Honesty versus Salesmanship

My father was always very skeptical of sales related raps, advertising and its identical cousin political propaganda.  He would point out the obvious bullshit in the things that ran on television, the weasel words, the false, boastful claims that were just this side of illegal to make.  He had a great disdain for braggarts and I remember his delight reading me Darryl Knowles’s quote about Reggie Jackson “there’s not enough mustard in the world to cover that hot dog.”

He brought home the Remco Johnny Reb cannon one year at the designated time for a big gift, after my constant clamoring for it whenever I’d see the amazing, perfectly targeted ad on TV.  The dramatic battlefield scenes of young soldiers dragging the heavy cannon around, loading the barrel with the ramrod, firing at the wooden fort, helpless against its might, left my young jaw hanging.  His reaction to my bitter disappointment when I took the plastic piece of crap out of the box was great.  He looked at me like “what did you expect, man?”.  The look also said “I rest my case.” 

At its best, a good ad would give him a grim chuckle, though most often the whole exercise of this institutionalized bragging seemed to disgust him.  He himself was neither entrepreneurial nor self-promoting and I think he instilled a deep distrust of self-promotion bordering on ethical objection in both of his children.  Be honest, above all, was what he imparted.  Candor, unmitigated by careful calculation, we learn later, is the kiss of death in many business contexts.  

“I have to be completely honest with you, although, of course, I’ll get up to speed on your case quickly, I’ve never handled this kind of case before,” is the last thing a prospective client wants to hear from the lawyer he has just anxiously told his life-draining legal worries to.  

Wrong!  You absolutely don’t have to be honest at all, if it will potentially damage your business.  In fact, you are an idiot if you believe you have to be completely honest about being insecure, unsure, hesitant.   There is a way to finesse this lack of experience that sounds much more confident.  Like pausing, smiling and making no mention of it.  The impulse to lead with honesty can often be deadly in business.

“Capitalism runs on confidence,” says the skeleton grimly. “You could call it a con game in the truest sense, a gigantic ponzi scheme, it’s all based on gaining the customer’s confidence, exploiting their insecurity and their greed, or whatever it takes.  They are selling, more than any other single thing, the possibility of wealth.  It’s all a crap shoot, of course, something nobody can predict, it’s right there in the required fine print crafted by their legal teams, but the person people give their money to is the confident actor, the charmer who never shows fear.” 

If your reflex is to flinch every time your mother calls you by her pet name for you, if your father cannot protect you, or himself, it will be hard not to show fear.  Showing poise and confidence at all times will always be an act to someone whose first reflex is fear.  

“Well, that’s a little harsh and simplistic, Elie, everyone is an actor.  In life you have to be an actor,” says the skeleton. 

Of course that’s true.  And, speaking of actors, I find myself distracted now, wondering, for example, why I am not working on my father’s life as a screen play, leaping over the possible big $5,000 pay day for this book I’m working on, if I can succeed in selling it, when Hollywood will pay fifty times that for a movie script.  What could Hollywood be looking for, in the life of this one-time great idealist who watched his dreams of a better world erode over the decades in the trenches, became in the end a fairly bitter, anonymous old man?  Where is the story?  That can’t be it. Certainly you’re not suggesting that millions of Americans would fork over fifteen dollars a piece to see that depressing trajectory enacted on the screen.

“Well, let’s be honest about it, Elie, so far today you’re sitting around talking about the dodgy ethics of capitalism with a skeleton, not the kind of thing that puts fannies in the seats, if you know what I’m saying,” said the skeleton.

I do indeed.  More than you know.

“Do you know what Morgan Davis is, on the street?” my father asked my sister and me, one evening during a lull in our ongoing dinnertime wars.   My sister and I looked at each other, back at him, shrugged.

“Mogen David wine, ‘come on, man, we got us a bottle of Morgan Davis, let’s go’,” he said with a small cackle.  We laughed, too.  

I think now what a great demographically targeted ad that might be for the popular kosher wine.  



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