Lying as Strategy Is Risky (Jim Karrh On Marketing)

Generally, I try to offer some marketing tips based upon research, best practices and experience. This time, I’m venting about a troublesome tactic — the lie — that I caught on the Little Rock airwaves. It’s a useful reminder for any Arkansas businessman or businesswoman.

Successful businesses, especially those based upon services or intangible products, get to be successful in large part by building communities. I don’t mean communities in the sense of a city or a town. I mean communities of people with some shared interest, regardless of the particular location of their home or office. Arkansas Business readers are, in many respects, a community. So are the customers of a great bookstore or cafe. Even big marketers such as Saturn and Harley-Davidson have been able to foster a sense of community between the company, dealers and customers. In short, service-intensive businesses can succeed by creating a sense of “us.”

Let’s return to the lying thing. When people lie to us, we usually make one of two attributions: (1) A mistake happened, meaning that through ineptitude or some unforeseen circumstance, a promise was not kept. (2) Or, a wrong was committed, meaning that the lie had an element of premeditation and malice. We’re more likely to overlook a friend’s mistake than a friend’s deliberate attempt to hurt us or to make us look bad.

In our role as consumers, we’re likewise much more inclined to forgive mistakes of the first type. We realize things happen. However, we do generally insist that the business acknowledge its mistake and make amends in proportion to the harm we perceive.

A few days ago, I heard “The Buzz,” local radio station KABZ-FM, 103.7, tell listeners that Don Imus, the New York morning personality whose show the station carried, had died the night before. That was a lie, and station management knew it. Management apparently wanted to draw attention to its new, locally produced morning show.

Having been both a radio station owner and morning personality, I usually know a gag when I hear one. However, it wasn’t until I saw live footage of the Imus show on MSNBC that morning that I recognized the lie. Then I was no longer sad about the loss of a top-notch broadcaster. Instead, I was angry that a business that presumably wants to attract me would deliberately lie to me. I was Charlie Brown, and the station was Lucy with a football.

In many cases, particularly when they want to appeal to younger audiences, radio stations poke fun at other stations’ listeners. It’s a positioning strategy that says “we” (the community made up of the station and its listeners) are superior to “them” (the community of other stations and their listeners).

It is rare — and, I believe, a mistake — for a station to position itself as “we” and its own listeners as “them.” In essence, management was setting up its own listeners — its community — to be suckers.

If you owned a retail business and were changing locations, would you think it wise to tell the world that your former location had burned if it had not? Would you toss in an unsubstantiated death for good measure? Do you think your customers would be inclined to believe you about anything after they learned the truth?

Perhaps this move will work out for “The Buzz.” After all, the station gained attention, and ink, with its tactic. But it also risked severing ties with a large part of its community.

Unfortunately, “marketing” is sometimes equated with shady, short-term tactics. Marketing is actually a way of thinking about business that centers on customer relationships. The strength of those relationships, like that of other relationships, often depends upon the last thing that happened. Don’t assume your customers are the Charlie Brown to your Lucy. They might not come back.

(Jim Karrh, Ph.D., is assistant professor of marketing and advertising in the University of Arkansas at Little Rock’s College of Business Administration, as well as a consultant to corporations and nonprofit organizations. He can be reached via e-mail at jakarrh@ualr.edu.)



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