I hear it all the time:
"How do I build a business without being sleazy about it?"
I spent many years creating content that spoke to this question in my show, Awkward Marketing, where I tried to help people find "easy" swaps for the unethical practices that had become industry standard.
But, then I realized there was more to the conversation around "sleaze" in business than just switching out the "bad" with the "good."
I wrote about this in my essay, "I Hate Marketing" And Other Lies We Tell Ourselves.
Because after 13 years of running a branding studio and speaking with hundreds of entrepreneurs, I started to notice a pattern.
When people want a “non-sleazy” way of marketing their business, I believe what they are really asking for is a way out of capitalism.
Becoming a business owner forces you to participate in the system in a different way, no longer as a passive consumer but someone driving your own products and services. And when you do this, you quickly realize all the ways that the game is rigged.
The celebrity personal brands leading the online business industrial complex want us to believe that if we don't like their methods, we have a mindset issue.
This is the same argument Tony Robbins makes when he says that the #MeToo movement is simply a "drug" to make victims feel good. He promotes an ideology that says we shouldn't get angry about systemic injustice, but instead think our way out of it individually.
And this is also the same argument that Napoleon Hill makes in his book, Think And Grow Rich.
In today's episode of Marketing Muckraking, I explore the culture of personal branding and my own quest to understand what branding is doing to us. This led me to explore the history of the personal brand, which took me back in time, stopping in the early 20th century, when Napoleon Hill built his brand and popularized the idea of thought leadership and manifestation in Think And Grow Rich.
Many of modern business's most influential leaders cite Think And Grow Rich as a book they draw immense inspiration from.
Tony Robbins promotes Think And Grow Rich on his website with an affiliate link.
Daymond John of Shark Tank swears by its teachings.
Donald Trump loves Napoleon Hill and cited Think And Grow Rich in some of his own books.
The book is prosperity gospel meets snake oil.
And if you know the history of snake oil, which was popularized in the USA in the late 19th and early 20th century by Clark Stanley, self-described "Rattlesnake King," then you also know that muckrakers tested his snake oil liniment and found that 1) it didn't contain any actual snake oil and 2) it didn't cure any of the things it purported to. That's where the term "snake oil salesman" comes from!
And Think And Grow Rich is snake oil, too.
Napoleon Hill lied about much of the wisdom he shared in his book, where he claimed to interview the rich and famous, like Andrew Carnegie and Thomas Edison, on the "secrets to their success."
Not only that, but Hill ran one of the country's early pyramid schemes, led a sex cult, and covered up a murder? For the juicy details, you'll want to listen to this episode of the show.
Hill's success is more a credit to how capitalism rewards abuse than his own genius.
As I shared in this episode, there is no “do no harm” way of existing within capitalism.
Most of the products we are surrounded by, with the very small exception of things like handmade goods you purchase directly from small creators — make their way through the supply chain, passing through the hands of many workers, with environmental impacts, as well as the implications of packaging and waste.
If you purchase fast fashion or buy your clothes from nearly any major retailer — that clothing has passed through a sweatshop.
If you’re a Midwesterner like me and you buy fruit in the winter — or any food that isn’t local to your region — that food has traveled thousands of miles to arrive at your grocery store. And there were people paid less than they should have been to get that food to you. I could go on and on.
I speak to many people who proudly boycott Amazon, for example, without realizing that Netflix and Disney+ both use Amazon web services.
So does Pinterest, AirBNB, NASA, The Guardian. So if you pin things on a mood board — you are supporting Amazon. If you read The Guardian, you are supporting Amazon. If you stay at an AIRBNB, you are supporting Amazon. And, if you are a tax paying American, you are supporting Amazon, simply because your taxes go to NASA.
There is no way to fully divest from the harms of capitalism. We are all participants in this system, whether we like it or not.
If you are troubled by what I shared in this episode, then the painful truth I must tell you is that the answers you seek won’t be found within capitalism. We’ve gone too far for that. There is no easy way to level the playing field or buy our way out of this.
Business, all business, within this system, is “sleazy.”
So then the question becomes — not “how do I find an easy, ethical swap for running my business the GOOD way,” but...
How do I run a business that mitigates and prevent as much harm as possible while building towards a better answer, a better future — outside this system?
In my next episode, I’ll talk about the 4 types of change makers to help you figure out the most effective ways for YOU to make change within and outside of this system. We don’t ALL need to burn shit down — but we DO need all hands on deck.
Stay tuned for the next episode for more on what you can do to be part of the change we need — and spoiler — NO, it’s not thinking and growing rich.
Oh and should I do a Part 2 of this to tell you more about Napoleon Hill and his Immortal Baby Sex Cult?
Let me know!
Sources for and mentions in this podcast:
- The Untold Story of Napoleon Hill, the Greatest Self-Help Scammer of All Time by Matt Novak on Gizmodo
- What You Need To Know About the Cult of Online Marketing, Episode 11 of Marketing Muckraking
- StoryBrand Scandal about Josh Harris and Donald Miller (And Josh Duggar?!?)
About the Marketing Muckraking podcast
Welcome to Marketing Muckraking, the show that asks not simply what brand culture can do for us, but what it’s doing to us — with your host, creative director, brand strategist gone wild, and the court jester of online business, Rachael Kay Albers — making fun of business and making business fun.
This is the show for rebels, revolutionaries, and renegades who run businesses that burn the rulebook. If you’re sick of business podcasts with all the answers — I’ve got nothing but questions.
Where we swap B School for FREE SCHOOL, easy for honest, and goal digging for marketing in pursuit of meaning.
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