I sometimes think I should teach a course on how to create a popular blog that goes viral and conquers the world.
I would offer The Escape Artist as an example of how not to do it.
That’s because The Escape Artist blog remains
obscure …let’s be generous…mostly undiscovered. In terms of changing the world, after 6 years of painstaking and regular(ish) posting, I would give myself a B+ for effort and a D- for achievement.
The Escape Artist has achieved several million page views (no great shakes in internet world). This blog has made me new friends and, at an individual level in my financial coaching, I’ve helped people change their lives. But, let’s be honest, I haven’t changed the world.
The Prison Camp system remains undefeated. The Media-Advertising Complex continues to puke out a strange mixture of fearmongering, consumerism and woke propaganda. Exhibit A: Multi-billion dollar food corporation Unilever (LON: ULVR) now offers wannabe Social Justice Warriors the opportunity to dismantle white supremacy by…errr…buying their ice cream (co-incidentally making them more profits).
It seems pandering to people works…in the short term at least. If you want to sell product and chase popularity, you tell people what they want to hear. You flatter them, you pander to them and their fantasies. You don’t challenge groupthink or ever call bullshit. In other words, you do the opposite of what I do here on The Escape Artist.
The phrase pandering to people (verb; to pander) is such a useful concept when understanding consumerism that it really merits a closer look. Here is a dictionary definition:
pandering: to gratify or indulge an immoral or distasteful desire or taste or a person with such a desire or taste. For example: “newspapers are pandering to people’s baser instincts”
The first rule of advertising is that pandering to the consumer works better than challenging them.
You know those TV cop shows where they run a Good Cop, Bad Cop routine to break a suspect? Well, The News plays Bad Cop; making people scared / angry / fearful. The adverts are then made as soothing as possible (that’s The Good Cop). The contrast is the point: The News makes you feel bad, the adverts make you feel good (or at least promise that if you buy their stuff, you’ll then feel good).
Writing this blog, it’s been fascinating to see the reactions to different subjects. I’ve learned along the way which posts get me instant praise and which get me into trouble. The problem with The Escape Artist (well one of them) is that he is like a naughty schoolboy. When told by a bossy teacher that he’s not allowed to smoke cigarettes behind the bike shed, The Escape Artist feels an overwhelming urge to do exactly that. And I don’t even like smoking.
Nope, The Escape Artist does not do pandering and somehow feels compelled to be like the child in the fairy tale that shouts out “Hey! The Emperor Is Not Wearing Any Clothes!“.
Commercially, this is a
terrible sub-optimal strategy. When you want to go big, it’s good business to tell people what they want to hear and reinforce their pre-existing beliefs, biases and prejudices. To make money, find the largest possible audience that is impulsive, aspirational and status conscious…and then tell them what they want to hear.
I always used to wonder why personal finance was so bland and never challenged the reader to raise their game. The answer is that telling the truth risks scaring away the customers (or blog readers) getting less clicks, less advertising revenue and making less money.
But speaking out and telling the truth can have other risks as well losing money. When you speak out, you risk annoying people and violating an invisible status hierarchy.
Have you ever wondered why most people find public speaking such a terrifying prospect? The fear is hard-wired into us because for most of human history if you challenged the authority of the chief, that would not end well for you. You might not get killed directly…but being expelled from the tribe would have been an effective death sentence.
There’s an important point here. Money is not always the villain; sometimes the culprit is the very human desire for acceptance and validation. If you are a blogger whose prime motivation is engagement and positive feedback (rather than monetisation) it’s still tempting to pander to your audience and avoid saying anything controversial.
I’ve spent the last 6 years finding out where people get uncomfortable with the truth. I’ve come to the conclusion that you can’t please all of the people all of the time…and you shouldn’t even try.
For the benefit of new bloggers, here’s a quick guide to the subjects that offend people:
- Anything to do with personal responsibility
- Anything to do with relationships, sex and gender relations
- Anything to do with parenting
- Anything to do with people’s health / lifestyle choices
- Anything to do with people’s spending (see point 4 above)
- Anything to do with politics
- Pretty much anything really
The highest compliments I’ve got is when readers email me privately to congratulate me for at least attempting to tackle more controversial subject areas and not writing the blog in the style of a cookery or sewing blog. We’re not on Mumsnet here, people.
If you are gonna walk the path to financial freedom then at some point you need to stop caring too much what other people think. In your spending, you should stop caring about what the Joneses think about your car. If you are a blogger you need to stop caring too much about never offending anyone. If you start a small business or side-hustle, you are gonna need to stop worrying about what people think if you “fail”. As Ed Latimore puts it: Not caring what other people think is a superpower.
Most of the best books about money are written by people who’ve already become wealthy themselves. This tends to mean i) they know what they’re talking about ii) they can afford to be honest. They’re written by people who care enough to make the effort to pay it forward but not so much that they worry about telling the truth. Probably because they don’t need our money or our approval.
People want to be told that it’s easy to get rich kwik. You can get rich slowly but there is no quick and easy route to being rich. You can work insanely hard and be insanely talented but it will still take time. I suggest you allow somewhere between 10 and 20 years for this venture. Most people over-estimate what is possible in one day or one week and greatly under-estimate what is possible in one decade.
It’s the percentage of your income that you save and invest that matters. If you could only measure one metric, it would be your % savings rate. You have to earn more, spend less and invest the difference wisely. That’s why I write about all 3 areas: all are important to get to financial freedom:
If you want to help people, it helps if i) you like people and ii) you talk to them, question and challenge their blind spots. Think of the areas of life where people get help to achieve peak performance. Sports coaching or teaching would be great examples. Some athletes may just lack some self-belief. For them, a good coach would offer praise and empathy. Others may respond better to being challenged. Good coaches use the tool that’s right for the job and for the person in front of them.
This is the opposite of the approach taken by mass media which often panders to the audience. Consider the BBC’s flagship personal finance radio programme Moneybox. Or rather Moaneybox as I call it. Whenever I listen to this they’re moaning about those evil banks, insurance companies, that evil government etc etc. Whatever the situation, the consumer is always blameless. That is what pandering looks (or sounds) like.
This week I’ve been watching The Tour de France highlights on ITV4. The downside is that I’ve been exposed to TV adverts which are even worse than I’d remembered. Everything is soft focus, the men look like they’re on tranquilisers, all the women are Mums with a heart of gold, all the old people are lovable grandparents. Welcome to Fake World where consumer frogs get slowly boiled in the pan.
We all want to make money…there’s nothing wrong with that. As someone smart once said: a man is never so innocently occupied as when he is making money. To sell is human. But pandering to people leads to ever more bullshit, not a resource in scarce supply today.
I will leave you with the words of Thomas Sowell, the American economist and philosopher:
“When you want to help people, you tell them the truth. When you want to help yourself, you tell them what they want to hear”Thomas Sowell
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