Sucker Promises

I’ve got a pet peeve. And that’s when somebody tries to sell me something which they claim will change my life. The price will be surprisingly low, but despite this, they vow that their system / club / product / seminar will produce results so automatically that I’ll have to put forth little to no effort to reap these miraculous results.

They often state that their system / club / product / seminar will provide results so quickly that I won’t have to be bothered by inconvenient little details like waiting for those results. I’ll never be called upon to practice patience, to know myself or to develop persistence.

At this point, the merchant will probably take me down one of two paths.

They may offer me their amazing lamp or magic beans for such a small sum that it truly is wondrous. All I have to do is pay an amount that’s so low it’s obvious they can’t possibly make a profit on the deal. (Which COULD raise questions about my belief in getting something for nothing.)

Now, we all know that, in a loss-leader deal like the one I just mentioned, there will inevitably be followups with a series of progressively bigger packages so that you can complete the set you just bought. Or maybe they’ll want to move you on up to more advanced practices.

That’s the low-price entry path.

The other path is, as you’ve already guessed, the high-ticket way. There are many customers who’re much more comfortable with higher priced products and services. They simply are not comfortable shopping in the bargain basement. They’ll feel that a higher price tag more or less guarantees them a bigger, better chance at whatever personal growth they’re pursuing.

A Swindler’s Word

What started me thinking about all this was an email I received the other day from a reader.

It almost feels like the gurus want you to stay who you are right now, without changing, so they can keep selling you one watered-down dose of hope after another – with no breakthrough in sight.

Let me say right up front: Yes, there are unprincipled people using dishonesty and slick practices to separate folks from their money. And it chaps my cheeks. On the other hand, we’ve heard the old adage – fools and their money are soon parted.

There have always been honorable merchants and not-so-honorable ones. The Romans warned people to use their brains and eyes when purchasing anything. Remember “Caveat Emptor,” let the buyer beware? You know … the principle that the buyer alone is responsible for checking the quality and suitability of goods before paying.

These days we call it due diligence.

And although we do expect merchants to be honest; still, some are less so than others. And some buyers are naive and over-trusting – they’re what’s commonly known as a sucker, a mark. It’s this naivety that slick merchants count on.

Now, they may not technically be swindlers or con men. They do deliver a product, but let’s just say the content they deliver is on the thin side. Way thin. And as much as we all want to place the whole blame on those tricky promoters, we can’t.

We often see some degree of over-promising and under-delivering, which may skirt the question of ethical practices, but it doesn’t constitute crime. It does, however, leave a lousy after-taste.

One widely quoted marketing expert states that if your refund rate is under twenty percent, your sales letters are not selling hard enough.

This means he thinks it’s desirable to deliberately set expectations so much higher than your product delivers that fully one-fifth of your buyers will demand their money back. It also means that if twenty percent are disgruntled enough to ask for refunds, probably another twenty to fifty percent are also disappointed but never quite get around to taking action about it.

They’re teaching that up to a seventy percent failure to fulfill is all right as long as most of your customers keep quiet about it. And that’s what passes for “best practices” among some leading marketers.

If it’s good form among “honest” business people to walk along the edge of ethical boundaries like this, then is it any wonder that other, less “principled” marketers step even further over the line?

Years ago, I ordered a report (which is bigger than an article, but doesn’t make it to book size) which promised me dollars in my mailbox, or some such idea. Man, that sales letter was amazing. It had me believing I was going to be rich but that I was only going to have to do one or two simple, easy, pleasant tasks from time to time.

Now, I wasn’t a total sucker, I knew that anything connected with work was not going to be all that simple. But still, during my wait for the mailman to bring my report, I remained excited. A part of me had absorbed the promises in the letter, and that part of me would drift off into visions …

When the report came, I tore open the package and read it cover to cover (which didn’t take long). I couldn’t believe it! There was virtually nothing there. It sounded like material left over from the sales letter that hadn’t made the cut.

I read it again. And then again. Nope. Nothing there. No secrets, no useable, actionable information. Just a fluff piece that reviewed a few superficial basics of mailorder.

Now, I already considered myself a marketer and a businessman, so I was almost pathologically opposed to demanding refunds. But that little booklet was so vapid, so lightweight that I did mail it back with a letter asking for the unthinkable – my money back. Sure enough, I got my money back, so the writer did have some ethics.

Years later I read that this report was famous in the industry for two things. One was the phenomenal response rate of the sales letter. It had set unbelievable records for number of orders per reader. The other thing was its refund rate. Nobody ever found out for sure, but some suggested it was near fifty percent. Some said higher.

And at times, when I see some of the claims and promises being offered around the Internet, that same old feeling rolls back over me. But I did learn an important lesson from that experience. I learned that actually, despite all the righteous anger and holy outrage we may vent against the gurus, the fault is not theirs. It’s ours, for believing the crap.

Or rather, the responsibility is ours.

You and I and everyone else has at some time swallowed silly, overblown promises, and we believed, at least briefly, that personal growth wasn’t going to cost us any effort. We believed that we’d just pay our money and we wouldn’t have to invest much (or any) of our time, concentration, persistence, decisiveness nor the damnable bother of changing anything about ourselves.

Yes, railing about the dishonest gurus who cheat us can make us feel properly self righteous, but it’s a waste of energy, a huge time sink, and it directs our efforts and attention toward the side of the equation we can’t change.

What we CAN change – pretty much the ONLY thing we can change – is our own thoughts, actions and beliefs. And yes, I get the irony in that: going to a swindler expecting to get rich. It’s a poor strategy. Still, it is surprisingly effective in the long term.

If we repeat the same mistake over and over often enough, we WILL eventually begin to suspect that something is wrong with this picture. No matter how big a fool we are, it will eventually soak in. At this point we may realize we’ve been swallowing “smart pills.” (Note: ¬†obscure reference)

At that point we might begin doing our due diligence and avoiding the biggest of the traps that lie in wait for us. Then we can truly say that our thinking, our beliefs and our actions are changing. So while the swindler didn’t know it, he was teaching us some crucially important lessons. Lessons we might not have ever gotten any other way. Doesn’t excuse them, but it doesn’t excuse us, either.

Also at that point, we’ll have learned to take more responsibility for the results we’re getting in life. Everything that happens – everything – it’s on us.

And only us.

Cheers from sunny Japan,


You’ll note that I try never to sing you lullabyes on this blog, try not to spin you soft, easy fantasies and fairy tales. Get over it. Sooner or later you’ll wake up to the idea that your life is yours, that you’re the one driving, that if you’re in a runaway train and about to go off the rails, it’s not Mommy’s job to fix it, nor some big brother’s job. It’s your life. Live the thing.

And if you believe otherwise, I dare you to stand up and tell me so in the comments section below.

Now, I may occasionally drift off into easy-easy land or hum a few bars of some mawkish tune or other. But I do try to control myself. So if you catch me trying too hard to please, you have my permission to leave a ridiculing comment below. I’ll try harder to shoot straighter.


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