At breakfast, you are confronted by a smallish portable billboard, which also doubles as a container for cereal.
There is quite a lot that the box wants to communicate – with the goal of getting us to drop further packets into the trolley next time we are at the supermarket. We learn, over breakfast, that the cereal is going to charge into our lives like a train rocketing towards us across wheat fields; that the product is bursting with energy; that it is filled with sunlight and big skies and made from perfect ears of corn. And you must not forget its nutritional advantages either.
But the box is worried. It is anxious that we might not be paying proper attention. It imagines that the ambient noise at this moment is quite high – maybe we are listening to news of a political scandal, perhaps we are glancing at the weather forecast; maybe we are coordinating the day with our partner or trying to think where a child’s boots could be hiding.
With all this competition around, the cereal box wants to cut through and make us listen to what it has to say. And to do this it shouts. It uses the strongest colour contrasts, it ramps up the intensity: the sunrise is explosive; the sky is intensely blue; the wheat is perfectly golden; the lettering is huge, the box makes point blank assertions of the virtues of the content. Every bit of the surface has been made use of to keep the volume as high as possible. If it could, it might fit flashing lights and a klaxon.
But there are other ways in which messages get across and win our attention in a crowded world. Shouting isn’t the only option: it is just a very familiar one at the moment. An alternative was explored by the English artist Ben Nicholson (1894-1982).
From the mid-1930s, he specialised in low-key, semi-abstract works, in which different shades of white were juxtaposed and laid on top of one another, rendering us acutely conscious of the variations in tone between whites. His work was very quiet indeed. Nicholson was seeking to dim the volume of what he was saying to the extent that others would have to turn down the ambient noise – and focus.
Occasionally, Nicholson would allow himself to use some colour. He was very fond of light grey. He used delicate harmony and clear, simple shapes to impress us. He realised that – for all that’s going on around us – we remain highly responsive to certain dim signals. Something can stand out from the crowd precisely because it is quiet. It is a quality we recognise and like in people, in those who don’t have to raise their voices to be listened to and who can hold the attention of a room even though they speak without assertion and pause between sentences. Shouting may get attention; it rarely persuades.
Too often, selling has become confused with pestering. Advertising annoys, it turns up at awkward times and in places where it is not wanted. It spoils the street, the side of the bus and the introduction to the film. The problem isn’t selling as such. It is trying to sell to the wrong person at the wrong time. Badgering has two characteristics: randomness and untimeliness.
In relationships, badgering becomes nagging. Here the aim might be very reasonable – this person should take out the rubbish or clean their room. But the approach is held back by simple repetition of the demand at inopportune moments and a lack of insight into what is holding the person back from doing what you want. Nagging ends up making compliance less likely. At its most extreme in love, badgering gives us the stalker. It is the person who knows they are keen on someone but has no view of why the other would be interested in them. They have no seductive resources and simply impose themselves in a deeply unpleasant manner.
“Too often selling has become confused with pestering. Advertising annoys, it turns up at awkward times and in places where it’s not wanted”
There is a commercial version of this which buys a little bit of acquiescence in the short-term, but loses goodwill as a whole. Badgering grows from an unflattering – and mistaken – picture of the customer. It supposes someone who can only respond to loud noises, who can only be won over by sheer repetition, who can only respond to vulgar signals. This isn’t how the sellers themselves feel and behave, but they don’t think of their audience as being like them in this regard. They lose touch with their own experience when devising their selling strategy.
Badgering, and nagging, always have a history in our own lives. We used them as babies, when we had no other options. We resorted to them when we were six and had no capacity to rationally persuade our parents to buy a goldfish but instinctively assumed that asking a million times would work (and occasionally it does). This is where we all have come from. We carry a lot of residue. And when we’re under pressure, we return to these early instincts.
The path of growth towards adulthood and therefore good salesmanship involves getting better at understanding the needs of those we are addressing. The badgering child can’t understand why the parent will not agree or what their values really are. The child thinks maybe mum or dad has forgotten the demand (in the last three minutes) and that they should therefore just ask again.
Good growth means getting more aware of what the parent’s reservations might be. The art of persuasion evolves via working out how to address real concerns. At 14, the child might be drawing up a little document titled ‘Why I should be allowed to go on the school trip to Berlin’. Second, growth involves getting more sensitive to the context. The child might learn that their aunt’s rather luxurious flat is not a good place to ask their parents for anything, because that place tends to make them feel anxious about money. They know that their mother is likely to listen carefully at 3.00pm on Sunday, and not at all at 7.45am on Monday. Or that the drive home from school is the ideal time to make a big request.
At heart, what is needed all around is greater trust. Trust arises when the seller is seeking to make a profit only from making a valuable contribution to the customer’s life. We only become friends with people we can trust; and that, to date, hasn’t encompassed the advertising industry, from whose advances we keep fleeing. We have been pestered once too often even though we do, ironically, need and want to buy quite a lot of things on a regular basis. Advertisers need to behave with the sort of dignity and self-respect of people who know they could properly improve the lives of customers. They might, along the way, learn to speak in a quieter voices.