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The Beautiful Game: Football, Marketing and the Art of Manipulation

In 1958, a football commentator referred to football as ‘The Beautiful Game’. But I’m a marketer, not a football fan, so what’s the connection?

Well, the word ‘game’ has several meanings. It’s an activity. It runs around the countryside or flaps its wings. It’s an eagerness to do something. It’s to manipulate a situation for gain – and it’s in the latter we find the connection because marketing is both a beautiful game and manipulation.

Few people like to think of themselves as being manipulative because it has such negative connotations in normal, everyday life, but one way or another, every human being manipulates a person or people at some point for their own personal gain, and those of you in business are the worst offenders of all.

And, if you are in business, it would be wise to embrace being a manipulator because it will significantly improve your thinking about your own marketing tactics, from the next conversation you have with a prospective customer or client, to how you word your advertising or social media posts.

“You are a manipulator.”

“I like to think of myself more as an outcome engineer.”

J.R. Ward, bestselling author

What is manipulation?

It is said that there are four key stages of manipulation:

  • Flattery. Putting on a facade of being kind, caring, and helpful.
  • Isolation. Isolating someone from their friends and family
  • Devaluing and gaslighting. Making someone feel guilty or confused to the point where they begin to doubt themselves, their instincts and their decisions.
  • Fear or violence. Threatening to leave someone, hurt them (or themselves)

And whilst you might be reeling at the mere suggestion that you could be associated with any of these awful traits when you’re engaged in marketing your business, well, see for yourself:

  • Flattery. Putting on a facade of being kind, caring, and helpful.
    • …only you’re not faking it; you really mean it. Most of the time.
  • Isolation. Attempting to separate someone from their friends and family.
    • “This flat is exactly what you need to build your independence and have your own space.”
  • Devaluing and gaslighting. Making someone feel guilty or confused to the point where they begin to doubt themselves, their instincts, and their decisions.
    • “If you take your salary and multiply it by three, then add in your Christmas bonus for the next five years, divide it all by 0.9 and add the number you first thought of, you can easily afford this Tesla. Trust me, you’ll be fine.”
  • Fear or violence. Threatening to leave you, hurt you (or themselves).
    • Ok, maybe this one is a step too far unless, perhaps, your business is a protection racket.

You can see how such seemingly negative traits are unwittingly exposed in everyday life and without malice, but they are incredibly manipulative all the same.

When you know what a man wants you know who he is, and how to move him.

George R.R. Martin, Author, Game of Thrones

Much of what you tell your customers and clients about the benefits of the insurance policy, the dress, the house, the holiday, the TV, the website etc., is absolutely true, but you’re constantly trying to win them over to your way of thinking, to see it from your perspective. You’ve generally got an answer for everything they throw at you, and your language is completely biased – but that’s the game you play; the back and forth, focusing only on the positive, assuaging their fears and gently pushing them to see things from your perspective until they make a positive decision to ‘buy’. It’s a truly beautiful game. It’s also manipulation.

I’m not advocating actively manipulating your audience, whether online or face to face, but I am suggesting that if you’re wrestling with how to word anything from a pitch to a social media post, taking the time to understand how people think and what their desires or fears are, rather than focusing only what you want to tell them, will significantly improve their engagement and your success rate.

To illustrate the difference between a simple message, persuasion and manipulation, let’s look at an example of promoting a CCTV camera.

Advertising:

This is a CCTV camera. It’s battery-operated and wireless, so it can be installed anywhere.

Persuading:

This CCTV camera is stylish and quick to install inside or out. You don’t need an engineer, you can control the camera from your mobile phone, and it’s really affordable.

Manipulating:

The latter is manipulative because it attempts to change the reader’s view of other people towards wholeheartedly agreeing with how you see the world. It’s not about the camera anymore, it’s about how ‘those types of people’ make us feel and the society we have to live in because of them, so it plays on their emotions (heart), not their reasoning (head). It’s verging on being political.

But guess what? It’s also really very effective.

Scrolling your way through most social media channels, you see content that doesn’t necessarily make sense. You simply look and allow it to go into your brain as you move to the next one, ad infinitum. You probably don’t even question whether or not what you’re seeing is true – it’s just content. And as Scott Oldford, a highly successful leadership mentor, explains, “You’re on autopilot, and you subconsciously form beliefs and perceptions on … everything!

The most abhorrent kind of manipulation was demonstrated by the direct relationship between the Trump Administration and Cambridge Analytica, who used vast quantities of online content to manipulate people’s thinking based on what was already known about them through their Facebook profiles.

What they did was a diabolical breach of human trust. However, odd as it may sound, there is a positive we can take from the concept of their approach in the way we try to understand the needs of our potential customers or clients and play to those needs through marketing.

It’s not a crime to use behavioural psychology to inform and influence your choice of words in a marketing campaign. As mentioned earlier, it’s a natural human instinct to want to bring people around to your way of thinking, whether it’s asking your friends to come to your party or pitching your skills and expertise in a job interview, yet so few business owners transfer that innate ability we each have from the age of 2-3, into marketing their business.

It’s all about value.

Why do Dry Cleaning businesses talk about the cost per item or the speed of turnaround when they should be playing on our desire to look fabulous and feel a million dollars in our freshly cleaned and expertly pressed suit/dress/shirt?

Why do IT companies talk about efficiencies, features and cost-effectiveness when people rarely care about cost ahead of the way whatever they’re buying will enhance their life?

Why do Butchers talk about locally sourced and quality cuts of meat instead of how impressed our dinner party guests will be with the delicious, restaurant-quality meal we present them with?

£20 for a gin and tonic in your local boozer is an utterly ridiculous price to pay, yet on the rooftop of a classy cocktail bar overlooking the marina in Monaco, it seems perfectly justifiable decadence.

Buying an 85-inch, frameless, Ultra HD, surround-sound TV is completely out of the question when your 42-inch flat screen is perfectly adequate unless, of course, it’s Formula One/Football/Rugby World Cup/Golf season or you want to watch blockbuster movies with all the family at Christmas, in which case the benefits appear to far outweigh the cost.

Think not about what you do; think about what you do for your customers or clients. How do you solve what keeps them awake at night? How will your products or services make a significant, positive impact on their lives or the lives of their families? If you’re a B2B business, how does what you can do for them help them win business their competitors would otherwise have?

Marketing is not about being manipulative, it’s about manipulating what you know about the needs of your potential customers or clients to your best advantage – and theirs.

Marketing Manipulation preys on human cognitive, social and memory based biases ultimately influencing behavior in their favour.

Michael Kamins, World Scientific Author.

What to do next

Whether you’re handling your own marketing, working with your internal marketing team or outsourcing to an agency, stop and have a brainstorming session to elicit the language and phrases that best fit the needs of your ideal customer or client. Involve your staff, too, especially those on the front line.

It’s challenging because, as business owners, it’s natural to not only think and talk about what we do but to genuinely believe that’s what our customers and clients need, and we sometimes get blinded by that.

Instead, really put yourself in the shoes of those you believe need your products or services. If you’re in a group brainstorming session, pick a handful of individuals to each act as, and speak only as a customer. Ask them searching, unbiased customer-focused questions and listen to the language and phrases they use.

Your marketing output will be transformed, and your engagement will soar.

Trust me, I’m a manipulator, I mean a marketer!

With more than 30 years experience in business and marketing, Clive is the visionary behind The Marketing Alliance, launched in 2018. Clive leads a curated tribe of accomplished marketing and business support professionals who consistently delight clients through their creativity, innovation, strategy and an unwavering commitment to excellence.
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