Telling Lies #3: Truncated Scale


Which brand has the higher approval rating?  Brand X or Brand Y?

There is no difference is there?  Is there not?

When it comes to brand marketing a true believer will always find a difference.  It’s just a simple matter of manipulating the statistics.  Take the same data, and present it in a more compelling way.  Just truncate the axis and show the difference instead of the absolute scores.  Then you get this graph:

bap 1

Woah, Brand X has a way higher approval rating than Brand Y.  It must be 3 times higher!  Now that’s a good result.

Note to art department:  Just don’t bother with those pesky numbers down the left hand side.  Get rid of them entirely.  A picture paints a thousand words.

Telling Lies #2: Conflation


Black Prisoners outnumber Whtes 4 to 1

You have heard it every time you have heard a US politician up for election.  Being tough on crime gets you elected.  So forget the truth, it’s time for conflation!

Conflation is when you take data from different sources and blend them into a statement that appears, on the surface to be correct.  It seems right.  Who’s going to challenge it?  And if anyone tries to challenge it just bury them in statistics.

So the US politician will wade into the debate saying that “we need to get tough on repeat offenders” and nobody will argue with that.

Then they say “our jails are overflowing with repeat offenders” and nobody will argue with that.  The prisons of the USA are the product of the plea bargain system where you throw the book at an offender and have them plead to a misdemeanor and let them walk, first time out.  So the prisons ARE overflowing with repeat offenders.

Then they move into conflation.  “Men of colour are proportionally the majority prisoners in our jails”.  The audience nods.  The audience assumes the candidate just said “Most of the prisoners are black”.  But he didn’t.

He took a couple of different statistics and sort of blended them together into a statement that, while not an outright lie, is intended to misdirect you.


In the USA the Black people make up about 13% of the population.  Black people make up about 37% of the prison population.  Black people have an incarceration rate 4 times higher than white people in the USA.

So how can this political candidate say 37% is the majority?

Well, he kept the word “proportionally”.  In long worded terms he is saying that if you took 10,000 Black men and 10,000 white men and 10,000 Hispanic men and filled a prison from these 30,000 men you would find that 45 prisonners are white, 83 are hispanic and 231 are black.  So man for man, in a prison population of 359 people 64% would be black.  If the USA poplation was divided equally by the 3 races, which it is not.

This is the kind of maths that easily sells the public on harsh sentencing and larger prisons.  Especially when the public are white voters.  These are the kind of conflated statistics that sound very real.  They just seem to be right.  Every time you turn on the TV and see inside a prison what do you see?  A LOT of black folks.

This same process of conflating different statistical sets can be used to confuse any argument.  It is a very popular tool with populist politicians who tend to represent more marginalised and less educated people in society.  If you just lost your job to a Romanian immigrant you WANT to believe that 80% of Romanians are here illegally.  You WANT to believe that they are criminals.  So when someone hands you those statistics on a plate you eat them up.

If you live in a small rural village in the West of Ireland and you hear that 200 Syrian refugees are arriving next week to live in the closed hotel what is your first assumption.  Do you believe that 50% of the Syrian adults have 3rd level education?  Or do you believe that 10% of the young males have been radicalised by Islamic fundamentalists?  I can conflate statistical sets to sell either side.  But you, as a reader, which will you consume?

It is a technique of marketing also.  Nowhere better than in marketing of weight loss products.  How do you get fat?  By eating lots of fat.  So if you cut fat out of your diet you will lose fat!  Here is our sugar, it is 100% fat free.  They have conflated the fat on your waist with the fat in your diet.  Which is a bit like saying that bats can fly, so watch out for flying baseball bats.

How can you spot conflation?

A trick is to tell yourself to look for the kid in the china store.  You know the kid who went wild and broke all the china?  Seems correct?

It was a Bull in a china shop.  And it was a kid in a candy store.

One a metaphor for a pending disaster, the other for unbridled excitement.

Conflate them and suddenly you have a kid in juvenile court facing a charge of vandalism.




July 5th 1937 saw the launch of a new product, a long lasting tinned pork and ham product called SPAM.  SPAM has sold billions of tins.  It is everywhere (apart from the Middle East/ North African Muslim countries).

The pervasive nature of SPAM was parodied in a 1970 sketch by Monty Python.

The word “Spam” began to be used by certain abusive users of early chatrooms in the 1980s to scroll other users off the screen by repeating the word “Spam” hundreds of times.  They then moved to insert large blocks of text from Monty Python sketches to disrupt chats.  They became known as “spammers”.

Spam and Eggs are used as metasyntactic variables in the Python programming language, released in 1991, which is named after Monty Python.

By 1993 the term Spamming was used to describe the multiple reposting of the same message, often for marketing purposes.  In the days of dial-up connections and painfully slow load speeds such “flaming logo” posts prevented access to chatrooms and caused widespread frustration.

By 1998 the word Spam had entered the Oxford dictionary to describe unsolicited marketing messages.

Since 2000 spam messages have been responsible for infecting computer systems with virus software, bugs, worms, Trojans and ransomware.  2017 has become the year of ransomware with large scale attacks on older Microsoft systems running with out of date protection or unsupported software.



Don’t be disgusting.

One of the key drivers at play in retail situations is disgust.  If you want to sell your product must look perfect, but so should the shelf and the store.

Queen Elizabeth II at the English Market in Cork

Queen Elizabeth II at the English Market in Cork

Disgust is one of the 6 Universal Emotions that are rooted in psychological research (ref; Paul Ekman & Wallace Friesen).

Disgust is a very important emotion that protects us from harm.  Imagine that you leave the office and are walking home when you come across a dead rat in the street.  Do you pick it up and bring it home for dinner?  The very thought is disgusting.

It takes a great deal of deprivation to overcome disgust.  You may be able to imagine a situation where you are starving to death and that dead rat actually seems appetising, but the situation would need to be dire indeed.

What you may not realise is that disgust is operating in the background all the time, affecting your purchasing decisions.  When we go shopping we are driven by this primitive emotion to seek perfection in what we buy.

100,000 years ago, when hominids wandered the forests in search of food the emotion of disgust protected their health.  If you see a piece of fruit that has already been chewed it looks disgusting.  This is an important survival mechanism.  Humans can contract nasty diseases from the bodily fluids of other animals.

People with a genetic disposition to be disgusted by tainted food had a higher survival rate than those with a low disgust threshold.  As a result a sense of disgust became encoded into the Genome of humans.

Our sense of disgust also affects the mating decisions we make.  We are disgusted by pustules, sores, rashes etc on human skin.  All of these are potential signs of diseases such as measles, smallpox, scarlet fever, plague etc.  Those who were fussiest about physical perfection lived longer and had more babies.  Theirs were the winning genes, the genes of disgust.

In the modern world when we go shopping we want to buy things that are not tainted.  We like to go into stores that are clean and ordered, not ones that look like a herd of cattle just passed through.  So retailers must make their stores look pristine to attract shoppers.

Once inside we want to select products that look untouched by others.  We dislike clothes rails that look like someone has been pulling at them.  We like to pick products from shelves that are full to the brim, so we get the “freshest” and “ripest” food.

We avoid the dented tin, the one with the torn paper, the bag of chips that fell on the floor, the bread loaf that looks like someone squeezed it, bruised fruit, wilted salad and wrinkled apples.

It is a huge job for the retailer to keep a display in pristine condition.  As soon as a display looks untidy sales fall.

Class or Crass? : The science of semiotics


When people look at your product what does it say to them?  Semiotics is the science of signs and sign meaning.

When I teach Semiotics to marketing students I usually draw a tree on the blackboard and ask them what it is.  Someone always says “it is a tree”.  I then invite them to come to the board and break off a leaf or a twig.  Then someone says “it is a drawing of a tree”.  I point out that it is actually just chalk on a blackboard.  But I encoded the image “tree” and it is correctly interpreted.  So it is in effect a sign.  It is a cheap version of Magritte’s pipe.


Everything about your product is a sign, the product itself, the package, the place where it is sold, the price, the bag it is placed into, the aftersales service, the person selling it and the performance that is given by the seller and the buyer.

Are you a discrete luxury brand, a popular family brand, an old-fashioned granny brand or a crass and vulgar display?  Do you know?  Are you a designer brand in New York and a grunge brand in Tokyo?  Can you reconcile your image in the digital world where all information settles in the end to a single image?

Ignore semiotics at your peril – know the code.

Every product group has a “code” and it is vital you know what it is for your category.  Do plain biscuits sell in red or blue packs?  Does a red bag mean “natural chips” or “Cheese & Onion flavour”?  What colour is the strongest detergent?  If you are selling beer what does “Lite” mean, is it a light flavour, a light colour, low calorie, low alcohol?

Codes vary by market, country and region.  So you can’t just take your blue bag of cheese & onion flavour crisps from the UK and put them on a shelf in Ireland, because everyone thinks they are salt & vinegar flavour.  First know the code.  Break it if you choose, and are aware of the risk, but don’t break codes from ignorance.

Look at your product

The very first step for a new product manager should be to lay the product out beside the competition.  Take a really hard look at it.  What makes your product different to the others.  Are you higher or lower quality?  Really look at the detail.  What % cocoa is your chocolate?  Does it melt at lower temperatures?  Does your Pizza have more ingredients?  Is your beer fizzier?  Does your holiday insurance cover scuba lessons?

Go through all five senses.  How does it taste?  And yes, you too Mr Banker, lick your return envelope!

How does it look?  On the shelf, on the counter, in the bag, out of the box, in use.

What does it sound like?  Does your watch tick, does your car purr or hum?  Does your packaging rattle or crackle?  Shake the box and what do you hear?

How does it smell?  Before you open it, before you use it (eg tobacco), during use, after using it (eg perfume/aftershave), the next morning, on your breath etc.

How does it feel? – in the fingers, on the skin, in your mouth, wherever you are supposed to put it.

Look at your package.

Do you fill the box or leave large gaps?  What is your packaging code?  Do you show or hide the product?  Is the packaging clean, like an iPhone box or is it busy like a Cereal box?  Does it come with instructions, guarantees, certificates?  Is it disposable or something you would keep?  What is core to the product and what is an extension?

Think 4 P’s

You have looked at the product, now think about what your Price says, and the Place where it is sold and how you are Promoting your product.

Think 7 P’s

For services think about the delivery Process, the People who deliver and the Physical Evidence, the delivery van, the uniform, the tablecloths in your restaurant, the security measures in your bank, the weight of your wheelie bin!

Think Ritual

Nothing binds customers like a good ritual.  What is the ritual for the consumption of your product?  If there is none can you create one?  If there is one can you own it?

If you are interested in learning more about the fascinating world of Semiotics then here is a good starting point:

Are Implicit Rewards killing your online community?

Walk of Fame

An online content manager who does not understand all the reward systems at play can lose control of the forum and the commercial focus.  Lose focus and lose the client.

We all dream of setting up that killer online community for a client.  Cold customers wander in, discuss some things in the forum, suddenly realise how great the client product is and become brand ambassadors.  It’s a nice dream, and if only life were that simple.

In truth if a forum is too product focused it turns away the kind of people who spend a lot of time in forums.  If it is not product focused at all then there is no benefit to the client.  Getting the balance right is certainly a challenge.

In order to get contributors to enter the forum, and to post to it, you must reward them.  There are two types of reward systems, Explicit Rewards and Implicit Rewards.

Explicit Rewards are the ones we set up with our client.  They can be things with monetary value like competition prizes, promotions, coupons etc.  They can also be non-monetary rewards that we set up on the forum.  Best post of the week.  Top contributor.  Bronze/Silver/Gold star member.

Implicit Rewards are harder to identify and measure.  In general what implicit rewards lead to is fame.  You need to know what it is that generates likes, shares, helpful votes etc for posts on your site.  What is the dynamic at play, and what does this say about your site and your product?

For illustration I use two examples, Amazon books and TripAdvisor Accomodation/Restaurants.

Book lovers are always looking for their next read.  I am a “heavy user” of books so I know exactly what I am talking about here.  If I am finishing a book and don’t have the next one lined up I begin to feel exposed, nervous, itchy.  Many heavy readers maintain a TBR “Pile”  literally a stack of 5 to 10 books in the corner of a room lined up ready to be read.  Feeding the TBR pile is an important activity.

Book lovers are very interested in recommendations from other book lovers.  For this reason Amazon is a gem.  You can get lots of recommendations on books from people who like the kind of books that you like.  If I read a positive recommendation for a book and decide to buy it I will give a “like” to the recommendation.  If someone writes a negative book review I may avoid that book, but I am unlikely to “like” the recommendation.

The implicit reward system at play amongst Amazon.Com reviewers is that you achieve more “Fame” from positive reviews than you do for negative ones.  Reviewing is a competition.  There are lots of reviewers out there who want to be in the “Top 100” or “Top 1000” reviewer list.  The ranking is explicit.  How you improve your ranking is implicit.  Competitive reviewers who are out for glory quickly learn to review only in a positive way.  This is not bad for Amazon.  More positive reviews will generate more book sales.

TripAdvisor is different.  There is a tradition in the media of writing colourful scathing reviews of bad holiday or dining experiences.  There is pleasure to be derived from reading a truly awful restaurant review in your Sunday Newspaper from the comfort of your couch, with your coffee in your hand.  It is a form of entertainment which has leaked onto TripAdvisor.

There is an old customer service maxim that a satisfied customer will tell 3 friends and a dissatisfied one will tell 20.  TripAdvisor has become a sounding bell for dissatisfied customers.  As they depart a hotel in anger at the service level, or the food quality, you will often hear them fire their Parthian Shot.  “I’m going to put this on TripAdvisor”.

The implicit reward system for TripAdvisor is inherently negative.  The more negative your review, and the more colourfully you express the experience, the greater is your level of attention.  Fame comes from being nasty.  TripAdvisor is not a hotel or a restaurant.  They do not suffer from a poor review.  If anything it attracts more users to the site.  If you are booking your annual holiday you want to peek behind the curtain of the hotel you are staying in to see if the worst is acceptable to you.  Also Forewarned is Forearmed.  You can avoid the noisy room beside the elevator, or the one above the nightclub.

When you are setting up your own discussion forum you need to understand the implicit mechanisms at play.  How do your contributors become famous on your site?  What does this do to, or say about your product?

Copyright D. Clancy (2014)

Donal Clancy is a digital strategist and communications planner.  He set up Ireland’s first postgraduate University course in Digital Marketing in DCU.

Digital; where amateur beats professional.


In the digital world of marketing there are no prizes for bland professional output.  Your product can be great, or it can be terrible, but if you are simply alright then you are nothing.

With traditional media, where you pay for placement, there is plenty of room for a professional job that is a bit ho-hum.  What you don’t achieve in standout you can make up with placement.  So your ad agency may not have made the most exciting ad in the world, but it will be seen by your target audience.  Let’s face it, if you are selling computers or financial services you are more interested in portraying professionalism than you are in achieving fame.

There are famous TV ads that are fondly recalled and pop up on TV programmes that review the “Greatest Ads” but lets face it, most mainstream ads are delivering in a reliable, steady manner without setting the world on fire.

If you get a bunch of amateurs to make an ad for traditional media, it looks like an amateur ad.  The cost of media placement means the amateur operator cannot balance poor production quality by wallpapering the media with placement.

Digital is different.

In the digital world success is achieved by fame.  If you capture the imagination of the digital consumer public and go viral then the amateur can beat the socks off the professional.

There is a lot of random chance involved in what goes viral.  I have worked with many clients who asked us to make an ad that would go viral.  As an ad agency you can never promise it will.  Yes, you can make an ad that is more disruptive, more edgy, funnier, surprising, all the things that make for good viral videos.  But you can never predict what is going to be a big hit.

There is also the issue of target audience.  If your ad goes viral with teenage boys and your target market is middle aged women your fame will not convert into sales.

A great example of how random success can be is the Thorne Travel ad.  It is simply awful.  It is so awful that it is brilliantly awful.  Awful enough to go viral.

The travel agency know people are laughing at them.  Do they mind?  Get this, since the ad went viral, bookings have increased by 110%.  And believe me, this is only the beginning.  Good work Thorne Travel.  Long live the amateur!