The Mis-Marketing of Possibilities

With the world still in the grips of the COVID-19 pandemic I’ve seen more people starting up side-hustles or become solopreneurs. I applaud their bravery and hope that their labors are fruitful. At the same time I have a bone to pick with a small group who portray their services in less than honest ways. I call it “The Mis-Marketing of Possibilities”.

I’m quite open about my feelings towards marketing. Far too often it preys on our fears and inadequacies to pinch the money from our wallets even when they claim it is for our own benefit. To paraphrase a YouTube video I once saw “Marketing is not there to educate, it’s there to take your money.”

While I cast a wary eye on all forms of marketing I am particularly troubled by those that seemingly offer a guaranteed result without actually saying so. You’ve probably heard them yourself but if you are having trouble remembering any right now I’ve created a few that hopefully capture the spirit of the spiel:

  • All it takes is just 3 months to transform finances!
  • Unbreakable habits in only 21 days!
  • Our weekend bootcamp will change mindsets forever!

Recognize these? Good, let’s continue.

A word on “Possibilities”

It pains me to think that the word “Possibilities” is next in line to be hijacked by the mass marketers who have already “Managers vs Leaders”, “Problems vs Challenges/Opportunities”, “Comfort Zone”, “Growth Mindset” and “Authenticity”. I like the word “Possibilities” probably because internally I’ve connected it with Improvisation which is something I enjoy.

Let’s define “Possibilities” as “realities that could be”. In contrast to realities that will be, possibilities are not guaranteed. In contrast to realities that should be, possibilities are not obliged to come about. They only could be possible and in that space is the power to take volitional action in service of the outcome.

If an outcome were guaranteed, what’s the point of doing anything to either encourage or obstruct it from happening? If an improvised scene was guaranteed to either succeed or fail, why bother taking action at all? Where could learning possibly take place?

If an outcome were obligated, where is the volition and sense of ownership from the participants? If every improvised scene had to be a killer how consistently can you find people to willingly step forward and offer ideas?

Where they “possibly” offer you something

Go back to the marketing taglines I included earlier, or examine the ones that you’ve heard of. Can you see the “possibility”, the reality that could be, that is being implicitly offered — better finances, re-enforced good habits, a powerful mindset — eventhough there isn’t an explicit promise to you? Here are some other “possibilities” that could happen:

  • After paying for the course, you find yourself in debt. That’s a financial transformation.
  • Your bad habits are now harder to break.
  • Somehow your negative mindset has been re-enforced.

“Possibilities” do not guarantee anything, not even a beneficial outcome. And these marketers never promised a positive one (well, they never promised you a positive outcome) so if you imagined one for yourself that’s on you.

Ain’t nobody got time for that

Another implicit promise is in the timeframe: 3 months, 21 days, a weekend. It’s always kept short because it preys on our common feeling that there’s never enough time to go around so faster is better. I have a few problems with this and I’ll illustrate the first with a common misconception.

Have you heard someone claim that it takes 21 days to build a habit? Sorry to burst your bubble but the science does not support this. The process of building (or breaking) a habit is highly personalized because everyone is different and we live different lives. 21 days isn’t even an average, some studies put the number closer to 60 or 70 days.

Can some habits be built quickly? Sure they can (or said another way, “it is possible”) Have you noticed how you instinctively reach for your phone anytime it makes a sound? Whether it’s a call, a text message or a new like on your Instagram post, most of us have a Pavlovian reaction (i.e. “habit”) towards that flat oblong. What’s more insidious is that you never consciously built that habit, did you?

The second problem I have is that of sustainability. Sure you might be able to make a few changes in your life within the timeframe but how many will stick? If transformation is a completely new way of being and acting can that realistically be accomplished in such a short time? Ask any crash dieter how many times they’ve failed and you’ve got your answer.

Making drastic changes in your life, even if they are for the better, requires a tremendous amount of energy that few have the discipline to continue for more than a short spurt. If you’re familiar with the 100m sprint, imagine spending that same burst of energy consistently over 2000m. Many would peter out long before they reach the end.

“Transformation” is better served through smaller, consistent efforts over longer periods of time. The health-conscious talk about life-style changes and not fad diets. It’s the long-term game that has the stronger calling.

The last issue I have is simply can those making the claim consistently deliver on these “promises”? To some extent we all cherry-pick the glowing reviews on our résumé to make ourselves look better but when push comes to shove you’d best be able to deliver.

Par for the course

The Mis-Marketing of Possibilities is a tactic where the reader/listener constructs for themselves the positive outcome that is implicitly promised to be waiting for them for once they buy said product or service. Sadly this is not too hard to imagine in a world full of sensationalized news and clickbait headlines. Everyone’s gotta get noticed somehow but all I wish for is a little more substance and a lot more integrity. But maybe that’s too much to ask.