Tag Archives: David Ogilvy

The Power of Insulting Customers: Confessions of a Vacuum Cleaner Sales Rep

The Rolls Royce of Vacuum Cleaners

My connection with advertising legend David Ogilvy is that, early in our careers, we both sold consumer appliances door-to-door. Long before he founded Ogilvy & Mather in 1949, and following a short-lived career as a chef in Paris, David Ogilvy sold AGA cooking stoves to housewives in Scotland. Long before I founded Highlander Consulting, as a college student seeking money for gas and beer, I sold Fairfax vacuum cleaners to housewives in Connecticut.

Ogilvy claimed his door-to-door sales experience provided insights into the mind of the consumer that earned him acclaim as an advertising wizard. I credit my door-to-door experience with an appreciation for the power of insulting people as a sales tactic.

Created long before Star Wars, Fairfax vacuums looked like R2-D2, were priced at several hundred dollars and equipped with a motor so powerful it could nearly – to borrow a phrase – suck the chrome off a trailer hitch. Although my recollection of how I first became associated with the Fairfax Company remains fuzzy, I can recall every detail of my first home demonstration, given to an unsuspecting housewife by my sales trainer, a seasoned vacuum cleaner salesman straight from Glengarry Glen Ross.

Here’s a replay of our sales visit:

Sales Trainer:    Thank you, Mrs. Jones, for allowing us to demonstrate the power of the Fairfax vacuum. Before I do that, would you kindly show me the vacuum cleaner you’re currently using to clean your beautiful house?

[Mrs. Jones brings her vacuum out of the closet. The Sales Trainer plugs it in and then pulls out a glass jar full of dirt, hair, dust balls and other unpleasant items.]

Mrs. Jones:         Oh, my!

Sales Trainer:      Now I don’t want you to be upset, Mrs. Jones, I assure you that no permanent damage will be done to your rug.

Mrs. Jones:         Well, I’m not sure that…

[The Sales Trainer opens the top of the glass jar, and dumps the entire mess on to a portion of the rug.]

Mrs. Jones:         Oh, my!

[The Sales Trainer smiles at Mrs. Jones while he steps into the pile of dirt and grinds it into her rug with his foot.]

Mrs. Jones:         [Visibly upset.] Oh, my!!! How will I ever get that dirt out…

Sales Trainer:      Let’s see how well your vacuum cleaner handles this mess.

[The Sales Trainer vigorously vacuums the rug for several minutes with Mrs. Jones’ vacuum until no dirt is visible and the rug’s original appearance is restored. Mrs. Jones now appears more relaxed.]

Sales Trainer:      Would you say that this area of your rug is clean now, Mrs. Jones? Why don’t you get down and take a closer look, to check for any dirt?

[Mrs. Jones reluctantly agrees, bends over to take a closer look and runs her hand over the carpet.]

Mrs. Jones:         You seem to have gotten all of the dirt out. You really scared me for a moment.

Sales Trainer:      Well, let me give it a couple more passes with your vacuum, just to be sure it’s clean.

[The Sales Trainer begins to vacuum the area again. Mrs. Jones looks at me.  I look down at the floor until he stops the vacuum…The Sales Trainer sits down and directs Mrs. Jones’ attention to his new Fairfax vacuum which features a clear plastic fitting in the middle of the hose (for demo purposes only) containing a white, porous paper filter designed to collect any dirt before it enters the vacuum canister.]

Sales Trainer:      As you can see Mrs. Jones, my Fairfax vacuum is equipped with a special paper filter that will show us how much dirt is being collected. So let’s go back over that spot we just cleaned with your vacuum.

[With great fanfare, the Sales Trainer begins to vacuum the rug. As he does, he points to the white filter in the hose, which immediately begins to collect debris and turn black in color. Mrs. Jones stares at the filter. She looks quickly at the Sales Trainer, then at me, and begins to mutter something to herself as the Sales Trainer shuts down the Fairfax.]

Mrs. Jones:         That’s amazing…I never…

Sales Trainer:      As you can see, Mrs. Jones, your vacuum appears to have missed quite a bit of dirt and debris that was in your rug.

Mrs. Jones:         It certainly did.

Sales Trainer:      Mrs. Jones…may I ask you a personal question?

Mrs. Jones:         Well, I guess so…

Sales Trainer:      Mrs. Jones…Do you care about the health and safety of your family?

Mrs. Jones:         Why, of course I…

Sales Trainer:      Mr. Jones…Is this really the way you want your family to live…[long pause as he points to the black filter on the hose]…in a dirty, germ-filled house?

[Having just suggested that Mrs. Jones is an unfit housekeeper, she is clearly shaken and unable to respond. She looks at the Sales Trainer, and then at me. Expecting the worst, I shuffle my feet, planning a rapid retreat from the house. The Sales Trainer remains frozen in position, during a very long silence, staring at Mrs. Jones, waiting for her to answer his question.]

Mrs. Jones:         [Clearing her throat.] How much will your Fairfax vacuum cleaner cost me?

[The tension in the room evaporates. The Sales Trainer sits down, pulls out a contract from his valise, and proceeds to sell Mrs. Jones a new Fairfax vacuum.]

My tenure as a Fairfax vacuum sales rep was short-lived and highly unsuccessful, never having found the courage to ask Connecticut housewives the insulting question that would initiate a sale. However, to this day I continue to apply the important lessons in sales craftsmanship taught to me by my Fairfax vacuum sales trainer:

  • Know what’s important to your customer.
  • Be straightforward in pointing out a problem (or opportunity.)
  • Demonstrate a viable solution.


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Four Lessons From IBM’s Centennial Advertising

Page One of IBM's 4-Page Insert

“Every advertisement should be thought of as a contribution to the
complex symbol which is the brand image.”

– David Ogilvy

In recognition of its founding 100 years ago, last week IBM produced a 2,592-word, four-page advertising insert that ran for just one day in the U.S. issues of the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and Washington Post.

Although few companies have the resources or courage to produce “old media” advertising on this scale, IBM’s Centennial insert embodies several important lessons for marketers at companies of all sizes and industries. Here are four take-aways:

  1. The message was well-targeted and on point. IBM was speaking primarily to investors, through the nation’s 3 most widely read daily publications. By pointing out that 100 shares of IBM stock purchased in 1915 would be worth $200 million today, the company was entitled to state that “90 day reporting cycles” are not IBM’s end game…a clear message to Wall Street analysts and institutional investors. Lesson for Marketers: Define your target audiences, reach them through appropriate channels and make your point clearly. Sounds like Marketing 101, but many ads are placed for prestige and ego rather than for impact, and it’s often a mystery what most advertisers are trying to accomplish.
  2. The layout accommodated all types of readers. IBM understands that most people are surface readers, focusing only on heads, subheads, graphics and captions. Although the body copy was 1,888 words in length, the ad’s layout accommodated those quick-scan readers with eye-catching and interesting graphics, and also cleverly footnoted each graphic element as a means to draw readers into the main text. Lesson for Marketers: Regardless of the medium, you have a nano-second to catch someone’s interest, and if you’re lucky enough to accomplish that goal, you have even less time to make your point. Don’t make people work to understand your message…because they won’t.
  3. The ad was part of an integrated campaign. This advertising insert served as one small part of a larger IBM strategy to leverage its 100th anniversary as a marketing asset. Other components of this well-structured campaign include a book; short films; colloquia, lectures and thought leadership forums; a dedicated website (www.ibm100.com), and 2.5 million hours of volunteer community service provided by IBM employees around the world. Lesson for Marketers: One-off tactics — even those conducted over periods longer than one day — seldom produce meaningful results. IBM’s marketing budget is larger than total revenue at most companies, but those companies can be just as smart as IBM, in terms of building marketing programs that are integrated and strategic, rather than a collection of tactics.
  4. Their appeal was honest and human. In addition to its longevity, IBM has much to brag about. But this ad was written with humility and sincerity, and did not appear self-serving or overly promotional. In fact, a prominent graphic in the ad featured 3 of the company’s “share of misses,” including IBM PCjr, its OS/2 operating system and its Prodigy online service. Lesson for Marketers: Copywriting style aside, and regardless of the tactic, it’s more powerful to present the evidence that supports your value proposition and let your audience draw its own conclusions, than it is to tell your audience how wonderful you are.

This advertisement is a reflection of IBM’s marketing craftsmanship, and suggests a bright outlook for their second century. In fact, you might consider purchasing 100 shares — currently trading at around $165 per share — for your grandchildren.

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