A Tremendously Successful and Endlessly Interesting Social Experiment – 31 January 2014
There’s a book written by a guy named Brian Tracy entitled The Psychology of Selling. It’s one of those self-help dealies, the kind of thing where I’d spend seventy-five bucks, a week’s worth of waiting on pins and needles, and another week trudging through all the information only to find it’s chock-full of claptrap and common sense stuff an eight-year-old would recognize. I mean, listen to this section of blurb—
“Most people don’t like talking to salespeople. We’ve gotten a bad rap […] You probably feel like the odds are stacked against you—and you’re right. But I’m about to show you my proven system for turning the odds in your favor…”
Really? If you’re a salesman, this guy pretty much calls you a failure to your face, tells you people don’t like you, then tells you to shape up and buy his… whatever. His book/CD/DVD combo pack or something. And if you were a failing salesman with an axe to grind you probably would, too.
The mark of a slimeball, but of an excellent rhetorician as well.
A bit closer to home, away from Capitol Hill and cult compounds, people like Brian Tracy rhetoricize in front of us every day, and we never realize it—though to be clearer, we just don’t care. Think about it. The last item of clothing you bought, that snazzy case for your iPhone you just had to have, where you ate lunch today—did you really make all those decisions? Hell no! Sure you physically made them, but you can bet your ass you were influenced by something you saw or heard. We get bombarded with advertisements and television commercials and billboards and magazine pullouts every minute of every hour of every day, and we’ve become so desensitized most of it gets relegated to our subconscious until something sparks us and triggers a shopping spree or something. Is this a bad thing? If you think that making people more consumer-oriented is bad, then yeah, it probably is. But it also speaks volumes to the potential power packed in every word, and how those words ought to be applied in our everyday lives.
I’m sure you’ve all heard the maxim about how an excellent salesman could sell ice to an Eskimo (or an Inuit, to be culturally and politically correct). Have you ever thought about how a salesman would theoretically do this? It wouldn’t be an easy prospect, but I guarantee that he’d make the Eskimos (Inuit) feel somehow that the ice they’ve been living on isn’t as good as the ice he wants to sell them, even though it’s most likely the same damn ice. Now, most people think that the only way our salesman could sell ice to the Inuit is through fast-talking and underhanded trickeration but it’s because of his excellent grasp on the basics of rhetoric that he gets his ice sold. And that’s exactly why you’re reading this article with a Subway sandwich in your left hand and a Hollister shirt on your back. Because we trust the autonomy huge faceless corporations pretend to afford us over the personal appeal of a single door-to-door salesperson we believe that salesmen are only trying to get one over on us, though both parties use the same rhetorical skills to convince us to buy.
The next time you go into Wal-Mart or someplace like it and you check the aisles, pay close attention to the wording they use to attract you. Things like “deal” or “savings” or “special” or “limited time”—that’s a good one. They do these things not to swindle you (at least, not only to swindle you) but to make you comfortable while you jam their fingers in your pockets and purses in a mad rush to give them all of your money. Huge corporations like Wal-Mart say they want your kids’ business, but that’s only after they’ve gotten all of yours. All they have to do is start selling cheap durable caskets and they’ll have an absolute corner on the American economy. Do I think that this is necessarily a bad thing? (I mean big-box stores in general, not caskets in Wally World.) Not really, but perhaps that’s because I see the link between big-box stores and rhetorical theory as a tremendously successful and endlessly interesting social experiment, one where we don’t mind being the specimen because we get cool things that shine by way of positive reinforcement.
So, there is most definitely a difference between stellar rhetoric and smarmy hucksterism. Admittedly the line is fine in places and gone in others but, nella schema grossa, the former is why the latter functions and what makes it frightening, all at once.