Anton Aylward

Are you a Dummy or an Idiot?

There are a few axioms in business, sales and marketing.
Up there at the top is something of the order of “treat your customers with respect.
For many, this starts at “hang up the phone before you start swearing at them”, but the principle is more universal. Its a variation of the idea of “The customer is always right” that one famous department store owner – or other – brought into the vernacular.

Along with such truisms goes the idea in marking that something new and dramatic will grab the customer’s attention.

Which has led to an interesting paradox. There is a line of books that is predicated on the assumption that telling the reader — the customer — that they are ignorant.

Well OK, maybe they are. They are buying the book to be informed. But surely its tactless calling them an “Idiot” or a “Dummy”. Its one thing to admit you’re a dummy in the privacy of your own home, but in a public context its a different matter. How wold you react to being called a dummy or an idiot at a business meeting. You’ve just expounded authoritatively when the alpha-geek stands up and says “You’re an idiot, you don’t have a clue what you’re talking about. You’re a complete dummy.” You’d feel sorely in need of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Enhancing Self Esteem or perhaps The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Assertiveness. But are you going to flash copies of those around the office? No, more likely your boss will take you aside and tactfully lend you a copy of The Assertiveness Workbook: How to Express Your Ideas and Stand Up for Yourself at Work and in Relationships. At least he’s not calling you an idiot.

A Success!

Amazon lists over 3,100 “Complete Idiot’s Guides” and over 60,000 “Dummies” titles. Obviously this marketing strategy has been a success.
Part of the formula is the conviviality – only you can’t say that, its a long word! No, really, there is a formula and its well worked out. The simple vocabulary; the short sentences and paragraphs, the graphical markers and cartoons, the reassuring style of writing that is “concise, lighthearted, and conversational”.

The pitch is to tell the reader that he is intelligent but frustrated by a problem and intimidated by the other literature on the subject. This brings two things to mind for me. The first is that it sounds like someone who is not able to or willing to apply themselves to serious study of the matter. That attitude towards learning is one theme that I will explore in other articles. The second is a flash of a scene in “The Space Merchants”
by Fred Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth . In this frighteningly prophetic tale of unchecked corporate influence, the advertising executives of Madison Avenue “sell” the hell-hole that is Venus as an opportunity for colonization. This book took the normal SF approach of exaggerating something and ended up anticipated much of what is wrong in the world we now live in: multinational corporations dictating to governments; environmental issues polarizing between the conservationists and the capitalists. But its main theme is the separation of mankind – all of mankind – into two classes — those who sell and those who consume, and with it the demise of spiritual values and the reign of materialism.

Dumbing Down The Consumer

What has this to do with “Dummies”? A lot. The whole advertising model treated people like dummies for a variety of reasons. In order to sell products with a limited lifespan or which addictively induced a need for more products the population had to be “dumbed down”, that is, their critical faculties were limited. For those who never learned to read there was audio-visual advertising, but it was designed so as to maintain the “idiot’s” self esteem. The “hard” subjects like science and mathematics have always been deprecated and taught poorly because they are unremitting and undemocratic. There is a whole antagonistic culture. Pohl and Kornblauth picked up on this trend nearly 50 years ago and showed the “if this goes on…” Ironically, there are now “Dummies” videos for people who can’t – or don’t want to be bothered to – read.

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