Alain de Botton: Successful selling must embrace the product’s glorious imperfections

The act of selling is at the heart of business, and yet we often internalise images of selling drawn from capitalism’s worst moments, which gives those involved in selling an unhelpful background sense of shame.

Alain de Botton

However, the moral status of salesmanship isn’t fixed. Everything depends on the value of what is being sold and the manner in which it is being advanced. Good selling simply means the art of honestly uniting an audience with the elements it requires to flourish to its full potential.

A central way in which salesmanship goes wrong is by a feeling that the only way to prove acceptable to a buyer is through exaggeration, through a perverse perfectionism projected onto the imagined audience.

The Netherlands Board of Tourism is responsible for marketing the Dutch countryside. To lure visitors it employs images of neat windmills bordering pristine canals, with flowers along the banks and permanently sunny skies.

There are occasional places one or two days of the year, particularly near Leiden in late July, when the Netherlands is exactly like this. But there are many other more typical aspects of the Dutch countryside that the Board of Tourism stays quiet about: it is almost always overcast, there are many places where there is not a flower to be seen, it rains most days and there’s always quite a lot of mud. You will encounter many a wonky old sluice gate and some rickety palings shoring up the banks. In order to avoid an awkward collision with reality, the tourist board would have been wise to consult a painting in the nation’s main art gallery, the Rijksmuseum, by the 17th century artist Jacob van Ruisdael. He loved the Dutch countryside and spent as much time there as he could, and he was keen to let everyone know what he liked about it.

But instead of carefully selecting a special (and unrepresentative) spot and waiting for a rare and fleeting moment of bright sunshine, he adopted a very different ‘selling’ strategy.

931px-The_Windmill_at_Wijk_bij_Duurstede_1670_Ruisdael
Selling the Netherlands: Jacob van Ruisdael, ‘The Windmill at Wijk bij Duurstede’, 1670

His most famous painting is an advert for the qualities he discovered. Van Ruisdael loved overcast days and carefully studied the fascinating characteristic movements of stormy skies: he was entranced by the infinite gradations of grey and how often there would be a patch of fluffy white brightness drifting behind a darker, billowing mass of rain-dense clouds. He didn’t deny that there was mud or that the river and canal banks are frequently messy. Instead, van Ruisdael noticed their special kind of beauty and made a case for it.

The tourist board, like many corporations, felt that the reality of what it was selling was unacceptable and so resorted – for the nicest reasons – to lies. But the Dutch countryside is filled with merits: it is quiet, solemn and encourages tranquil contemplation. It is an antidote to stress and forced cheerfulness. These are things that we might need to help us cope with our overloaded and often inauthentic lives.

What matters in all acts of truly successful selling is an honest foregrounding of a thing’s actual virtues – and a confidence that these will, in time, prove enough.

Accepting the imperfect

Of course, it’s not so easy to sell this way, because it requires an all-too-elusive confidence to sidestep the standard over-bright approaches. But it is a confidence that should emerge from an understanding of a basic fact of human psychology: that we are prepared to accept the less-than-perfect; if only we can be guided to appreciate it with skill, confidence and charm. Exaggeration is only a nervous first move in salesmanship. But, as we know (yet keep forgetting), things sell best over the long term when their real, albeit modest, merits have been intelligently brought out.

The fraught relationship between the ideal and the real has been amply explored in art. The Italian sculptor Antonio Canova, who was at the height of his career in the last years of the 18th century, specialised in making marble figures more perfect than any we might encounter in the flesh.

The problem with exaggeration

Canova had deep appeal for some, but for others he became an object of ridicule for the same reason as many companies will: because he was felt to have exaggerated. For the English essayist William Hazlitt, writing in the 1820s, Canova was described as an inferior artist we should learn to outgrow as we would an adolescent fantasy and a far lesser figure than Rembrandt, who had taken a different approach to physical beauty. One of the people Rembrandt thought most lovely was Hendrickje Stoffels. And because of the way he painted her, a lot of other people have come to find her delightful too.

Rembrandt,_Portrait_of_Hendrickje_Stoffels
Unconventional beauty: Rembrandt, ‘Portrait of Hendrikje Stoffels’, c.1654-6

We recognise at once that she’s not conventionally very beautiful. Her neck is quite fleshy, her cheeks are round rather than chiseled, and her mouth is rather small. She’s not very thin either. Of course, she is interested in her appearance. She wants to look good. She’s arranged her hair carefully, put on earrings, looped a golden chain seductively around her neck and rouged her lips. However, her face is so appealing not because it is geometrically perfect, but because it seems to convey what’s alluring about her personality: she could get sad and thoughtful, she could get confused and embarrassed. She could get angry at times, but she would be likely to forgive. She looks as if she could be understanding.

Rembrandt was driving a psychological wedge between two ideas we have confused: physical beauty and attractiveness. The emphasis on physical perfection is a first guess about what is genuinely appealing, but one that can’t be quite right because – as Rembrandt shows us – Stoffels is strangely more attractive than the average model, though by the standards of physical beauty she is far less enticing. Rembrandt, her ‘marketer’, was advertising a fundamental truth about our capacity to appreciate reality over an ideal.

Like Rembrandt and van Ruisdael, a series of adverts used by Volkswagen in the 1970s, created by ad man Bill Bernbach, explored the appeal of the ordinary and the allure of candour.

Like a charming, mature person, the ads were able to admit that their product was not ideal. The car manufacturer had the confidence of experience, which teaches us that no one’s life is more than a distant shot at perfection. The job is far from flawless, but it is still a decent place to work. The children’s school has some big drawbacks, but it does some things very well. And our partner is all too human, as are we. The approach VW used was charming because it addressed consumers as adults; it trusted them with the truth about the world.

Unfortunately, VW gradually forgot its own lessons, growing infatuated with the spirit of Canova – with grave repercussions for the appeal of its advertising. It is no longer a true friend of what it is selling; a friend being someone who likes you not because they have failed to notice the ways you are considerably less than ideal, but because they appreciate your merits and sympathise with your tribulations and weaknesses nevertheless.

The best kind of salesmanship helps us recognise, and properly esteem, the worth of the life almost all of us are mainly required to live: an ordinary one.

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Comments
  • Jonathan Cahill 5 May 2016 at 8:31 am

    l am again bemused by de Botton’s comments. His observations on Rembrant’s painting could apply to most of his female subjects. It was the context of the time. Look at Rubens, females are little different. De Botton seems to be judging the women’s looks by today’s standards, a rather elementary error.

    His observations on Bill Bernbach’s work for VW appear similarly misguided. It would be helpful if he actually looked at the ads from that period. What they do is leave the message for the consumer to work out, such as in the snow-plough or the Beetle driver who was favoured in a will. The ‘appeal of the ordinary and the allure of candour’ having nothing to do with it.

    l was not aware that there have been any ‘grave repercussions’ from VW’s more recent advertising. Indeed it has often been some of the most thoughtful in its category. If de Botton has evidence for these ‘repercussions’, then it would be helpful if he could cite them. l suspect they are just wishful thinking.

    It would be helpful if de Botton ceased to put forward meretricious arguments which fail to stand up to the lightest touch of scrutiny. Better stick to his day job!

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