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The Pledge, The Turn, The Prestige

Everything is a Psy-Op
January 26, 2024

Welcome to Friday, futurists.

There are tricks and illusions; and then there’s real magic. This week, KITH’s announcement of a new loyalty program that would retroactively accrue points for customers going back over a decade made waves; but it was mere sleight of hand when compared to the real marketing magic that took place before our very eyes…

Every magic trick is a three-act play: the pledge, the turn, and the prestige.

You know who taught me that? Director Christopher Nolan, in his 2006 film The Prestige, starring Christian Bale, Hugh Jackman, and Sir Michael Caine (yes, Batman, Wolverine, and Alfred):

“Now you're looking for the secret... but you won't find it, because of course, you're not really looking. You don't really want to know. You want to be fooled.” —Cutter

Customers, like the audience at a magic show, enter our shops—virtual or otherwise—with the suspension of disbelief. They want to be told that you have solutions to their problems; even if they weren’t aware of them before they crossed your digital threshold.

If you, a clever marketer, believe that the world still works in funnels (such as AIDA: Awareness, Interest, Desire, Action), then the role of marketing in a commerce-centric business tracks closely to the three stages of a magic act, too.

  • The Pledge: The magician shows you something ordinary, like a top hat. “But what if I told you it’s a magic top hat,” he might say. This is awareness and interest in action.
  • The Turn: The illusionist reaches into the hat, and pulls out a live rabbit. It jumps around on his tabletop. Desire kicks in—how’d he do it? He taps the bottom of the hat. There’s no false bottom. 
  • The Prestige: He ups the ante by stuffing the very-real, very-alive rabbit back into the hat, tapping it with his wand, and giving it a FLIP! upside-down to demonstrate its weightless emptiness. The rabbit has vanished. “Do it again!” you shriek!

The Pledge

Forget KITH, real marketing magic happened this month right before our very eyes, pulled off by none other than Nolan’s production company, Syncopy.

The long-con played out slowly, over time, beginning on January 3rd when Nolan accepted an award at NYFCC for his latest blockbuster, Oppenheimer.

In his speech, he talked about the inescapability of criticism for his films, including a Peloton ride where the instructor dissed his 2020 film TENET, saying, “That’s 2.5 hours of my life I want back.” The clip was organically sourced and quote-tweeted by film critic Jason Oller.

The Turn

On January 4th, we meet Tenet Date Guy, 23 year old James Carman, who claimed to have a PowerPoint explaining TENET, which he “used on 3 other dates whenever Tenet confusion comes up.” If you’re unfamiliar with the viral tweet, this episode of the Boys Club “Too Online” podcast has a great explainer. The next day, we get the full deck.

Just two days later, on January 7th, Carman produces a seventeen minute hidden-camera production of him on a first date, using the aforementioned slide deck.

The Prestige

That same night, January 7th, Nolan cleans up at the Golden Globes, and Oppenheimer nabs five statuettes. We get clear air for two weeks until January 23rd, when Oppenheimer is nominated for a staggering thirteen Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director.

January 25th, it is announced that TENET will return to theaters for one-week-only, in standard release and IMAX, the week before the Oscars ceremony. Voilà, presto-chango. Your awareness of TENET has now been transformed into action, right before your very eyes. AIDA in action.

We live in an era where the Internet is rife with claims of marketing “psy-ops,”—the notion that marketers control consumer behaviors with stealthy content that appears to be organic. It’s a commonly-held belief that HBO manufactures TikTok trends like “quiet luxury” and the “mob-wife aesthetic” to promote shows like Succession and the 25th Anniversary of The Sopranos, respectively.

Let’s contrast this journey with KITH’s loyalty launch.

Where marketers are calling the launch a “masterclass”, I think it was no more than sleight-of-hand; a three-stage rollout, taking place in just 72 hours, which was meant to instigate threadlords and ladies into a flurry of thought leadership that would have you believe the launch was a stunning success.

KITH’s real party trick: pulling forward effusive praise around the strategy of the launch, separating the details of the program from the launch itself by just enough time to nab the earned media. Thereby, they’ve given cover to their actual launch day, which was met by app crashes, site instability, unreliable stock levels, and other usual fare for a hyped footwear launch; something that KITH (and their loyal customers) are very accustomed-to.

As far as Marketing Magic goes, KITH’s trick is cool; but lacks the flourish of Nolan’s.

Why does marketing work on us, even when we know that it’s trickery; an illusion that removes money from our wallets? Well, it works the same way that all magic works. 

We want to be fooled.

— Phillip

Image credit: The Seattle Times

Choppy mountains ahead. REI has concerns about the coming year, and expects to lay off over 2% of its workforce. Rumor has it that they may have over-inventoried and now are having to rely on their outlet to offload products. This is tough to recover from because brand erosion is likely. Given how committed REI is to their customers and employees in the long term, we expect that they’ll find a way to right their kayak in the years to come. 

Microsoft? How about Macrosoft. The world continues to sleep on Microsoft, while they pass $3,000,000,000,000 in value. This growth is consistent with Brian’s predictions from the last couple years. MSFT’s consumer brand might not be what it was in the 90s, but their relevance and dominance is stronger than ever has been. Diversification is the name of their game, and it has paid off.

Brrr Skibidi dop dop dop yes yes. Skibidi dobidi dib dib. We all knew the early 2000’s hits would still be a bop to future generations, but heads in toilets scatting while Nelly Furtado’s Promiscuous plays in the background going viral (thanks to Gen Z and Gen Alpha) was not on my bingo card. Shoutout to Anne Helen Peterson’s Culture Study Podcast for bringing this to our attention. 

Image Credit: @yungcontent on X

Michael CeraVe. Andrew McLuhan - is this your work

Selkie Fans Sulking. “Slow fashion” brand Selkie was caught using AI generated imagery on their latest clothing drop featuring a dog with too many toes, begging the question, “Can true ‘slow-fashion’ brands use AI?” Fans cried foul over tech replacing tradition, but founder Kimberley Gordon doubles down stating there’s nothing wrong with staying ahead of the curve.

Alibaba that you? Shein was planning to go public, but facing regulatory scrutiny and competition from the likes of Temu, just fell flat on its face. Its backers are trying to get out for a 30% discount of the previous valuation. It feels like whenever a consumer-focused Chinese company finds success in the US and plans to go public, it implodes.  

Image credit: @iiiitsandrea on x

Chicory Coffee Resurgence: A Sign of the Times? Chicory coffee, a substitute to normal coffee during the Napoleanic war and Great Depression eras, is back with French brand Cherico. As you sit with your DTC steaming root vegetable latte, try not to associate this 2024 resurgence with thoughts of becoming a C.A.R.O.L (Can’t Afford my Rich Old Life).

Pasta is proven to make you feel better. Hell yes it does.

Image credit: Forbes

Palémon propaganda. The Pokémon Company is investigating if Palworld is infringing on any of its IP. Palworld is a wildly popular satirical game where players equip Pokemon-like creatures with guns and weapons to defeat other players and creatures. According to Forbes, it doesn’t look like there’s much of a case, so players all over the world can keep arming their not-Pokemon for battle. 

Devious Deepfakery. AI image generation just got better with InstantID. The result? Phillip’s prediction of a deepfake flood in 2024 is likely coming true. 

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