Business Building Secret: People are actually pretty smart…

billymaysI think that Billy May’s great success as a pitchman lay in the fact that he truly believed that people are smart.

I had only recently caught an episode of Discovery’s series “Pitchmen“.  The series followed the late legendary pitchman Billy Mays and his British counterpart Anthony Sullivan, giving viewers a “behind the scenes” look at all that is involved in creating a successful marketing campaign.

One of the business building “secrets” to success practiced by Billy and Anthony was that they would only “pitch” great products.  In the episode I saw,  Billy believed a product had potential – but the inventor had to first work out every possible ‘kink’.

In the case of this episode’s  product, the spray on fertilizer which painted brown spots in your lawn green had to be environmentally friendly before Billy would agree to pitch the product.  An early version of the product could make pets and/or children ill if they came in contact with the treated lawn.  May was unwilling to pitch a product that could be harmful to pets or small children – so the product was sent “back to the drawing board.”

Billy Mays knew that his reputation as a “pitchman” was only as good as the products he promoted.   He knew that his reputation was on the line, so he fully vetted each and every product he pitched.  If Billy was pitching it – you could rest assured it worked as promised.  From Oxyclean to Kaboom, I have yet to try a product Billy pitched that didn’t work exactly as promised.

Billy Mays knew his ability to sell product lay in his ability to communicate with a vast audience – and repeat sales to that audience meant he had to continually to earn that audience’s trust. His distinctive delivery style – combined with his dedication to only pitching products he knew were worthy – made him one of the greatest pitchmen of our time.

If Billy Mays didn’t believe people were smart – he would have pitched any product – as long as the sponsor was willing to pay his fees.

Contrast that with the “people are idiots” business style of a self proclaimed “internet marketing guru.”  I subscribed to this lesser known “pitchman’s” newsletter a few years ago.  The reason I  subscribed  (using my “real” email no less)  is that I had purchased a book he had written.  His book was wealth of information and I was anxious to discover any other nuggets of wisdom this marketing expert had to offer.

I began to start doubting his great marketing wisdom when he shared some “complaints” that he had been receiving from newsletter subscribers in one of the early issues.

In essence, the letters he shared were from people who expressed disappointment at the content of his newsletters.  Instead of sharing ‘behind the scenes stories,” each newsletter was simply a long copy sales letter – with a “buy now to learn more” call to action at the end.  His readers were obviously asking for more…. more reasons to “trust” him before they bought from him.

His published response to the complaints was simple and along the lines of “I’m here to make money – not share free information.”

I continued to subscribe because – quite honestly – his newsletters were truly brilliant examples of effective sales copy.

It’s not surprising that one day, I fell victim to the master’s skillfully written marketing copy.  I purchased one of the reports he was selling.  I paid $39.90 for the report.  Because I had been so happy with the content in his published books, I was fairly certain I would be equally happy with the report.

Because his books had been previously published with a national publisher, he had to include a “disclaimer” at the beginning of the report.  In essence, the disclaimer shared that the information contained in the report was originally published as part of one of the author’s previously published books.

OUCH!!!!   Fool me once – shame on you.  Fool me twice – shame on me.

I have never unsubscribed from this newsletter because I will continue to keep his brilliant sales letters in my “swap” file.  However, I will NEVER make the mistake of paying $39.90 for one of his “reports” again when  I can just as easily pick up one of his books (new) on Amazon containing five times the material at half the price.

He made a one time to sale to me – but I will NEVER be his customer.

There’s an old customer service axiom  which says, “the customer is always right.” Maybe the marketing mantra should read:

“The customer is always smart.”

Ditech aired an ad a few years ago championing the concept that people are smart…

The commercial is more than a bit ironic given the state of the current mortgage markets.  However, I have to disagree with the vast wisdom contained in the YouTube comments and side with the commercial’s message – that people really ARE smart.  They will frequently make the absolute BEST choice – as they see it.

It’s your marketing materials job to show them that your product or service is the “smart” choice.

In my book Beyond the Niche: Essential Tools You Need to Create Marketing Messages that Deliver Results I suggest that you create your marketing copy with your ideal customer in mind… and to think of such “conversations” in the same way you would think of a conventional conversation at a dinner party or networking function.

You wouldn’t approach someone at a dinner party and strike up a conversation using a tone that implies that they’re an idiot – so why in the world would you adopt such a tone in your marketing copy?

Of course, in the end, it doesn’t matter how brilliant your marketing copy – if you truly believe that your customers are idiots – then that thinking is going to show up throughout your business.

If you think your customers are idiots, don’t expect to find long term success online – especially in the world where social media rules.

In an age of Facebook Fan Pages which can easily be created by your customers and which can operate beyond your control, you had better hope and pray the supposed “idiots” you call customers aren’t smart enough to figure out how to create a Facebook account – let alone a Facebook Fan Page.

See, there’s a difference between “idiots” and the “uniformed.”  The former are unable and unwilling to learn.  The latter are willing and able to be informed – and are open to enlightenment.  Check out Blogs and the Art of Deception for an example of the kind of “enlightenment” that happens online and you’ll see why it’s best to assume that people are smart – and ready to be enlightened.

After all – your audience won’t remain “uniformed” forever.  At some point in time, some blogger somewhere will eventually shed light on the subject during a Social Media Marketing Reality Check

“The Internet is VERY PUBLIC and it never forgets.”


  1. “You wouldn’t approach someone at a dinner party and strike up a conversation using a tone that implies that they’re an idiot…” Shoot, maybe that’s why I never get invited back? 🙂

    I was sad about Farrah Fawcett and MJ passing but I actually cried a little over Billy Mays because having watched all the “Pitch Men” shows so far, it was easy to come to know Billy as the decent, family guy he was. Funny that outside the pitch screen he was not at all that in-your-face guy. Even our 7-year old watched Pitch Men, she loved it. Darn it, he died too young.

    Anyway, yes people are smart. Naturally intuitive. I run into the same thing when I write a song. A song can’t have so much as a single what we call “conceit” in it – something that doesn’t jibe. Sometimes you’ll hear that in songs, usually for the sake of finding a rhyme. And it sticks out. People ARE smart.

    Anyhoo, bummer about that guy pulling the fast one on the report, I’m sure karma will get him.

    Sorry, can’t comment on the clip, no sounds on this computer, cool graphics on it tho.


    Jannie Funsters last blog post..Five Little Lightbulbs

  2. People are smart is a wonderful assumption. Even the few who aren’t savvy make lousy customers. What kind of testimonial could one expect from an idiot? Seriously though, thanks for this fascinating read it helped me to see what my anti-Billy Mays bias is really about. His personal style is just way too over the top for me. I don’t believe him because I always questioned how in the world could anyone be so sincerely enthused about detergent? I guess our buying decisions are much more complex than one would think.

    Tom Volkar / Delightful Works last blog post..To Hell With What They Say

  3. Hi Kathy – Yep, you nailed it. The problem with too many politicians – the ultimate pitch has to be selling ideological policy, no? – is they think we’re stupid. To wit, “I didn’t inhale.” Right. And I’m Princess Di. “…will create or save jobs.” Really? And how are we going to quantify this bit of genius? “Read my lips…” To know you’re still lying?

    What these clowns, whether they’re in business or in politics, online or not, fail to understand is that people can tell when you think they’re stupid. And they really, really hate it. And they’re not going to buy from you. So, you’re reduced to fooling some of the people some of the time. Occasionally, that will work for ya. But not forever.


  4. Kathy says:

    Jannie – I was thinking of you just last night. A guy came to my door “peddling” pest control services and it turns out he’s an aspiring musician. (He wanted to know if a blog could help his band sell records!) However, several times he said, “My band is not very good.” So while you may want to avoid “conceit” in your song composition- you have to at least have enough passion to want to SHARE your music with others!

    Tom – Obviously you’re not the one in charge of getting grass stains out of your children’s soccer uniform! 🙂

    I definitely understood his “enthusiasm”.

    Ol’ Billy did get pretty jazzed about detergent – but I think that was because he had seen the stuff really work.

    Betsy – Politicians are the WORST at thinking that their “buyers” are idiots. Unfortunately, when it comes to the political landscape these days – it becomes VERY easy to make the case that people ARE NOT smart. I’ll still stick to my guns and say -we’re not idiots – but most of us are just not well informed!!

    However, social media is changing this quickly!!! While I am HORRIFIED by what’s going on in Iran – I’m also thrilled because social media is what is FUELING the “revolution” over there.

    Information is a powerful tool and after all, this is the “information highway”.

  5. “…there’s a difference between “idiots” and the “uniformed.” The former are unable and unwilling to learn.” — The problem is the glut of information makes it easy to “alter” the truth. The Big Lie lives.

    Lori Hoecks last blog post..How our intuition warns of danger

  6. We don’t get Pitch men over her in the UK so I can’t comment on Billy May… But your message that people are smart is bang on. People really are smart, they know when you BS them. How on earth can you sell something to somebody if you disrespect them by treating them like idiots? You need to build up trust.

  7. Kathy says:

    Lori – It’s true – sometimes it’s hard to know what’s truth and what’s fiction when you’re absolutely FLOODED with conflicting information.

    That’s where your writings about recognizing “safe” people come in to play. When I read about that concept on your blog – a light bulb “clicked” for me. It makes perfect sense really. The marketer’s so active in promoting the big lie exhibit many of the characteristics of “unsafe” people.


    You may not get the show Pitchmen – but I’d bet you’d recognize one of the stars. Anthony Sullivan started his career as a Pitchman in London.

    You’re so right – trust is ESSENTIAL in building a long term relationship with anyone – including customers!

  8. Kathy,

    Thanks for the information about Billy Mays. I always had difficulty with him because he shouts…I understood that this what made him effective, but it usually made go the mute button. I never watched Pitchmen and now I kind of regret it. Thank you for your thoughtful and interesting account of Billy Mays values regarding what he pitched, You made me appreciate him much more:~)

    Saras last blog post..The Second Chance

  9. Kathy says:

    I have to admit – I wasn’t a “fan” in any way until I watched Pitchmen. (Notice, that happened by accident – not by design!)

    While I may not have been a fan – I did notice that while I never ordered anything from his infomercials – I did end up buying several products which he pitched when they hit store shelves.

    I guess that shows you don’t have to be a “fan” to be influenced by his work.

  10. Fantastic blog post… Being successful in your business is a huge accomplishment for you! I admit it’s not easy to run a business but if you have the great ideas and of course dedication to your business, then it’s not impossible that you’ll succeed.