The Möbius strip, or, marketing that is impervious to criticism

December 27, 2012

(This article was originally published at Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference, and Social Science, and syndicated at StatsBlogs.)

Johnny Carson had this great trick where, after a joke bombed, he’d do such a good double-take that he’d end up getting a huge laugh. This gimmick could never have worked as his sole shtick—at some point, Johnny had to tell some good jokes—but it was a reliable way to limit the downside. For the purpose of our discussion here, the point is that, even when the joke failed, Carson had a way out.

I thought of this today after following a link from a commenter that led to this blog on publicity-minded author Tim Ferriss. I’ve never read anything by Ferriss but I’ve read about him on occasion: his gimmick is he promotes his book using ingenious marketing strategies. Sort of like how Madonna is famous for being famous, and Paris Hilton is famous for being famous for being famous, Ferriss is famous for self-promotion.

Matt Metzgar writes:

I [Metzgar] saw a bunch of ads on the internet today for Tim Ferriss’ new book. Even though the book was released today, it already has all these five-star reviews that were coincidentally all posted today.

From a perceptive (real) reviewer on Amazon:

I find it interesting that all the reviews for this book are 5 star. I was impressed UNTIL I noticed that all the reviews were submitted on the same day at almost the same time. So, I looked at what else the reviewers were reviewing. Most of them ONLY reviewed this book.

Then notice how this person gets attacked by commenters – “but Tim Ferriss produces all this great content”, “these are all honest reviews”, etc.

Hilarious! And Ferriss is laughing all the way to the bank.

Indeed, what’s impressive about this strategy is its fail-safe nature. Step 1 is to hire a bunch of people in India or wherever to create Amazon accounts and write five-star reviews for your book. (It might seem cleverer to slip in a few 3-star or 4-star reviews, but don’t do it; what browsers notice is the average number of stars, so don’t get cute.) Step 2 is, if you’re caught at it, hire more puppets to defend and deny. Step 3 is to ignore. After all, Amazon doesn’t care; the more books you sell through them, the better. Finally, once it’s all out, don’t just admit it, embrace it: make it part of your legend that you sold thousands of books this way. (While you’re at it, you can exaggerate; call it millions of books.) There’s an almost mathematical beauty to it: once you establish a reputation as a rule-breaking bad boy, every time you get caught is just one more chapter in your life story. (I’m not saying Ferriss followed the above strategy; I have no idea whether he hired anyone in India to review his book. The above is just the kind of thing I can imagine, a clever way of promoting yourself by getting around the rules, knowing that, if you do get called on it, you always have the fallback plan of using it as an example of how enterprising you are.)

I find it a bit repulsive myself but perhaps this is just a sign that I’m getting older; in earlier decades I enjoyed reading stories about charming scam artists.

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