Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Whaddya know. I wrote a self-help book after all.

A few weeks ago I received what is surely the most cynical email I've gotten in response to SHAM—though not "cynical" in the way you're probably thinking. In the email, you see, an individual whom we'll call Pat admits to having found great and unexpected utility in my book: Apparently, Pat* and spouse, who together run a thriving dermatology practice, are using the book as a road map to perpetrating SHAM-based marketing methods on their unsuspecting customers.

"I haven't finished your book yet," Pat writes, "but the first 120 pages gave me a lot of ideas to put into action. And they all seem to be working... Your book helps me understand and profit from [today's pop culture]. What used to annoy and frustrate me now makes me money."

Pat does provide an alibi/disclaimer of sorts. Noting that self-help methodology, like any philosophical system, can be "used for good or evil," Pat writes, "I would like to think that my spouse's medical practice uses it for a good purpose. ('Pay attention to your skin. Don't die from anything as curable as skin cancer.')" However, Pat continues, "And when you get middle-aged women paying attention to their skin, they're not just checking moles; they focus in on wrinkles and signs of aging. We can fix that, too, but it's all out of pocket. So the middle-aged woman will whip out the gold card if she feels empowered: She's taking control of her skin! How thrilling! How lucrative!"

These days, Pat tells me, patients "get one of two messages: you are a victim; or you are empowered. We are tapping into the feelings of guilt and vanity of Baby Boomers and their parents.... Older patients are 'Victims of Skin Cancer' while the Boomers are 'Empowered to Take Care of Their Skin Issues' (Botox, wrinkle fillers, skin care products). Put another way, the medical side of the practice sells results while the cosmetic side sells hope." And since "Botox and wrinkle fillers wear off in 4 months—talk about built-in 'failure and stagnation**,' " Pat observes that "your past customer is also your future customer. Gravity doesn't take a vacation. And they're OK with that. They book the 4-month follow-up on their way out the door."

As for the "ancillaries," Pat explains, again invoking SHAM, "The stuff we sell is only available through plastic surgeons and dermatologists, and everything is part of a 'package' or 'system'... They don't want just the sun screen; they want the system with the moisturizer, cleanser, foundation and sun screen," all of it at profit margins that "would make local crack dealers take pre-med classes." Indulging what I think is a quick flight of fancy, Pat says, "Now if I could come up with a website (for paying members) that tracked that member's local weather forecast, including UV index rating, humidity, temperature and maybe the pollen count, the computer could customize the type of moisturizer, sun screen SPF and the like to be worn that day.... Would anybody pay for a 'Personal Skin Care Coach'?"

In the course of all this, Pat and spouse have noticed firsthand what seems to be one of the defining traits of the SHAMscape: that "a big chunk of our affluent population will pay real money for the most banal, obvious advice. How can our population be so affluent and yet so damn helpless?... Who can resist not trying to get in on the action?" Pat illustrates: "A female executive came in as a patient on Friday. This woman can slit throats in the board room... Yet she's scared silly of [people thinking she's getting old], so she came in for Botox, wrinkle fillers and hope-in-a-jar cosmetics ('cosmeceuticals')." The woman left the office with a substantially lighter wallet, but "on an emotional high that rivals a spiritual awakening. After reading SHAM, we now know how to market to her; what her expectations are; and how to make her feel fulfilled."

"Where," Pat later asks mordantly, "does the current (ahem) legitimate practice end and the joke begin? So SHAM has 'helped' grown adults 'get in touch with their feelings'? Hey, I've got a 3-year-old kid who's in touch with his feelings! SHAM has turned adults into children, and then it tries to turn them into adults again—collecting money on both ends of the trip. Wow."

Rousing to a finish, Pat offers an intriguing sociological observation that echoes what I say in my epilogue (quoting a former student) about my book being akin to "a work of anthropology": "Is it ridiculous to suggest plotting the revenue of SHAM against the growth in disposable income generated by women? At least on the Empowerment side? I think the timelines are similar." And finally: "Your book is about much more than the [self-help movement]. It's about modern America. A poor country could never support such an industry.”

God how I wish I'd said such things in SHAM!

* I'm using the androgynous "Pat," a la those old SNL skits, in further protection of the individual's identity, which "Pat" requested. For similar reasons, I have made minor edits and cuts in the text that was originally provided to me via email.
** an apparent reference to my observation, on page 7 of SHAM, that "failure and stagnation are central to all of SHAM. The self-help guru has a compelling interest in not helping people."


Anonymous said...

Steve, funny you should write this, because I told you a long time ago, you should've recast the idea for SHAM as a how-to; maybe a "getting the best out of what self-help has to offer" concept. You would've found a much larger natural audience, and probably still could've gotten your points across anyway. And I think the media, which is to say the BIG media, would've jumped all over it.

If you think about it, you'll know who this is, too.

Steve Salerno said...

I gotta be honest, there are many days when I look at the money some of these folks are raking in, and I wouldn't mind having some of it; I've admitted this on the blog, before. But I didn't go into writing to make money, per se. (Good thing, too.) I went into it as a labor of love, and an intellectual exercise, as it were. That remains true today.

And yes, I know who it is. Hope all's well, P-- .

a/good/lysstener said...

It's probably me because it's been a long day, but I must honestly say this is the first time I really had trouble following your blog. I've read it a couple of times and I'm still not exactly sure what these people are doing with SHAM, which is to say your book?

Could you clarify for the benefit of those of us who are exhausted after a 14 hour day, or maybe just pathetically dense? :)

Steve Salerno said...

What I'm saying here, Alyssa (and anyone else who's exhausted or "pathetically dense," wink), is that this couple is reading between the lines of my book and learning how to use the very marketing strategies that I describe (and criticize) in SHAM as a means of expanding their business (i.e. their dermatology practice). That is not quite the result I hoped for in writing the book; I actually had hoped to expose and illuminate the strategies and tactics for America-at-large, so that consumers could DEFEND themselves against such overtures. I did not expect a whole new flock of SHAMprenreurs to embrace the book as a primer in "how to pitch gullible consumers"!

Mr. Spin said...

Ya' know. I took your book as a serious piece of investigative reporting, not even thinking about reading between the line like the good skin doctor has.

I think it's time to knock the dust off the cover and crack the spine of SHAM for a second read.

You should keep use abreast of the good doctor's tactics or anti-tactics.

Steve Salerno said...

Keep you "abreast"? Rodg, Rodg; have you forgotten that long-ago discussion about groaners? ;)

Cosmic Connie said...

What is really sad is that Pat, and I am assuming Pat's spouse as well, seem to have such a condescending attitude towards the patients -- in particular, the baby boomers, who, after all, are responding to the doc's aggressive marketing efforts. I would hope that all doctors don't hold the people who are their bread and butter in such apparent low regard.

Yet Pat does have some good points, especially when s/he says your book is about modern America as much as it is about the self-help movement. "A poor country could never support such an industry.” (This, of course, still leaves room for SMART but non-poor countries, such as Canada, that haven't embraced the SHAM industry with such fervor.)

C said...

Speaking of American values, did you see Bill Moyer's new PBS show today "Bill Moyer's Journal". The first episode "Buying the War" was about how the media failed to defend Americans against false information leading to the war in Iraq. It was a resounding call for good journalism and for Americans to value truth, not group think. Even after it was proven that Iraq was not linked to 9/11, many Americans still believe it to be true. In the program there was an extremly SHAM relevant comment from Phil Donahue. Bill Moyers asks Donahue, "What does that say to you, that dissent is unpatriotic". Danahue responds, "Well, not only unpatriotic, but it's not good for business." We Americans, in our desire to make money, have left behind our committment to truth as a primary value. The battle for common sense is lost. Truth and dissent to group think is bad for business. Easy solutions sell. If the truth is unpopular, damn the truth. Go with what feels good and sells. As a culture we value money more than truth, fame more than truth, happiness more than truth. The people that exploit these cultural facts by selling get rich quick schemes, victimization, emporwerment, sportsthink, or the latest fad of the day like "The Secret" are simply seeking profit from a public that is unwilling to seek the truth. If money is so easy to pick from the pubic tree there will be any number of takers, some more slickly packaged than others, some more "good" and spiritual than others. But in the end, it's still exploiting an unfortunate cultural fact to make money for oneself and one's family. Unfortunately, Steve, not everyone is committed to work that seeks truth as a labor of love. They seek other means of making money. Right now, the SHAM landscape provides fertile ground. I'm not saying it's good or right, in fact I think it's wrong, but it's not illegal in most all cases. I applaud your committment to truth and good journalism. I only wish that we as a culture valued truth more than money.

Steve Salerno said...

Well...though I don't think the political realities here are quite as clear-cut as you make them out to be--certainly they're not as clear-cut as people like Donahue and Rosie make them out to be-- I do agree with you on one thing: Politics and truth parted company a long time ago. American politics is, and for some time has been, all about marketing, about "the package" and "the message" (i.e., message as distinct from anything anybody really intends to do, once he or she reaches office). It just seems to have gotten worse of late because of the ascendancy of global media and all of the various independent, alternative media (e.g. YouTube) that allow a candidate to individualize and infinitely segment that all-important message.

Looks like the other side is poised to sweep in, and fully take the helm, in 2008. We'll see what they can do.