Don’t confuse your interest with those of the consumer

The fax machine burped and burbled and yielded yet another junk fax. The fax was headed for its usual filing place, three feet over and two feet down, when the subhead of the ad caught my eye.

‘Know thyself.’

– The inscription engraved on the ancient Oracle of Delphi

The fax machine burped and burbled and yielded yet another junk fax. The fax was headed for its usual filing place, three feet over and two feet down, when the subhead of the ad caught my eye.

First, of course, I had to read the big screamer, which shouted in 96-point type, WE BET YOU CAN’T BEAT OUR RATES…Then came the subhead kicker, the clincher, the promise that the advertisers obviously figured was sure to draw response. It said, ‘If you can, we’ll buy you LUNCH*’.

Below, keyed to the asterisk, were seven bullets which outlined the criteria you’d have to meet in order to qualify for OUR LUNCH RATE CHALLENGE. But if you got past the seven weasels, and you still found life insurance that was cheaper than these guys’, YOU’D WIN!

Let us calm down now and carefully analyze this offer. You go and get a life insurance quote from the fax advertiser. Then you shop around for a while, in hopes of finding a better rate. Then you present the better quote to them, run the Gauntlet of the Seven Weasels, and after all this effort, what you do achieve?

YOU WIN LUNCH WITH AN INSURANCE AGENT!

Back in the days when Woody Allen movies were funny, he created a magic moment that has stayed with me for close to 30 years. Woody had done something real bad, and he was serving time on a chain gang, and he was still being real bad. So how in hell were the lawmen of Alabama or wherever going to provide the ultimate punishment to this bad, bad dude??!!

They put him in solitary confinement … with an insurance agent!

I can still see the scene, with the totally defeated Woody shambling down the steps into an underground bunker, with Joe Whole-Life at his side, nattily dressed and talking a blue streak. Yes, those sadistic bastards had given ol’ Woody a true torture.

I have nothing against insurance agents; in fact, the Insurance Brokers Association of Canada, in the somewhat less intrusive field of property-and-casualty, was a favorite client for years. But shouldn’t these fax advertisers have some self-awareness, some recognition that their public image is down around that of ad guys, some feeling that maybe lunch with them is not automatic nirvana? (What’s the definition of an actuary? An accountant without the personality.)

I suppose not. It’s a disease we all suffer from, the belief that What Interests Me Interests Everybody. It’s the virus that leads clients to want pictures of their factories, account people to push for supering the spec sheet, creative honchos to want to feature that great zydeco sound they heard last February at Mardi Gras.

Focus groups can be horribly misused, but this is the area where they’re really good. You sit there on the dark side of the one-way glass, and you hear your beliefs being shattered, one by one. You’ve gotten yourself all excited about the line extension or the secret ingredient or the great new slogan, and gradually you discover that the public would rather watch haircuts.

So my first advice for 2002 is this. Take your own importance a little less seriously. Remember that he who is buying may see things differently from you who is selling … or as Mark Twain put it, ‘It is the difference of opinion that makes horse races.’

Viewpoints can be wrong. Although if this one is, I’ll buy you lunch.

John Burghardt’s checkered resume includes the presidency of a national agency, several films for the Shah’s government in Iran, collaboration with Jim Henson to create the Cookie Monster, and a Cannes Gold Lion. The letterhead of his thriving business now reads ‘STRATEGIC PLANNING * CREATIVE THINKING.’ He can be reached by phone at (416) 693-5072 or by e-mail at burgwarp@aol.com.