Manipulation: Good or Bad?

September 22, 2009 | blog | By Mike Sullivan

iStock_000005487201XSmall“You’ll get much more out of flattering your children’s teachers – even the ones that may be total jerks – than trying to intimidate them.” So proclaims the author of “A School Year Playbook” published in today’s USA Today. He goes on to recommend telling a teacher, “Mary really enjoys your class (even though she may hate it) …” Flattery works. Not much of a news flash. But as I read it I was struck by an underlying hypocrisy at work in our culture. The writer (an English teacher, no less) offers a blatant and unapologetic recommendation that parents deceive or at the very least manipulate teachers in an attempt to gain favor for their children.

To me, as an advertising executive, the hypocrisy lies in the fact that corporate intentions to influence are generally considered dubious (at best) in our culture. We’re all informed by our subjective perspectives, of course. But if I were to offer a similar public recommendation for selling products or services to customers, I’d get skewered. I don’t do that, of course, for a couple of reasons. First, outright deception is unethical. Second, even if I could navigate the ethics, people are generally smart enough to see through blatant falsehoods. The best advertising works based on what we call a true and “Leverageable Insight.” And it certainly attempts to manipulate decisions. Advertising is based on the very pretense that it is there to influence, and makes no bones about it. Even so, many advertisers catch all kinds of flak and criticism for their efforts – some more justified than others.

However, it seems that when the perspective is shifted and the benefit becomes personalized – like influencing a teacher to go easier on our kids – the tactic of manipulation is judged suitable.

My question is this: What’s the difference?

Mike Sullivan

President at LOOMIS, the country’s leading challenger brand advertising agency


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