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By: Jay Acunzo on March 23rd, 2018

Smug Shrugs: How Crappy Marketers Justify Craptastic Tactics

This is an excerpt from the weekly Unthinkable Mondays newsletter: one new story or idea for being better than best practices. Subscribe here.

Ever encounter an awful attempt at winning your attention or loyalty that you immediately and viscerally hate? (“Wait, Jay, from marketers? Never!”)

You’re right, it’s impossible, but suspend your disbelief so I can dramatically conclude this newsletter with a pithy point about being better than crappy business practices. So, just imagine….

  • Imagine adding someone on LinkedIn as a connection only to receive their email newsletter, unprompted, the very next day.
  • Imagine receiving a brutally salesy or inhumanely cheery comment on Instagram or a reply on Twitter from a brand. (Imagine it happened bizarrely fast and oddly specific to the hashtag you just used.)
  • Imagine eagerly clicking on a link or image promising some delicious new content “for free,” only to realize that — whoopsies! — you have to pay with 15 pieces of personal information required on a forced form.
  • Imagine getting four “just following up” emails from a pushy sales person. (Imagine there’s no unsubscribe at the bottom, too.)

Just imagine encountering any of the myriad tone-deaf, blunt-instrument, shortsighted, hackish (I get it, Jay, move on) tactics used by thousands of companies out there today. It’s so easy to tell when something is despicable, isn’t it? It’s like a knee-jerk reaction, one you can’t control. You instantly and involuntarily recoil and maybe even feel a little sick to your stomach, like a bad smell just hit you in the nose. (It was the dog, I swear.)

So WHY, when it’s so obvious when stuff like that is so terrible, do so many people continue to do these kinds of things?

I mean, lots of reasons. There’s never a single explanation for a widespread problem, c’mon, pay attention, get with the program, get up to speed, get woke, get–(GOOD LORD HOW MUCH COFFEE HAVE YOU HAD TODAY, JAY?)

All the coffees. I’ve had all the coffees. But I’ve also had all I can take of something else: smug shrugs.

Smug shrugs protect the hucksters from assuming any responsibility. Smug shrugs help them sleep at night, hanging upside down, wings wrapped around themselves (obvi). Smug shrugs are a shield, a way to push back on the pushback. Smug shrugs are a pedestal, a way to lay claim to their unspoken belief that results and “growth” matter more than integrity and empathy.

“Hey, how could you keep doing that? Aren’t you worried people don’t like it?”

¯\_(ツ)_/¯ <— (Smug shrug.) “Eh, it’s what works.”

Ugh. People who smug shrug need a punch to the mug.

Ask yourself: Have you ever smug shrugged? Have you ever justified an action in your work that you know others won’t like by claiming it’s “what works.” Have you ever pointed to a best practice, or a boss, or a client, or a number you had to hit, and used THAT as justification for your actions?

As keynote speaker and author Scott Stratten likes to say, “Your integrity is not a renewable resource.” (Well, he’s Canadian, so it’s more like “RE-zource.”) What’s your integrity worth? What is worth pissing off other people? Maybe your results? Your promotion? Your financial gain? Do we shrug and claim we’re breaking eggs to make an omelette? To me, the smug shrug logic feels more like a chicken running around with its head cut off entirely. When we smug shrug, we don’t think for ourselves. We outsource the ownership of our integrity … to whatever “works.”

Here’s something else that works: If your company is full of ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ …find a new company.

Don’t let the ends justify a shitty means. When an audience recoils like they smelt it, don’t admit you’re the one who dealt it. That’s a fart joke, people, this must be SERIOUS BUSINESS. Oh, right, it’s not. It’s marketing. It’s business. And that’s why removing smug shruggers from your career makes all the sense in the world. The ends absolutely do not justify the means when those means are mean. Or tone-deaf. Or spammy. Or annoying. Or abhorrent.

Deep in your bones, I know you feel it when things break that way. Now I’m asking you to act on that feeling. You get one life. How do you want to live it? You have one career. How do you want to build it?



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Founder of Marketing Showrunners, host of 3 Clips and other podcasts and docuseries about creativity, and author of Break the Wheel. I’m trying to create a world where people feel intrinsically motivated by their work. Previously in content marketing and digital strategy at Google and HubSpot and VP of brand and community at the VC firm NextView. I write, tinker, and speak on stages and into microphones for a living. It’s weird but wonderful.

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