We live in a time where seemingly obscure ideas can suddenly explode, proliferating through the culture at lightning speed. From conspiracy theories to Bitcoin, society is rampant with strange, new ideas.
Where do these ideas come from, you may wonder? How do some ideas spread so quickly, sweeping up minds, and dollars, in the process?
How do oddball candidates take over prominent political parties?
I came across my first clue to these mysteries while training as a copywriter. My boss had me read Joseph Surgarman’s The Adweek Copywriting Handbook: The Ultimate Guide to Writing Powerful Advertising and Marketing Copy from One of America’s Top Copywriters.
It turns out this book had a wealth of information, but not for the reasons my boss probably thought. In his book, the legendary Sugarman provides advice on how to succeed in the competitive world of copywriting.
Sugarman is the kind of guy you would see on a late-night infomercial on cable TV, and he’s also one of the most prolific writers in the United States when it comes to marketing and copywriting.
A main emphasis in Sugarman’s book is how important emotion is when it comes to selling a product.
“Often, a phrase or sentence or even a premise does not have to be correct logically. As long as it conveys the message emotionally, it not only does the job, but does it more effectively than the logical message.” — Joseph Sugarman, The Adweek Copywriting Handbook
Sugarman was writing during the cold war. As such, much of his book focuses on the marketing potential latent in the ideological struggle between America and the Soviet Union.
In a chapter titled Selling the Concept, Not the Product, Sugarman describes how he used ideology to sell chess.
“… the copy continued to talk about the challenge we were making against Karpov. That was the concept. We weren’t selling chess computers. We were selling the challenge against the Russian champion and as a consequence selling chess computers. It was taking a very staid product and giving the entire promotion a more emotional appeal.” — Joseph Sugarman, The Adweek Copywriting Handbook
In a more extreme example, Sugarman devotes an entire chapter to a single advertisement: The Hungarian Conspiracy. Sugarman is careful to note that he wrote this copy in 1983, while the Berlin Wall was still standing and the Soviet Union struck fear into the hearts of Americans.
“… the simple positioning of a product and the development of a concept can be so powerful that it can make the difference between a huge success and a loser.”
— Joseph Sugarman, The Adweek Copywriting Handbook
The purpose of The Hungarian Conspiracy was to sell the Rubik’s Cube. In order to drive up interest in the toy, Sugarman created an elaborate conspiracy involving Hungarians, Russians, and the eventual destruction of the United States of America.
“So here’s the story. A communist game, whose circuit was designed by a good ol’ American company, carefully assembled by one of our best in the Far East — all part of a massive conspiracy to prepare Americans for a major communist takeover. Prevent other Americans from falling into this scam. Order a unit from JS&A. When you receive it, whatever you do, don’t play with it. Instead, immediately take it to all your neighbors and urge them not to buy one. Tell them about the real cause of our last recession, the communist plot and the Hungarian conspiracy. And then make sure you give them the ultimate warning, ‘Anybody who buys this thing is a real idiot.’” — Joseph Sugarman, The Adweek Copywriting Handbook
Like Trump himself, when QAnon first appeared on the scene as a series of hashtags and screenshots pulled from 4chan, hardly anyone paid attention. It was only after the capital riots that authorities and social media companies began to take this internet phenomenon seriously.
In a piece published in Buzzfeed, titled My Mom Believes in QAnon. I’ve Been Trying to Get Her Out, journalist Albert Samaha describes losing his mother to this conspiracy.
“By 2020, I’d pretty much given up on swaying my mom away from her preferred presidential candidate. We’d spent many hours arguing over basic facts I considered indisputable. Any information I cited to prove Trump’s cruelty, she cut down with a corresponding counterattack. My links to credible news sources disintegrated against a wall of outlets like One America News Network, Breitbart, and Before It’s News. Any cracks I could find in her positions were instantly undermined by the inconvenient fact that I was, in her words, a member of “the liberal media,” a brainwashed acolyte of the sprawling conspiracy trying to take down her heroic leader.” — Albert Samaha
Samaha describes his mother’s Twitter account, awash in claims “that a Satan-worshiping cabal of child sex traffickers controlled the world and the only person standing in their way was Trump.”
Like many who bought into Donald Trump and his promise to Make America Great Again, Samaha’s mom saw herself as a crusader in an ideological battle.
“Trump is not a perfect man,” my mom would text me. “God chose him to serve His purpose. It took a strong character to overcome the slings & arrows of the deep state/cabal.” — Albert Samaha
Samaha reveals that QAnon believers liken themselves to the early Christians, spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Samaha’s mom often posted a meme about ordinary people who spent countless hours researching, debating, meditating, and praying for the truth to be revealed. “Although they were mocked,” she wrote, “dismissed and cast off, they knew their souls had agreed long ago to do this work.”
It’s estimated that fridge groups like QAnon have become a multi-million dollar industry.
I remember when I first heard about Bitcoin. It was over a decade ago, on the bizarre pages of early Reddit. During that time, similar to today, the front page of the internet was obsessed with conspiracies.
It was just after the great recession. The media was trumpeting the success of the recent government bailouts. Meanwhile, on the internet, conspiracies ran wild. Popular videos like Loose Change claimed 9/11 had been an inside job. There was a growing distrust of the financial industries, targeted at the Federal Reserve. False flags and other conspiracy theories were everywhere.
It was in this fertile soil that Bitcoin was seeded. Fueled on paranoia, Bitcoin began to gain traction, promising a means of escape from the forces of financial manipulation, which had obviously become all-powerful.
Now, with the price of Bitcoin reaching an all-time high, it’s interesting to look at the motivations of those who have bought into the craze. One such person is Tim Denning, a popular writer on Medium.
In a piece published in February of this year titled Bitcoin Hitting $100,000 Doesn’t Matter. Many People Have Missed the Point, Denning argues that Bitcoin isn’t about making money. He claims his motivations are driven by a desire to overthrow a financial system that is rendering individuals powerless.
“It’s the idea that inequality is bad. It’s the idea that money created out of thin air and handed to a small few to inflate the stock market is fundamentally wrong. It’s the idea homes shouldn’t cost a lifetime worth of hours stuck in a cubicle. It’s the idea you should be able to send money anywhere in the world within a few minutes. “ — Tim Denning
Bitcoin, according to Denning, is more than an investment, a currency, or even a technology. It’s a belief in a better world, one where the good guys beat the bad guys. A world where you can be in control of the financial system.
Bitcoin’s champions view those who invest in the technology not only as wise investors but as revolutionaries.
“Bitcoin is an idea that challenges ownership. When ownership changes, everything changes. Be open to the inevitable change coming. That’s the point of Bitcoin that seems to be missed.” — Tim Denning
When Elon Musk added a Bitcoin hashtag to his bio on Twitter earlier this year, it pushed the price of the cryptocurrency up by 20%.
Marketing in the age of conspiracies relies on widespread paranoia. Just like Sugarman was using the threat of communism to sell toys back in the 1980s, today’s products are sold using ideological warfare. Only instead of communism, the threat is a financial global elite.
The story goes like this: There’s a small but powerful group of elites in control of the financial system. They’re working overtime behind the scenes to orchestrate a takeover of the American government and end freedom as we know it.
But there’s good news! You can stop it. All you need to do is buy our product. You can use it to fight back against the dark forces that scare you. Tell all your friends about us! And be sure to warn them that there’s a big conspiracy.