During the fall semester of my senior year in high school (1974), a group of girls from my class got together and organized several dances. The dances were in the school cafeteria and occurred after the football games. I attended the first dance with a couple of my friends.
The only boys who were dancing were the ones who had girlfriends, and a few stragglers who didn’t know how to dance, but got out on the dance floor anyway and did stupid things to get attention, like roll around on the floor and bounce around on their bellies like they were dolphins jumping in and out of the water.
The rest of the boys who attended the dance were lined up against the walls of the cafeteria visiting with each other and watching what was occurring on the dance floor. I was one of those boys. Most of the girls who didn’t have boyfriends got up and danced with each other.
About halfway through the evening, I looked at one of my friends and said, “We need to ask some girls to dance and get out on the dance floor and have some fun.” He replied that he wasn’t ready to dance yet. I responded by saying, “We didn’t come here to stand around and watch everybody else have a good time. Come on, let’s get out there and have some fun.”
He responded by saying, “I don’t know how to dance.” I replied, “I don’t either, but it doesn’t matter. Nobody’s going to be looking at us while we’re dancing. They’re all worried about how they look on the dance floor. All their attention is focused on themselves. So come on. If they can do it, we can do it.”
He refused to cooperate with me, so I walked over to a girl and asked her to dance. She said yes. I danced the rest of the evening, while my friends continued to stand around and watch. After that, I went to several of the other dances and danced while most of my male classmates stood around and watched everyone else have a good time.
At that first dance, even though I didn’t know there was a name for what I did, I committed “image suicide.” I didn’t know what image suicide was until sometime during the late 1980s when I read about it in a newsletter that was published by a marketing genius by the name of Gary Halbert. In one of his monthly newsletters, Halbert wrote the following:
Please allow me to explain this concept and I think you’ll then understand why it’s such an important idea. Question: What group of professionals has the highest rate of suicide (real suicide) in the U.S.? Answer: Psychiatrists.
Why? Well, first off, most psychiatrists are nutso anyway but that’s not the entire story — You see, shrinks are supposed to have all the answers. Therefore, if a psychiatrist breaks down sobbing and confesses he can’t control his life, that action will be devastating to his image as a great, all-knowing father figure to whom you can trust your deepest and darkest thoughts and feelings.
And so, rather than destroy his image, he literally destroys himself!
Really. Literally. For real.
Now, let’s talk about how this relates to marketing. One of the groups I addressed most recently is PIMA, which stands for Professional Insurance Mass Marketers Association. There are many good people in that organization. But boy, are they ever being shortchanged by the people who do their creative work. In fact, of all the groups I’ve addressed over the last 15 years, I believe their direct mail may be the very worst I’ve ever seen. What’s particularly awful, is they are selling a rather sophisticated financial product, yet their mail looks like it was put together by a carnival barker.
Conversely, many members of PIMA are difficult to enlighten because so many of them are so “frozen” in their thinking and overly concerned about their “image.” Truly, this particular group is nothing if not conservative. Conservative, traditional, hidebound, and emotionally frozen.
Halbert’s point was that one of the biggest mistakes business owners make in their marketing is that they hold back on moving forward with bold and unorthodox marketing that will get peoples’ attention and generate business, but may ruffle some feathers. The business owners hold back because they are too concerned about their image and what other people will think and say about them.
Most business owners fail to take risks in their marketing because they fear that their family members, friends, and peers will criticize them and look down on them for their unorthodox way of marketing their businesses. Halbert’s position was that for a business owner to be truly effective in marketing his or her products or services, the business owner must be willing to commit “image suicide.”
My friends in high school were more concerned about their image than in meeting girls and having fun.
Most of us have that problem. We worry too much about what people will think or say about us, which causes us to hold back on doing what is in our own best interest. In other words, we’re willing to sacrifice our own happiness so that we can protect our image and avoid the pain of being criticized and looked down upon by others.
We would rather be miserable and destroy our chances of experiencing more happiness than to risk being talked about and criticized by others.
During the years that I was growing up, I was conditioned to reject the temptation to be concerned about what other people thought about me and my behavior. I can remember numerous times when I saw my mom commit image suicide.
It was common for her relatives and so-called friends to make comments that implied that she was nothing more than a simple-minded, old-school Catholic who wasn’t smart enough to figure out that she could find a priest who would tell her that it was okay for her to violate Church teaching and use contraception to limit the size of her family. After all, what woman in her right mind would get pregnant every other year and allow herself to have 17 children?
My mom’s reaction was always the same: “I don’t care what they say or think about me. I’m the one who has to answer to God for my life, so I’m going to follow His plan, not theirs.”
I can assure you that every one of my mom’s children brought her — and continue to bring her — great joy and happiness. And her army of grandchildren also bring her great joy and happiness.
If you really want to experience happiness as often as is humanly possible, you have to be willing to commit image suicide on a regular basis and follow through on what your heart is telling you to do.
More on this topic next week.