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Marketing in the time of Covid

Tone deaf advertising follows us even as we go through a pandemic.

May 05, 2021 / 01:38 PM IST

Mark Twain once wrote an angry letter back to a salesman who was trying to sell him the “Elixir of Life”, a medicine that he claimed could cure meningitis and diphtheria. In Twain’s words:

Dear Sir,

Your letter is an insoluble puzzle to me. The handwriting is good and exhibits considerable character, and there are even traces of intelligence in what you say, yet the letter and the accompanying advertisements profess to be the work of the same hand. The person who wrote the advertisements is without doubt the most ignorant person now alive on the planet; also without doubt he is an idiot, an idiot of the 33rd degree, and scion of an ancestral procession of idiots stretching back to the Missing Link. It puzzles me to make out how the same hand could have constructed your letter and your advertisements. Puzzles fret me, puzzles annoy me, puzzles exasperate me; and always, for a moment, they arouse in me an unkind state of mind toward the person who has puzzled me. A few moments from now my resentment will have faded and passed and I shall probably even be praying for you; but while there is yet time I hasten to wish that you may take a dose of your own poison by mistake, and enter swiftly into the damnation which you and all other patent medicine assassins have so remorselessly earned and do so richly deserve.

Adieu, adieu, adieu!

Mark Twain

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(H/T: Letters of Note for publishing Twain’s letter)

If I could write like this and if letters were still a thing, I’d have written a few just for laughs. And a few more for posterity. Alas, I’m not Mark Twain and letters go straight to trash these days. So for now, I’ll just use this column to drive home a point about the salesman’s greatest mistake. It is instructive for marketers.

The salesman, J.H. Todd, gets two critical aspects of marketing really wrong if you go by the traditional definition of the marketing mix. That is, the old school idea of  the 4Ps of marketing: product, pricing, place (or distribution) and promotion.

Todd, the salesman, got the place and promotion completely wrong. And of course, the product couldn't have worked. Twain’s daughter died of meningitis, his young son died of diphtheria and wife had recently succumbed to a heart failure. Clearly, the outcome is a very angry Mark Twain and 115 years later, a nomination from me to the marketing wall of shame of all time.

Meningitis and diphtheria are largely treatable now and fewer people are infected by them these days. Modern medicine has made much progress. And so the 4Ps of marketing have become 4Cs — customer, cost, convenience and communications. But idiots, a long procession of them dating back to Mr Todd and by extension to the Missing Link, are a thriving breed. If he was alive, Mr Todd would even have a shot at redemption. For there are marketers far worse and too many today. Look no further than the tone deaf advertising that follows us even as we go through a pandemic. Let’s not even talk about terribly timed push notifications. God knows we could use more empathetic and sensible marketers in these wretched times.
Jayadevan PK is a storyteller who focuses on business and technology. His first book, Xiaomi: How a Startup Disrupted the Market and Created a Cult Following, was published by Harper Collins in April 2021.

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