally be applied to many marketers today. And if marketers behave like Pied Pipers, what does this say about the marketers themselves, the consumers who follow them and the society that has created this culture?

To explore this, I’m going to draw upon an experience I had on Facebook last week.

Case Study – Advert from Three Network on Facebook
My mobile is connected with my social media so that I get a “ding” if someone mentions me online. Last Friday I got “dings” from two different Facebook friends (I’ll call them “M” and “R”) who tagged me when they shared a video they believed I had “liked”. R also said, “I just found this on Lynn Serafinn’s wall.”

When I clicked the updates and looked at their posts, I was baffled. The video they were talking about was of pony dancing the “moonwalk”. I had never seen this video before in my life. How could I have “liked” it? And how could it have appeared on my wall (as R had said)? I checked to see if someone had posted it on my wall and tagged me in it, but that wasn’t the case either. Where the heck had it come from? And how the heck did people think it was mine?

I took a closer look at the video and saw that it originated on the Facebook page for Three UK (the mobile phone network I use). When I went to the page, it said I had “liked” it. This is still a mystery to me, because I never “liked” this page; I never even knew it existed until my Facebook friends shared this pony video. I “unliked” it immediately.

I was still curious as to how M and R had come to associate me with this video, so I asked M to give me the details. She said she hadn’t actually seen it on my wall, but in a sponsored advert for Three UK at the top of her page.

Then, I noticed the same advert on my home page too. The advert didn’t look like an advert. It was just a thumbnail of the pony video, and an invitation to watch it. It looked like a cute, funny video and that’s all. The connection to Three UK was barely noticeable, the only reference being at the bottom of the video thumbnail where it said, “So-and-so likes Three UK”. In M’s case, I was the “so-and-so” who supposedly liked Three UK. Her quick assumption was that I liked the video and she checked it out.

My friend M said:

“It came up at the very top of my wall that you had liked it Lynn. I only bothered to look at it because I had seen that you had liked it, so our relationship (not that we’ve conversed before, but I certainly know you by reputation) made a difference. I wouldn’t have looked at it at all otherwise. I usually make a point of ignoring sponsored posts. However, I watched it and it made me laugh so being in a good mood, I shared it. Luckily, I tagged you Lynn so at least you knew what was happening (though I admit I wasn’t so thought out in my actions).”

I don’t know about you, but the fact M believed I was condoning this advert without my knowledge is just downright scary.

In contrast, my friend R had a different response. After reading all the posts in which I was making a big fuss about this, he said:

“It’s a picture of a dancing pony for xx’s sake! Why all of this earnest, soul searching?”

Interesting stuff. But there’s a deeper implication to both of these perspectives.

Deception via Association
The first obvious thing Three UK (and Facebook adverts in general) does is “hook” people via association. My friend M said definitively that she does NOT look at sponsored adverts, but she saw I “liked” it and checked it out on the strength of MY alleged endorsement. I cannot explain why I was listed as having “liked” the page, but I do know for SURE I never “liked” the video because I had never even seen it. But the way the advert was presented gave the illusion that I watched it and liked it. This is what M had responded to.

In the book The 7 Graces of Marketing I call this kind of strategy “Deception via Association” (Deception being the fifth of the 7 Deadly Sins of Marketing). Sports figures, cartoon characters, celebrities–all of these are routinely used by marketers to influence the public to believe their products are used and endorsed (or have something to do with) these personalities. Facebook adverts are doing the same thing although on a rather more personal level.

Deception via Association is harmful because it can lead us to believe things about a product or company that are simply not true. Technically, it’s not “lying” (as Deceptive marketers will be quick to remind you) because the association is inferred, rather than stated explicitly.

Although harmful, there’s no denying that Deception via Association WORKS–at least in the short term. And because it seems to work, marketers (unless they have a conscience about this) have no reason to stop practicing it. And the Facebook version of Deception via Association is even more attractive to marketers. Instead of hiring celebrities at great expense to endorse your product, just let Facebook tell people that their friends “like” your page and you’ve got instant, “real people” endorsements for free. Furthermore (as happened to me) it looks like they’re endorsing a product or post that may have nothing to do with their liking a business page.

The Charisma of Distraction
The other significant thing about the Three UK advert is that it used the “charisma” of a cute little pony dancing the moonwalk to get us to watch the video. It didn’t look like an advert, and viewers were lured into it with the promise of entertainment. But even more significantly, the video had nothing whatsoever to do with the product and services offered by Three UK.

While this video was certainly clever and well-made from a creative perspective, using humour, cute images and entertainment to lure us into watching something that has nothing to do with the brand is a classic earmark of “Deadly Sin” number 4: Distraction. Like the Pied Piper, who leads his victims to their ultimate doom through music and dancing, these distractive marketers attract and lure followers through the “charisma” of clever video production.

Like my friend R, we accept such kinds of adverts into our space because they “feel” good. But without our realising it, our brains are forming a mental association between that brand and that “feel good” experience, even though (from a logical perspective) there is no connection whatsoever between a dancing pony video and a mobile network.

This is when we get “hooked” without knowing it.

When is a Pony NOT a Pony?
My friend R expressed that he saw no harm in the video about the dancing pony, and couldn’t understand what I was going on about it. But DOES such marketing do harm or is it an acceptable part of our modern culture?

My personal belief is this:

  • Deception in marketing, like the Pied Piper, hooks us under false pretences.
  • Distraction in marketing, like the Pied Piper, hooks us with false promises.

No matter how good they make us feel in the beginning, falsehoods ALWAYS collapse at some point, even if they appear to succeed at first. They erode trust not only between specific parties, but in society in general. They foster cynicism and defensiveness at a broad social level, and at a personal level they create feelings of shame and anger.

Bottom line: sometimes a dancing pony is NOT a dancing pony.

Looking Deeper
The primary reason why marketers use Deception via Association and Distraction via Entertainment is that THEY WORK. Or rather, they work in the short-term. They get the attention of the public long enough to get them to focus on an advert. And these days, there is so much “noise” on the airwaves–whether on TV, radio, print media, email or the Internet–that getting noticed is one of the biggest challenges marketers face. If their adverts look like adverts, who’s going to look at them?

But doesn’t this say something about the situation in which we now find ourselves? If we’re not paying attention to adverts, maybe it’s because we don’t want to. Maybe we’re tired of being sold to. Back in the 1950s, television viewers had to “stay tuned”. These days, we have remote controls and digital recorders that help us filter out the advertising.

But in spite of the fact that the public clearly seem to be saying “we’re tired of marketing”, marketing seems to be on the rise. It seems the less people want to pay attention to adverts, the more advertising there is to pay attention to. The more people put their hands over their ears, the LOUDER marketers are shouting.

We are cluttering cyberspace with noise; and the noisier it gets, the more we feel the need to get louder so as to get seen and be heard. I can’t say I’m entirely guiltless of this myself. I send out dozens of Tweets a day, primarily because I know I won’t get “seen” otherwise. But I do draw the line when it comes to sending emails to people. I don’t do solo email “shots” and I limit my mailing list communications to twice a month.

Is society REALLY destined to be caught in this seemingly never-ending onslaught of marketing noise? If businesses want to get the word out about their offerings, are they destined to shout louder and more cunningly with every advance in technology?

How in the world have we come to accept this as a way of life?

Is there an alternative? Could it be possible to STOP the noise…or at least lessen it radically? What if we gave ourselves some SPACE and got rid of 90% of all advertising altogether. What would happen then? If there were not so much noise in the stratosphere, we wouldn’t have to deceive or distract to get attention. Businesses could simply make their services known–to the right audience–giving customers plenty of information and headspace to make informed decisions and understand what our business is about.

In other words:

Is it possible our businesses could be seen and heard MORE clearly if we marketed LESS?

Of course, it’s all a bit like talking about nuclear disarmament. Who’s going to stop first? And if we stop and the “other guy” doesn’t, isn’t the other guy going to make the sale while we go bankrupt?

Call to Action
We cannot expect marketers to turn down the volume of advertising all of a sudden. It will be a process of gradual change, in which each of us must play a part.

FIRST: We must all become aware of when and how we are being “hooked” without our knowing.

SECOND: The more aware we become, the less we will tolerate or respond to deceptions and distractions in marketing. We will stop dancing to the tune of the piper and start demanding Transparency and Directness. We will demonstrate this simply by not buying from companies who do not treat us the way we want them to. If we stop responding to Deception and Distraction, marketers will have no choice but to stop using these strategies.

THIRD: If we are business owners or marketers, it is our responsibility to start making this paradigm shift by not succumbing to Deception and Distraction ourselves. No matter how alluring these strategies may appear, we must be led by the bigger picture of the damage they do, and the good that Transparency and Directness will bring.

FOURTH: We begin the gradual process of turning down the “noise” of advertising, so we can all actually begin to hear what is really important in life.

So let’s start with step one. It’s my aim to do my part in raising awareness through my books and articles, and our emerging 7 Graces Project.

I’ll be mightily upset if people reading this article DON’T leave comments. You don’t have to agree with me, but we DO need to start talking! So please let me know what you think in the comments box below (you might opt to use the Facebook comments).

Then, please be part of this paradigm shift by subscribing to this blog and joining our growing community in the 7 Graces group on Facebook. When you do, be sure to let me know you found us via this article. I’d love to get a discussion going on this topic.

~ Lynn Serafinn
5 March 2013

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Lynn Serafinn author of The 7 Graces of MarketingLYNN SERAFINN, MAED, CPCC is a certified, award-winning coach, teacher, marketer, social media expert, radio host, speaker and author of the number one bestseller The 7 Graces of Marketing — How to Heal Humanity and the Planet by Changing the Way We Sell and Tweep-e-licious! 158 Twitter Tips & Strategies for Writers, Social Entrepreneurs & Changemakers Who Want to Market their Business Ethically. She was recently named one of the Top 100 marketing authors on Twitter by Social Media Magazine and was selected as a finalist for the prestigious Brit Writers Awards. Her eclectic approach to marketing incorporates her vast professional experience in the music industry and the educational sector along with more than two decades of study and practice of the spirituality of India. In her work as a promotional manager she has produced a long list of bestselling mind-body-spirit authors. Lynn is also the Founder of the 7 Graces Project, a budding social enterprise whose aim is to help grow a new generation of passionate entrepreneurs who want to serve both people and planet through innovative, ethical, independent enterprise.

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3 Responses to The Pied Piper of Marketing – Getting Hooked Without Knowing It

  1. Mica May says:

    I am M! (Always wanted the opportunity to say that; thanks Lynn.

    You’re right, when I realised I’d been duped, I felt shame and guilt.
    A bit cross for being called out on it and shown to the public as the silly naive one – though I realised this was unfair, the emotion was there.
    I turned my inner grown up back on and examined what you were saying and you are so right.
    This deception and distraction is horrible.
    I shouldn’t have felt ashamed, it’s shameful.
    What’s also nasty about it is that it has potential to divide us further.

    Thanks Lynn for opening this up, beginning the conversation to quiet the noise.
    We need to listen and be fully awake all the time

  2. Phil Holden says:

    Hi Lynn
    Have you contacted Three to see what they say. I think what they are doing may even be illegal. After all they have used your name and Facebook presence to endorse their communication without your consent.


    • Actually, no I haven’t, Phil. I’m not so sure it’s a Three network issue as a Facebook algorithm issue. Not sure how to bring this up, and to whom. I’ll have to look into it.

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