May 2007 - Per Inquiry

High Noon in Our Town

By Rick Petry

Recently, I’ve become a devotee of HBO’s revisionist Western series “Deadwood,” spurred by that most powerful of all advertising mediums, word-of-mouth. “Deadwood” is the sort of gnarly, yet engrossing, entertainment that forces people to wince and wonder whether they really want to spend their precious time wallowing in such depravity. It is the same tension that underpins all of HBO’s most successful dramas from “Rome” to “The Sopranos.” Each employs the idea of moral relativism: the concept that one’s ability to separate right from wrong and good from bad is a by-product of circumstances, perspective, cultural mores and so forth. With trust in the government at an all-time low, should this come as any surprise?

A brief survey of what populates the DRTV airwaves supports the conclusion that such moral ambiguity is on full display amid the advertising claims being made. And therein lies a problem: Consumers are left with no means to separate the good from the bad other than their instincts and willingness to conduct research. The old adage, “One bad apple spoils the whole bunch,” holds true in this case; whether we like it or not, the worst violator among us has a dire effect on all in the form of journalistic condemnation and consumer mistrust. So how do we avoid the indictment of an entire genre of advertising? By creating a mechanism that helps consumers distinguish between marketers who can be trusted and those who can’t.

In “Crossing the Chasm,” author Geoffrey A. Moore describes the difference between pioneers and settlers: Pioneers (read: entrepreneurs) are good at blazing trails, but settlers build fences and enact laws that enable communities to thrive. Just as in “Deadwood,” for our town to realize its potential, someone has to strap on a badge. Perhaps it’s time for that six-pointed star to come in the form of an ERA-backed seal that ensures consumer satisfaction and empowers the public to separate the white hats, the back hats and the grays. Such a program would be open to anyone willing to abide by common rules of fairness. It would not be a protectionist racket, a potshot that those wishing to operate outside the boundaries will no doubt fling our way. Its intention would be to give legitimate marketers a way to fight the gunslingers who strip our territory bare with their snake oil claims.

This is a call for all like-minded direct marketers to circle the wagons. If we fail to act on such a proposal, we may do so at our peril. For in doing so, we risk turning our own industry into a Deadwood-like free-for-all where consumer confidence is left to suffocate face-down in a puddle of uncertainty. Do we want our industry rendered a ghost town, with the winds of indifference whistling through our wares? Or would we rather create a bustling community built upon a bedrock of integrity and public trust? It’s time to throw down.

Rick Petry is a freelance writer and consultant to the direct marketing industry and the current chairman of ERA’s board of directors. He can be contacted at (503)740-9065, or via e-mail at [email protected].


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