About six months ago, I was in the parking lot of Academy, a sporting goods store, with my father. We were going to buy a few items in preparation for a trip to the lake. My father is a quirky, smart man who, like his three sons, enjoys the curious oddities of economics, politics and human behavior. He has a habit of asking seemingly innocent questions meant to provoke conversation and thought that inform, rather than solve, current issues. He sees it as a sort of game, with those opposite him trying to figure out just what he’s up to.
“I have a question for you, Craig. What, in your opinion, is the most successful current marking strategy in America?”
I studied marketing in undergrad. I called it, “business on stupid”. I thought it was ironic as most people think business school is “college on stupid.” It pretty much fit too. Marketing classes were filled with hungover college students, a statistically improbable number of pretty girls, and otherwise intelligent yet incurious students taking the path of least resistance. There was an introductory business law course that was required of all students in the business school and the professor would post the statistical breakdown of test scores by major. The accounting and finance students always finished 1 and 2, respectively. The management and information systems students would swap 3 and 4. Marketing was always last. Everybody would laugh. Marketing students would high-five. My accounting friends tried to make fun of me, but let’s be honest, accountants generally aren’t that clever.
I was a marketing major like both of my older brothers. My father studied economics in undergrad and grad school but ended up working for a marketing research firm. He was a hit at parent career day at school as he had kids in our class design advertisements and packaging for a cereal they created themselves. “Do you go to the grocery store with your parents?” “Yes!” “Where is your favorite cereal in the store?” At a young age I knew what he was doing, because I had heard these innocent sounding questions too many times before. The right answer wasn’t “at the end of the aisle” nor was it “on the third shelf”. The right answer was, “at my eye-level”. “Chocolate Frosted Sugar Bombs” brand cereal is always right where kids can see them.
One marketing professor in describing the “tricks” of clever marketers would often tell his students, “These tricks work, but they don’t work on you. They only work on dumb people.” The marketing students would always laugh and pat themselves on the back as they sat in class wearing designer label clothes checking Facebook on laptops, which they purchased in “back to school sales” that convinced students and their parents that high-powered laptops priced at $1000+ were necessary for modern education and not simply a luxury item. “They only work on dumb people.” They didn’t get the professor’s joke – all of us are susceptible to this, smart or dumb. Marketing major or not.
I knew my father’s question wasn’t so innocent. I knew that he had something in mind. Obvious answers were obvious. Coca-Cola is a great marketer. Their name is on literally everything. Blue Bell Ice Cream was a good choice. Even though the ice cream had been recalled for listeria, and it was in the middle of an enormous scandal, its long absence from the stores only seemed to make people from Texas willing to pay even more for the ice cream whenever it returned to the shelves. Apple has built and rebuilt an empire on the power of their brand. I could go for an odd answer if I wanted: Trojan condoms. Their brand dominates because, seriously, I shouldn’t have to explain this. Buying off-brand, cheap condoms isn’t the best idea on multiple fronts.
As we walked inside Academy, he pointed me toward the enormous section of the store devoted to firearms and ammunition. “They’re always out of ammo. People can’t buy enough. They send in these big shipments every week or so and people hear about it and flock to the stores. They buy up every round they can. Some people I know have thousands and thousands of rounds of ammunition. Then, they buy more and more guns.”
“Why do they need so much ammo”, he asked me. I knew the game he was playing.
I told him, “It’s their marketing strategy. They limit the shipments to create runs on stores like Academy and Wal-Mart creating a frenzy and false sense of ammunition shortage. They highlight every instance of gun violence in America in order to draw out complaints and condemnation from gun control advocates. They convince gun owners that the government will take away their guns and that they will heavily restrict gun and ammunition production and sales. They say that the will take away their guns and ammo very soon, so they better stock up, even though they’ve been saying ‘very soon’ for decades.”
He replied, “And they’re making a killing!”
My dad also really likes puns.