The Elephant Is Not Its Trunk — And other reasons to stop fooling yourself, and start marketing

An elephant is long, limber, and slightly tapered. Like a giant roll of cookie dough, but with fewer chocolate chips and a lot more muscles! And an insatiable appetite for peanuts!

Imagine somebody came up to you on the street and announced this proudly to you. 

What would you think of them? Let me take a guess:

First: Wow, ever heard of the Personal Bubble?  

Then: You’re absolutely, flipping, batshit insane. 

Am I right, or am I right?

Elephants are not their trunks. Or their cute little taily-wailies.

Everybody knows an elephant is not its trunk.

That mistake made by the hypothetical crazy person above—thinking that elephant == trunk—is what we call a category error. Specifically a category error of composition. That means taking a part of a thing—say, the trunk of an elephant—and assuming the whole thing is just like it—say, long, tubular, muscly and hungry for goober peas. 

Since we’re all geeks here, you probably knew that already. 

But even if you’ve never even heard of a logical fallacy, no doubt you have heard that charming old saw about the three blind men and the results of their elephant groping. Hint: it didn’t go so well.

And yet.

I can’t begin to tell you the number of  geeks I’ve met who make things, who say proudly that they don’t market, that they’re too pure to ever engage in that sleaze. 

This is not the whole picture. © Anderson Mancini

Maybe this is not you I just described. But maybe it is. 

Maybe it is and you don’t even know it. 

Maybe you’re nodding and smiling along with me here, feeling good about yourself for not making that mistake, but you still aren’t marketing your shit.

Sidebar: You’re probably fooling yourself. You’re probably doing it right now.

Maybe you’re fooling yourself. It’s pretty easy to do. I even think it’s easier to fool a geek—or geek, fool thyself—than other people. 

Geeks are used to being smart and thinking about things, so they assume that if they hold an opinion, there must be a smart and thoughtful reason for it. Everybody on the face of the planet does this little Post-Hoc Justification Dance a million times a day, but geeks are used to being proved right by outside circumstances. So they believe it even more than other people.

Take 1 whole person, subtract their selective smartness, and you’re left with selective dumbness. © CarbonNYC

Another popular geek belief is that, since they have a brain the size of a planet, if something doesn’t come easy to them, that something must be totally illogical and unlearnable—ergo, fruity and suspicious. 

Like design. And marketing. And remembering people’s names. 

Now, take these two false beliefs, mix them together in the same person, add a pinch of denial, and what you have is a recipe for FAIL.

Oh, design? I’m no good at that. I failed Art class because my teacher took exception to me pointing out that her grading formula was calculated incorrectly!

I simply cannot remember names because there’s no room left over in my head for such things, after all my deep thoughts. Please tattoo your name in binary on your forehead. It would make social interaction ever so much more functional.

Marketing? I haven’t got the faintest idea where to start. But only stupid people fall for marketing, and therefore if I marketed, I would only con stupid people. Or make people think I think they’re stupid. Therefore, it’s sleazy, and I’m excused from trying.

Drop that trunk—the real truth about marketing

So, marketing.

Are some kinds of marketing sleazy? Yes. 

Do you see where I’m going with the trunk metaphor and marketing? Yes, of course you do.

An elephant is not its trunk—and marketing is not made up solely of lying, scheming people with too many yellow highlighters and no paucity of exclamation points. 

Marketing is not…

Marketing is not made up of things that promise unachievable beauty, fame, and riches.

Marketing is not made up of snakeoil peddled to desperate people.

Marketing is not made up of sex used to sell the same old crappy vacuums, and social anxiety used to sell the same old crappy soap.

Marketing is not made up of made-up disorders, or Santa Claus.

The famous “Always a bridesmaid, never a bride” ad, with the invented disorder of halitosis

Marketing has those things in it, of course. But marketing is bigger than that. Those are just toes. Marketing is the whole elephant.

Marketing is YOU.

When you market, you get to choose how you do it. Honest marketer isn’t an oxymoron. I’m an honest marketer. 

Marketing doesn’t even have the goal of selling shit. Some marketing just tries to move as many units as possible, to any chump who’ll drop the dollars on it.

But some marketing tries super hard to ensure that the product appeals to people who will love it, and doesn’t appeal at all to people who will not. 

It goes beyond simple honesty, and says “This product is probably not for you.”

Marketing can be SUPPORT.

I create products to help people. To me, marketing is about support.  

I am not a twisted greenback version of The Incredible Hulk. I do not transform from the premise of I like to help people! to the premise of I am going to trick them into giving me money, wah ha ha!! when money is involved.

I firmly believe that I am selling things that will help people make their lives better. Even if it’s just a small part of their lives. Sometimes, making the product itself is an act of marketing, because—like with this article—I am trying to help people make themselves better, and to do that, I must persuade them.

So yes, I believe in marketing.

That doesn’t mean I get all weepy-eyed about it.

Marketing can be HONESTY.

Geeks tend to think that marketing is nothing but deception. I’ve argued here that it’s not, and I’ve explained the way I approach marketing. But I haven’t offered any proof. So here’s some for you.

I may talk about strangling kittens and unicorn tears on the sales site for our JavaScript performance book, but you know what? That’s not a gimmick. That’s how I write.

Honesty is the only policy. If you hate this, you won’t like our book.

I could have made it more palatable to the world at large, if I’d removed those lines from the sales page. Maybe I would have sold a few more copies (along with my soul). But I crafted the prose that way on purpose.

Here’s why:

If people don’t like reading about unicorn tears on the sales site, there’s no way they’re going to like the book. 

So I’m using marketing, and copywriting, as a form of disclosure. It sets up expectations, which will be met. It helps the potential customer decide. Whether they think that’s awesome, or awful, I’m happy. If they think it’s awful, they won’t buy, they won’t be disappointed, and I won’t have to field their angry emails.

Which is why, with about 1200 copies sold, only one person has complained about my ridiculous running jokes. 

Only one person has ever taken advantage of the 30-day refund.

And here I am, able to sit on my butt and wax about marketing to you, because I am so close to being able to make a living off helping other people kick ass.

So get out there & market.

That is the power of marketing.

It’s not a tube of muscly cookie dough. It’s not evil. It’s not deception. It’s not greed. It’s not easily reducible to any potentially hateful thing.

It’s a whole universe of possibility, and you decide what it will be for you.

Just please, for the love of all that is good, and for the love of any thing you might create which could make some little corner of the world better… don’t decide that what marketing is to you, is nothing.

Did this click with you? Then you’d probably enjoy my Year of Hustle Weekend Workshop. It’s gonna be awesome. If you can’t make it, maybe cuz I’m only telling you about it a couple days before, hold tight. This is hopefully the first of many. Or at least several.


  1. Alex Tingle says:

    You just tell yourself that so you can sleep at night.

    Sorry to burst your bubble, but there ARE no unicorns, just as there ARE no honest marketers.

  2. Adam Crum says:

    You know, I found your blog on a search for Ruby programming, and even though it wan’t very “programming-ish” I kept reading for your humorous intelligence. You speak how I think and I really enjoy that. This article is really how my mind works and seeing it in print really makes me feel like what I am attempting to do with my life is worthwhile. Thank you.

  3. Amy Hoy says:

    Alex, do you think that creating and selling products is inherently dishonest?

    If so, then you will always think that way about marketing. There’s no other way to be internally consistent to your beliefs.

    I’ll come out on the record here:

    I believe that (some) products can help people live happier lives.

    I’ve had many experiences where I’ve met someone at a conference, and the moment they my name they asked me “Can I hug you?” — because of the things I taught them with my writing and cheat sheets. Those are products, and I promoted them, even if they were free.

    I had one total stranger try to put $60 into my hand after a talk I gave at the first RailsConf, because, he said, I just saved him about 20 more hours of stress. (I told him he could buy me a slice of pizza instead.)

    Even when people cancel their Freckle time tracking accounts, they often send us emails saying how much they would have liked to keep using it, but they can’t for this reason or another.

    I’m sure all those people would be surprised to learn that you think that what I do is dishonest, and that, by implication, they’d been had.

    I understand treating commerce with suspicion, because, let’s face it, many people and businesses really are out to screw you. But that’s a great reason to promote, create, and patronize small businesses, where you can have a human relationship with the people behind them, and where they have a more direct guiding philosophy than a stockholders annual report.

  4. Rob says:

    Wow! And I really mean “Wow!”. That’s a terrific analysis of what marketing can be, when it’s used to best potential.

    I’m not “into marketing” but I have often tried to convince my wife, who produces self-designed knitting patterns and also writes/blogs/podcasts about Indian/South Asian cinema (think “Bollywood” and that’s the launching point, but it covers a much larger spectrum, just like not all North American movies are Hollywood blockbusters) that she needs to promote herself more in order to get the attention her work deserves.

    But like the geeks you mention, she sees marketing as Spawn From Hell, something that she just can’t bring herself to do. As a result, the quality of her work is under-appreciated (OK, so I’m a little biased… I disclosed above, right?) because she tells so few people about it, which means it goes undiscovered by a wider audience who might enjoy and benefit from her work.

    This is a great way to look at marketing from an objective point of view — some marketers and their tactics are, well, truly Spawn From Hell, but when done honestly and with the intention of bringing awareness to the people who would really benefit from the product/service being marketed, while warning off those who would just be disappointed or have no interest in it, you’ve shown that it can really Be A Good Thing.

    Bravo for a thoughtful, well articulated post!

  5. KevBurnsJr says:

    Marketing takes courage.

    If you believe that selling things to people makes you a scumbag its probably because you haven’t the balls to take responsibility for the mark your life has on this planet and work to make it into something meaningful. People who rage against something as neutral (and powerful) as the integrity of marketers are probably externalizing the shame they feel as a result of the nature of their life’s primary employment. Do yourself a favor and find something to do with your life that’s worth selling. Or don’t. You’d probably leave us all a lot better off if you just went for seppuku instead of spending your life pumping industrial waste into the environment and flaming people on the internet who are working hard to make the world a better place.

  6. A few years ago I was told that it’s actually easy to explain why young people have hard times remembering names once they get out of school – it’s because of how we’ve evolved. During the past thousands of years, communtities have been relatively small and most people can remember names of aprox 2500 people. however, growing up with lots of kids in school, numerous TV shows and characters, plus books, moovies, … eventually that “inherited” storage capacity is filled up.

    so, if you remember the name of most people you meet you’re either really good with names, or born before later 20th century, or simply have spent more time geeking than socializing/taking part of average media/soap opera consumption. ;-D

    i’m not sure about the demographics of this blog’s readers, but engineers tend to come from a scientific background, and scientists are usually (or were) told to present research and facts as clearly as possible. the evidence should speak (sell) for itself, no unicorns attached (unless needed as a metaphore). might be relevant, not sure.

    thanks anyway and it was great listening to you at 🙂

  7. […] slash7: “The Elephant Is Not Its Trunk — And other reasons to stop fooling yourself, and sta… […]

  8. Kaifer says:

    I agree with most of the points above, even the ones at odds with each other. The archetype of marketing comprises declaring yourself the new messenger of God and winning new followers. Written history tells us almost all of those who do so fall down the (extremely!) slippery slope of dishonesty. And yet, should we not hold faith that there might be so many more quiet, unsung heroes with maintained their integrity to the very end? Or is it that limelight (fame, publicity) is inherently toxic to the human soul?

    Realistically, an honest marketer is about as rare as an honest politician in these diseased times. But stepping up to the plate during times of leadership crises, wooing supporters, doing right are at the heart of any democratic society and within the capabilities of all responsible citizens.

    I think it comes down to whether one feels that the devil within is properly contained.

  9. Brent says:

    I love your writing. Especially when used to highlight the important issue of Post-Loadtime Unicorn Depression (PLUD).

    What’s the type used in your logo & ‘goodies’ heading? It’s fantastic.

  10. Alex says:

    Thank you for this thoughtful, yet accessible and witty post! I am a marketeer myself, of the “good” kind. I see my job in helping the Geeks express why they feel their software is so great, and help the customer see and decide for themselves whether they need it. I am a translator from Geek to human, if you like. Being traditionally greeted with mistrust by my own engineering colleagues is one of the persistent challenges of my everyday job. Thank you once again for posting this.

  11. Berthold says:

    Dishonest marketing is nothing but a scam dishonest agencies perform on honest producers.

    Sure, you may manage to squeeze a few unwilling customers through that don’t actually want your stuff and then deny them a refund. But in the long run, this kind of behaviour and the emotions and properties associated with it will come back to bite you in the ass. You may not even realise that at first, but you’ve been had. The marketing you did actually killed your chance at long term success.

    Now, some people will howl in anger at this because they either have been duped by said method or have no interesting product. If you have a product that nobody wants or needs, there is no point in marketing it, no matter how much you like it. Trying to force junk on people is the first step in getting screwed over by dishonest marketing.

    A good product deserves good marketing. This has been said before, but if you think your product isn’t doing something to improve the world, why are you producing it? If you are producing it and are convinced that it has a positive impact, why aren’t you telling more people about it?

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