Are You Pole Dancing in the Graveyard?


According to a story in the WSJ, in China the curious practice of hiring exotic dancers to perform at funerals has escalated to the point where authorities need to clamp down. The intent is to attract a sizable crowd graveside to mourn, as an effort to save face. “Otherwise no one would come,” explained one villager.

Now, I will freely admit there are likely cultural and religious nuances that are sailing well over my head here; but from where I’m sitting this practice misses the point.  A crowded funeral hall is a mark of a life that made a difference, that touched others in a meaningful way, a sign that others are moved by the passing and wish to participate in the moment. It is a byproduct. A symptom. A consequence.  Not the goal to be chased.

You can not earn a meaningful life by packing people into the funeral parlour so that it is standing room only. The people attending your grave to see the dancing girls are there to see the dancing girls and not to attend your grave.  One of the comments I saw tied to this story was, “well, that’s marketing for you.

But that’s NOT marketing.  Only, sadly, in many cases it is.

How many strategy briefs have you come across that amount to little more than a pole dancer in a graveyard? Because many of our performance measures in marketing and public relations focus on the number of eyeballs in the room, it becomes easy to lose sight of what actually matters… the measure of the brand. You can pack the room to the brim but if they are not thinking about your brand in the right way, or even considering the brand at all, then you may as well have nobody there.

What’s the last campaign that crossed your path that undoubtedly packed the room full of eyes but did absolutely nothing of benefit for the brand?

Calling a spade a spade when you open the kimono going off the reservation

Our language is a product of our culture, and as such there are a great many idioms and phrases within our lexicon that have their roots in bigotry, sexism and oppression. There is an excellent series on NPR which digs into the roots of these cultural snippets and examines their etymology.

Now we’ve all, at some point used one of these idioms without giving it a second thought or knowing the darker roots. When the dinner bill arrives, and you decide you should each pay for just your own meal, you may suggest to your friend that it be “Dutch treat”.

In all likelihood, anyone who’s “gone Dutch” has absolutely no ill-will towards the people of the Netherlands. Likely they haven’t given a second thought towards the Dutch at all. And when you examine the neuroscience you can see that there is, quite literally, no second thought.

When a metaphor is used, the brain fires up in all the areas pertaining to the involved senses. But for many popular idioms – “barking up the wrong tree“, “burn the midnight oil“, “back to the drawing board” – the brain treats it on par with any other word.   The phrase is so overused that it no longer holds any visual or sensual impact for the brain, but is treated as a word.  “Split the bill” and “let’s go dutch” are treated by your brain as one and the same; just a collection of words.

But the important thing to remember is that in professional communications, it’s not what’s happening in your head that matters but what’s happening in the minds of your your audience.

If your audience take offense, then regardless of your intent, offense was given.  Most professional communications are intended to create a connection, or elevate the esteem others have for your brand.   Giving offense works at odds to achieving that.

Even if no party involved takes offense, there is reason enough to avoid the phrase. No one may see you as being bigoted towards the Dutch, but they could interpret the continued use of the phrase as archaic and a sign that you are behind the times.

Last, but maybe most important, the idiom is equated in your mind with language because it has been so overused that it no longer holds figurative power. You chose a particular turn of phrase because you were hoping to spark something and instead you fired off a dud.  Good writers know that every single word ought to have importance and mean something.  On your second or third reading of your draft you ought to have cleansed your work of empty phrases, lazy usage of the language and words that may not convey the meaning you intend to convey.

Is your measurement of marketing and communications just a joke?

Mutt and Jeff comic strip - streetlight joke

It’s an old joke.  A drunk is looking for something under the lamplight.  A cop tries to help him and asks where, exactly, he lost it.  He indicates somewhere off in the darkness.  The cop asks, why would the drunk be looking under the streetlight if he lost it away, off in the dark and the drunk responds, “Because the light is better here.

It’s a common form of observational bias to search only where it’s easiest to search.  Measurement for public relations and marketing repeatedly defaults to this bias; counting what can be counted as opposed to what counts.  Desperately crawling and groping about, searching – not where the object we’re after, ROI, lies – but simply where the light is best.

Exposure Metrics

Reach.  Hits.  Engagement.  Impressions.  These are quick to find.  Relatively easy to attain and readily available.  They twinkle and sparkle in the only light available and so we get drawn to them like moths.  But no matter what twisted leaps of logic and feats of correlation and multipliers that we produce, they do not give us the ROI that we are so desperately on the ground hoping to find.  Because it lies elsewhere.

Business Objectives

Real operational matters that determine your ability to conduct a profitable endeavour.  Dollars and cents. A sale.  A satisfied customer returning to purchase more.  A community that welcomes your organization vs one that’s barred the gates to you.  Being able to attract the best of talent and hold on to it.  Seeing the price of your company shares inch upward.  These are the true marks of impact.  The return in the ROI equation.  The place where you see the results of your operational and communication efforts.

We keep trying to make the leap from exposure metrics to business objectives and always fall short of the mark.  That’s because we’re treating the beginning of our communication efforts as if it were the end.

Communication Objectives

The change in the marketplace that you’re actually seeking to make.  Anyone who’s ever stated ‘buzz’ or ‘impressions’ or ‘reach’ as their goal does not understand the role of communications: to change the views and perceptions of the market so that business objective may be more readily attained.

What is it we’re hoping to do with all of those impressions?  What is that change we’re trying to make in people’s minds?  Are we seeking to make them aware of our offerings, or better educate them on the features and benefits?  Are we looking to establish trust?  Create a positive association?  A want or desire?

There are perceptions and viewpoints that need to exist in order to reach the desired business objective.  Where this change is occurring is that dark corner, that place just outside of the lamplight, that we need to be focusing our search.

For years, marketing and public relations have been drawn to exposure metrics.  And like a bad joke, we keep returning there to conduct our search.  The time has come for the profession to set aside the comfort of searching in the light and bring our attentions to where ROI is going to be found.  Time to start looking around objectives and truly identifying the change we’re trying to create in the market.  Yes, it will be difficult.  But better a hard search that ends in results than an easy search that never ends.


cross-posted from LinkedIn