On a spur of the moment, I decided to take my family to the local county fair this past week. What a riot! I grew up in Ohio and the Ohio State Fair was always a highlight of the summer. It was like a great finale at a fireworks show – loud, brilliant, colorful, oh, yeah, and LOUD! County fairs, while smaller cousins of state fairs, do have most of the same flavors, adrenalin pumping rides, and mix of oddities, some even behind a carny’s stage. Among the oddities was a marvelous marketing story.
Generally, the fair was a rousing success. The boys loved it. Mom loved it, and I got to eat some of the world’s most amazing food, nudge, nudge, wink, wink. (the food was incredible, to be sure, but your heart and veins can only take a few bites…at most.) The boys loved everything and did not want to leave. And while we could have spent the next five years at the bumper cars, one other item followed us home.
“She’s a LIVE woman, and her fingernails grow…”
Yes, the bizarre sideshow attractions so familiar to all who have ever attended a fair, of almost any size. ‘The amazing headless woman.’ Marketing strategy. Set the stage…the midway has a ‘pay-per-ride’ business model that is supported by the purchase of paper tickets or a one-size-fits-all band you can wear on your wrist. (BTW. The no brainer option is the wrist band. You don’t learn that it takes up to 10 tickets to ride the best rides until you’ve stood on line for 15 minutes. By then it’s too late to trade in your ‘I’ll never use 10 ride tickets’ bundle you bought.) Anyway, the rides are great and you can use your wrist ban for just about everything on the midway. Everything except “The Headless Woman,” or the “World’s Largest Rat.” These require an additional payment. $1 and $5 respectively. (Side note, as my wife asked, what does it say about our culture that a “headless woman” is worth $1, while the “world’s largest rat” is worth $5? But more on that later.)
The interesting part about these standbys of American fairs is not their existence, or even the content behind the screen. The amazing part is the resonance they generate without your even being aware. Here’s the deal. You are chasing six-year-olds around the midway, trying to maintain a level of parental judgment over them as they bounce from scary-looking carny to even scarier looking carny. Your attention is totally consumed, and your bandwidth for new information is simply maxed out. Too many lights, noises and attention-grabbing spectacles to take in even one more message. And yet, when you leave the park, and you’re in the safety of your own car, the boys are just about to nod off, as you watch the glowing taillights of the stopped car in front of while you wait for the traffic cop to wave you out of the field-parking lot. It is not the wonderful image of your family rising high about the pageant in the silent rotation of the giant Ferris wheel at sunset. It is not the sounds of the screams of joy over smashing into another human being in a bumper car. It is not the smells of the fried dough and funnel cakes, (although, this is a close second). The thing that stayed with me as I was leaving the park, and then throughout the next week!
“She’s a live woman.” “Her fingernails grow.”
The headless woman. The barker had supplanted my otherwise wonderful memories with his incredibly repetitious and loud message, enticing us to witness the awesome wonder of a living woman with no head. Now why would I wish to witness that? What could possibly interest me? Nadda. Ziltch. Nope! So why then, is that impression so strongly resident? Well, we know that answer. Repetition. And pretty effective copy-writing. The reality for the carny barker is that in order to be heard and seen, they have to be louder, brighter and generally, more annoying than everything else around them, just to be noticed. Wait a minute, does this sound like SPAM email? Like TV commercials? Like so much annoying advertising we see every single day? Yes. and…
…the lesson learned from this message-blaster? While I can recall aspects of the communication, my impression is not one of love, attraction, and desire. Instead, it is of repulsion, annoyance and tedium. I am angry, in fact, that this memory is stronger, at some levels, than the image of my boys gleefully skipping from ride to ride. From funnel cake to fried dough. No, the “Live Woman” outlasts them all. And as annoying and ‘memory-blasting’ as this barker’s message was/is, did he succeed in making the sale? He barely even got a rise out of my boys. Yes, they were intrigued once or twice as the passed by the stage, but in the end, they do not remember her, other than that insidious repetitive line about the “Live woman.” They can’t really even recall what the thing was about, or even where it was in relation to the other rides and things at the fair. It did not rise to a level of true memory. It is just an annoying artifact of the noise-scape that made up the overall environment.
To-be generous, I am aware the “business-model” of such attractions relies on patrons paying an extra fee to see the spectacle. And they need only a fraction to make their take. But… from a marketing perspective, this loud, annoying, repetitive blasting did what? For most people, it just annoyed the **** out of them. For others, it is just part of the background. Its effectiveness is wasted effort. Like so much of our over-saturated mediated lives, this carny barker leaves us underwhelmed, lacking desire and ultimately, dismissive of the product/service. Marketing is about more than simply blasting away at our senses until we relent. Marketing should be Marvelous. It can inspire. It can alter desire, opinion, and even, yes, help sell a product or service.
Oh, and no, we did not pay the $5 for the rat or the $1 for the “Live Woman.”
So what is your favorite Marvelous Marketing story?