"Marketing" vs. Reality

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

A news story about Greg Ackelrod, an events promoter who very nearly got hired as a player by a major professional football club got me thinking about con men this morning...

Every time I hear about some particularly clever crime, my next thought is always something like, "If he'd only put half this much imagination into actual work, he'd have found real, lasting success and avoided trouble completely." The movie, Catch Me if You Can, based on the life of Frank Abagnale, Jr., perfectly illustrates what I mean, but success did not come to young Mr. Abagnale until he'd been caught and made to pay the price for what he did. Why?

In part, it's because Abagnale had to learn the hard way that his own interests were best served by trading with others, versus fooling them long enough to steal from them. (And then, incidentally, hoping others he wanted to trade with later didn't know whom they were dealing with.) Among the many different ways a con man stacks the deck against himself, the problems his way of obtaining what he needs to survive pose in dealing with others are legion. These are easy enough to see, even for many altruists, and stem from the very nature of lying as a war on reality and the fact that doing so makes one dependent on the stupidity of others. The entire universe is quite a formidable adversary, especially when the supply of stupidity dries up at some inopportune time.

But that's not all. The analysis of most altruists would begin and end with the above paragraph, but a morality of egoism makes it easier to see just how badly the con man swindles himself. The above is bad enough, but what does a con man have to do to his own mind to become really effective at tricking other people?

He has to attempt to integrate his efforts every day around the man-made rather than the metaphysical. That is, his primary concern isn't, "How do I solve some real problem," but "How do I fool 'em this time?" This expedient attitude is an enemy of conceptual thought, long-range planning, and a mind-frame consonant with the trader principle, by which civilized men deal with one another. Other people have different weaknesses. Even if one con works, people catch on. There is no way to build a long-term relationship with anyone who has been fooled (or knows you've fooled someone else) nor is there a constructive end around which one integrates his thinking or skills. Imagine the kind of work someone like this will turn in were you to plop him down in a normal job and a problem crops up that requires concentration and teamwork. The con man thus cripples his own mind. Furthermore, since emotions are automatized reactions to deeply integrated value-judgments, the damage occurs both conceptually and psychologically.

Catch Me if You Can dramatized the psychological damage con men do to themselves quite well. Abagnale starts his work catching criminals like himself under very close supervison, and he is strongly tempted to return to the world he knew when the opportunity to do so presents itself. Psychologically, Frank Abagnale still craves the thrill of tricking people again as against such values as satisfaction with a job well done and friendship.

So what about Greg Ackelrod? He thinks his stunt will prove his value as a marketer. "In terms of marketing, I am someone very, very valuable." Sure. If only playing it loose with facts were any way to build a loyal customer base... Any potential employer who doesn't inspect this guy with a fine-toothed comb before taking him on is playing a stunt of his own.

-- CAV


Mike said...

Yes! I caught "Catch Me If You Can" on cable a few weeks ago and thought exactly the same thing: Why is Abagnale wasting his time on these cons! OK, we get it, you were young and immature and needed to play with fire for a while -- it's a phase. But a person who can pass the Louisiana bar exam on two weeks' study? That person needs to set aside all the bullcrap and go forth to practice law. Because that kind of legal mind could be the next Clarence Darrow. And last I heard, you could make some money in that profession. Enough to avoid the breadline, even.

The first Objectivist that I knew locally was a guy who never seemed to have much success in life or career. In point of fact, he was kind of a walking disaster and I wasn't sure this Objectivist thing was for me if that was the ruin it had brought HIM to! I came to realize that he had already shrugged to some degree and wasn't exactly trying very hard -- when set to a task he WANTED to do, he was amazingly adept. But I always remembered his four-word summation of how to live as an Objectivist: "Don't lie to yourself."

That pretty much runs the gamut, too. He nailed it. When I hear a person "testify" that they heard the voice of God, I know they are lying to themself. When I read an article about how Obamacare is going to work and why, I know the author is lying to himself. And the con man is no exception. Without lying to himself, he can never project the kind of authenticity it takes to sell his role to his mark... or to keep selling it, when that becomes necessary afterward.

Gus Van Horn said...


The bar exam is slightly fictionalized: It took him three tries and eight weeks. But still!

You bring up a couple of worthwhile, somewhat related points.

(1) Why not "come clean" and do law back then? In part, as happened at his law job, the dishonest way he got in -- lying about attending Harvard -- was coming back to haunt him. But there's a big difference, too between passing a licensing exam and practicing a profession. AND his mind was not really prepared to do the work anyway.

(2) I am sure the world is full of people who tragically resemble your friend. Tragically, between the Scylla of being shaped by a corrosive culture and the Charybdis of an increasingly un-free political milieu, those who aren't internally thwarted often find themselves victims of circumstance, vice versa, and every combination in between. fault of their own.

How are (1) and (2) related? I think our culture does to many people what a life of crime does to a criminal. People lack the experience, psychological makeup, and even the rudiments of the philosophy necessary to succeed in life. This likely affects almost everyone to greater or lesser degrees, and to varying extents across different spheres of their lives.


Gus Van Horn said...

Erratum: Ignore the "fault of their own" above.

Doug Reich said...

Very interesting post. Couple thoughts.

Psychologically, I wonder how much of this "thrill" of the con-man follows from a sense of not just "tricking people" but a sense of the power to control reality itself? Such a feeling could temporarily at least give one the sense of a kind of metaphysical comfort wherein they can make something out of nothing...kind of a metaphysical alchemist

Another thought: this idea that good marketing entails deceit is so prevalent. It must stem in part from the idea that capitalism is exploitative which derives further from morality of altruism, i.e., any self-interested act is necessarily evil or suspect..."it's all a rat race..." On this view, the "good" marketer is the one who can exploit or manipulate the best.

Gus Van Horn said...



On to your points...

(1) I think that some element of "controlling reality" through other people is certainly part of the "thrill" con men feel. Thanks for bringing that up.

This would make such thrills tempting to recovering con artists until they develop a sufficient reserve of self-confidence dealing with reality to not feel the need to do that again.

(2) Yes. I have also noticed that marketing (and salesmanship, too, to a certain extent) are infected with the idea that deceit is part of the game. I think this has some roots in the common misconception of capitalism you name, the common misconception of egoism as predation, and pragmatism as doing whatever "works" in the short run.


Jim May said...

This is a great post, it really lays bare the psychology of shysters like Nathaniel Branden -- OOPS, I mean Frank Abagnale Jr.

Gus Van Horn said...

Hey, watch it! You're dangerously close to insulting a man who admitted the error of his ways and changed.