The Difference Between Clever Versus Deceptive Marketing

This is a funny sign outside a coffee shop and brunch venue called Cafe Grind in New York City.

The copy itself is standard: “Free WiFi, cold beer.”

If the words were given equal visual weight, this would be a normal sign. It’s the emphasized size of certain words that causes you to read the sign as “Free beer” — until you get closer.

The sign is refreshing, simple, and well-executed.

For marketers who are inspired to try something similar, it’s important to realize that there’s a difference between cleverness and bait-and-switch. The latter makes people feel stupid for trusting you, and you don’t want to betray a customer like that.

So why does this ad work? Why does it make people laugh? Why don’t people feel lied to?

Because free beer is almost universally too good to be true. So customers will chuckle sheepishly at themselves for getting their hopes up. They realize that few, if any, establishments would offer free beer with no strings attached — so they can’t possibly blame this cafe for not offering it. They can only laugh at themselves for momentarily believing such an outrageous promise.

The key is that the “baited” promise that you offer has to be outrageous enough that customers will immediately realize that it’s crazy and can’t blame you for not offering it.

The realization has to be immediate, otherwise customers will feel foolish. If you have the customers walk in and sit down or order a beer before a barista tells them the punchline of the joke, they will feel like they wasted their positive feelings on you. They will feel like losers for actually beileving you and be embarrassed that the barista is judging them. Then they will hate you and rightly so.

Another reason that this ad works, is that after being mildly disappointed by the lack of free beer, customers are then pleasantly surprised by the free Wifi. The brands says, of course we won’t give you X, but we will give you Y, which you value.

For cafe-goers, free WiFi isn’t taken for granted. It’s a benefit that people  appreciate. This means that the joke ends on a positive note and helps the cafe stand out among the hundreds of similar cafes you walk by every day.

If you are unsure whether your messaging will be interpreted as clever or deceptive, err on the side of caution.

Ask yourself:

Is the baited promise that I’m offering so outrageous that customers will immediately realize their naivete upon seeing the true message?

Will they hold it against me for not offering the feature/benefit, or will they understand that it’s not reasonable to offer it?

Would a competitor possibly offer the baited promise, but in seriousness? 

Does this type of clever marketing fit with my brand? Or will it be jarring because the customer isn’t used to a snarky approach from us?

People notice brands with a distinctive voice, and wit is just one attribute that a brand can have. Decide how far you want your marketing to push the limit in a way that helps you stand out while supporting your core brand identity.

Photo credit: Doug Suda