Revealed: The Dirty Little Secret to Stealing Your Attention

A good magician never reveals their tricks. Why would they? They make too much money selling the illusion. It’s the bad magicians, the ones who can’t sell out venues, who don’t have the marketing and public relations savvy to become big stars, who usually end up making those “secrets revealed” exposes that were so popular in the late ’90s.

Think of me as a failed magician. I know the secrets, and I’m willing to share them with you right now. If you let me, I’m going to give you a very cynical way to look at the world. I’m not trying to sell a book that explores these ideas further. I just feel the need to put this out there so people can be aware.

Knowledge doesn’t equal awareness. You have to choose to be aware. You may choose to dismiss everything I’m about to write. You may think it’s too simple or flawed. That’s fair. But it’s free.

Want to know more? Then keep reading.

Believe it or not, successful magicians use the same tricks that successful writers, salesmen, marketers, news organizations, politicians, and even televangelists use: knowledge gaps.

I just used one to get you to click on on the read more button.

Once you understand what knowledge gaps are and how they work, you’ll see them used in a lot of places you’d never expect. Particularly in politics and religion.

Ah, politics and religion. The quickest way to make people mad, right? Hang with me, though, My goal isn’t to offend, but to give you a peek behind the curtain.

I’m not a successful writer. Not yet, maybe never. But one thing I do know about writing is the importance of creating an itch that will send readers flipping through page after page in order to scratch. Knowledge gaps are these itches.

Mostly, these knowledge gaps are used in successful marketing campaigns. In the late ’90s, when I was in college, one of the first successful online marketing organizations I ever ran across was called Double Your Dating. In the days before Facebook ads, I don’t even remember how I found out about Double Your Dating. However, I fit their demographic — male, heterosexual, single, with access to the internet — so naturally their ads targeted me.

I wasn’t studying marketing in college, that didn’t come until graduate school. But I noticed, even back then, that Double Your Dating started very simply. The only product was a book titled Double Your Dating. I don’t know how much it cost, but I’m thinking it was $20 or so. High, but not unreasonable. The ad copy promised to teach buyers the secrets of dating and having sex with beautiful women.

Here’s where the knowledge gap comes in: people who bought the book wanted to date and have sex with beautiful women, but they didn’t know how to. That was their gap. It existed before they clicked the ad, the ad just made them aware of it. What Double Your Dating did was promise to fill that knowledge gap with information that would allow readers to fulfill their desire.

Did the book do that? I never bought or read the book, but I would imagine that it provided a series of tips about how a man could get a woman’s attention and explanations as to why those tips work on a psychological level.

After being seeing ads for Double Your Dating for months, I noticed that the company started selling more than just the one book. They added a CD set of a workshop where the author would go in-depth into concepts explored in the book. Not long after that, there were two different CD sets. Eventually there were DVD sets and workshops and an online membership site where users could connect and trade stories, as well as receive exclusive content. The focus moved beyond simply dating and having sex with beautiful women to becoming a better man, to finding and fixing problems inside of one’s self and living a life of authenticity. It was quite a remarkable transformation, actually — from a commercial standpoint as well as a content standpoint.

How did Double Your Dating grow? The same way any good marketing organization grows. They filled the need they set out to, but they didn’t provide complete or comprehensive knowledge to fill their users’ knowledge gap. There was always more that their customers wanted or needed to know, so new products were added to fill those knowledge gaps.

To many people, this sounds dirty and underhanded. Really, it’s just marketing. What’s fascinating about Double Your Dating is that it was so successful from a marketing standpoint that it created an entire subculture of pick-up artists and competing products. Different gurus developed different methods that appealed to different men, and sold their own books and CDs and DVD sets. There was even a reality show on VH1 for a while titled The Pick-Up Artist, where the host “trained” a group of men how to date and have sex with beautiful women over the course of however many episodes it ran. As one might expect, the show itself was ridiculous and bizarre, but the fact a TV show was produced at all is a credit to the success of Double Your Dating.

Neil Strauss wrote an expose of the culture in his book, The Game. For a book about a bunch of men who taught other men how to seduce women, it was remarkably raw and honest about the culture and the lifestyle. What haunted me from reading The Game is how miserable these pick-up artists were, despite having the two things they thought they wanted most — a lot of money and the ability to date and have sex with beautiful women. In fact, there were even attempts to move beyond the dating and sex coaching into helping men find long-term relationships and marriage.

The dating guru fad either died or I finally aged to the point that the ads didn’t target me anymore. Honestly, I’m not sure which. After reading Strauss’s book and watching the TV show, the formula these gurus used seemed remarkably bland: get in shape, dress well, get a tan and a decent haircut, find drunk women at bars and buy them drinks, then show a genuine interest in their life. Almost anyone’s older brother or pervy uncle could have told them as much, for free. But these gurus made a lot of money packaging their brand of execution in such a way that it created an itch and promised to scratch it.

Why? Because they presented their product as a proven way to fill a knowledge gap.

Honestly, selling dating advice to lonely young men is pretty much the definition of grabbing low-hanging fruit. The customer already wanted the product, they were born with a biological drive for it. In other words, the itch was already there. Regardless of how one may feel morally about the venture, from a marketing perspective, this whole phenomenon was pretty much inevitable and right up there with pet rocks in the “Why didn’t I think of that before?” category.

What if I told you the itch could be manufactured? It can. Network news does this all the time.

Here’s how it works.

There’s a theory called Maslow’s hierarchy that pretty much everyone who has ever studied business or psychology in high school or college should be familiar with. We can argue about the accuracy of Maslow’s theory, but at a basic level, it works and has for generations. Humans have basic needs. We’re born with them. They’re programmed into us biologically, much like our sex drive. At a basic level, we need safety, we need food and water, we need shelter. Once we have these things, the most basic part of our brain can relax and let the next-level part take over: this part wants things like community, relationships. As each progressive part of the brain gets its needs met, another takes over, providing its own unique set of itches that need to be scratched. Low-level needs are basic and easy to define. Each level up, the needs get a little less defined until the highest level of the brain is allowed to provide it’s own fuzzy itch: self-actualization. This is the top of Maslow’s theory, the one that’s hardest to define and even harder to satisfy.

The whole thing works very much like a video game, where competing one level opens access to another level with its own unique challenges. Everyone starts at level 1, not everyone makes it to level 6. In fact, few do.

Have you ever wondered why a Hardee’s or Carl Jr’s television ad looks like softcore pornography? Because their marketers are exploiting these biological needs in order to connect their product with the viewer’s desire for sex and food. Yes, the tactic sparks outrage, but the commercials haven’t changed much in a decade or so. It must be working.

In order to manufacture an itch, one must only reframe the conversation in such a way that it appeals to one of these human psychological needs. Because low-level needs are so common, most marketing attempts to create knowledge gaps based around base needs.

That’s why cable news has become so dramatic, so emotional. Commentators make their political point-of-view seem as though it is a matter of life-or-death (appealing to safety needs). Whatever political party is in power, they’re constantly fighting unfair opposition from the other side.These commentators practically scream, “This country would be perfect if not for those guys, and if we can just get rid of those guys, everything will be perfect! But if those guys ever get into power, they’ll destroy everything you love. Now, I’m gong to give you information that will help you be smarter and more informed than anyone who tries to argue with you, so we can get those guys out of power and make everything perfect.”

The political pendulum swings back and forth, but for these commentators, there’s never a point where we’re safe. Even if one party controls both chambers of Congress and the White House, there’s always some threat looking to bring harm to America. And if you look at the way these news agencies promote their stories, they never present the whole picture. There’s always more to the story. Many times, it’s a multi-part report that spans several nights, so the viewer must keep tuning in to find out how “the other guy” is plotting to destroy their safety or financial security. These commentators promise to provide the power to keep your family safe and the knowledge to win any argument with anyone who doesn’t agree with you.

Even local news uses knowledge gaps to pull in viewers. Haver you ever been watching TV and seen a commercial where the announcer says something like, “Could this common household product kill your children and pets? Find out tonight at 11.” And, of course, if you love your children and pets, you’ll probably tune in to make sure you’re not going to kill them — because the commercial created an itch and promised to provide you with information that would fill your knowledge gap, but only if you tuned in to their newscast.

Remember, the point here isn’t a political argument, it’s the tactic of using knowledge gaps to steal people’s attention.

Sermon series have become popular with churches for this reason. If a preacher can start a 6-week series on an subject that people are passionate about, then those people are likely to come to church for everyone of those 6 weeks in order to hear the information they’re desperate for. Maybe it’s a series on “What the Bible says about healing your marriage” or “How to find purpose and vision for your life.” Whatever it is, once the series starts, it creates an itch for those interested — they’ll hang on to every word, they may even buy CD sets or download podcasts so they can listen again and again.

Religion is interesting in that it appeals to safety needs (the idea of heaven or hell) as well as self-actualization needs (how to be a better person, how to give value to the world). However, self-actualization can be commercialized without religion.

Self-actualization is not a great way to market hamburgers, but I would argue that Apple, Inc., has marketed itself into the world’s largest brand by appealing to self-actualization. Almost all of Apple’s advertising asks one of these same question:

1) What can I create with an Apple product?
2) What can I experience with an Apple product?
3) What dull / boring tasks become easier with an Apple product?

Subconsciously, what Apple is selling is escape from the mundane things that prevent its users from being self-actualized. The iPhone is simple, you don’t have to waste a lot of time figuring out how to use it. The iPad is powerful like a computer but you don’t have to learn how to use a computer to use one. Macs are powerful and get out of the way so the digital artist can focus on art instead of the mechanics of using a computer.

Now, keep in mind, this is what the ads sell — the idea that life is better with Apple technology. Compare that to other technology companies, whose marketing focuses on the specific traits of their newest device: a better camera, a bigger screen, a cheaper price, a more robust user experience.

At a technical level, Apple’s products are typically outdated before they hit the market. Companies like Samsung, HP, and even Microsoft are offering much more impressive technology at a lower price. People who don’t “get” Apple often become visually agitated when someone suggests that they buy an iPhone or a Mac. It’s even been described as a cult.

Why do consumers pay as much, if not more, for products that are outdated when they hit the shelf? In part, because of the proprietary software Apple products use is preferred by most of its users. But don’t underestimate the appeal of Apple’s marketing, because Apple appeals to their users’ self-actualization in a way that no other company does.

This is the same reason pickup trucks are advertised using images of construction work or cowboys. Pickup trucks have become a vehicular expression of masculinity because marketers have created the pick up truck itch for American men. The bigger the truck, the more powerful its engine, the more weight it can haul, the manlier the truck is perceived. For decades, truck advertising has subconsciously asked the viewer if they’re man enough to drive one of these pickups.

Many times the knowledge gap marketers create is, “What would my life be like if I had this product?” It doesn’t matter if that product is a truck or an iPad or an informational class. This type of marketing appeals to the idea that life can be different, but to find out how it can be different, we have to try the product. It can be something as simple as a movie that promises 2 hours of laughs or thrills or excitement, an escape from boredom. Or it could be a class that promises you a six-figure income (or more!) after you pay the small price of $1500.

This is often called lifestyle marketing. Any time a marketer asks the question, “What will your life be like after X, Y, or Z happens?” they’re creating a knowledge gap based on possibility and potential for a different lifestyle. Sometimes the products themselves promise to be the gateway to a new lifestyle. Apple markets their smartwatch as a device that facilitates an active lifestyle, making the subtle promise that its owners will be more active, more fit, and happier.

That’s what Double Your Dating did as well, promising the ability to connect with another human — although short term

People get mad at marketers. They don’t trust marketers. A lot of this negativity is because they feel tricked. We’ve all been tricked by marketing. We’ve all paid money from some product under the assumption that it would fill in a knowledge gap only to find it barely scratches the surface of what we thought it would do.

Call me jaded. Even though I know how these things work, I still fall for it. Every time there’s a new iPad or MacBook, every time I see an ad for a new truck or the big new movie release. Heck, every time I see a new Kindle, I think to myself, “If I had that, I would read way more — it’s an investment in myself”. I mean, seriously, how much different is one Kindle from the next? And yet I fall for it.

This blog post barely scratches the surface, but hopefully it got your wheels turning. I you want to read more, I highly suggest Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator by Ryan Holiday. Holiday is a business coach and former marketing director for American Apparel. He’s probably most well known for two books he’s written: Ego is the Enemy and The Obstacle is the Way. However, Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator is probably his most powerful work, a phenomenal bok that goes into great detail about how mainstream media is coerced by those with an agenda. If you’re really interested in the idea of knowledge gaps and how they can be used to steal our attention, get his book.

Oh, and I just used a knowledge gap again. I’m sneaky like that, what can I say?

Also published on Medium.