99% of the time, I hop and skip through life aware of the fact that I’m a non-standard-issue human being and perfectly comfortable with it. I can’t grok mainstream media, all of my favourite books are out of print, advertising baffles me, I zig where most people zag, and I’m cool with that. Every now and then, though, I experience such a large disconnect between the way I look at the world and the way the world is described to me that I think I’ve gone insane. Literally. I’m not being ableist here: sometimes my reactions and opinions are so widely different from that of most people that I question my sanity.
One of the situations in which I experience this more and more frequently is self-defence advertising. I’ve not run a comprehensive survey of the field, so I could be talking trash, but I’ve noticed a shift away from traditional advertising strategies. As those mostly consisted of alpha-male fantasies for the boys and scare tactics for the girls, a change ought to be a good thing. Except that this one isn’t. It really, really isn’t.
The problem isn’t what is being left behind, but what is being embraced: the shift is towards more “traditional” marketing strategies, including things like:
Forced Teaming. When the instructor pretends to share a predicament with a customer. Speaking in “we” terms is a mark of this. This can be done in terms of a shared fears or problems (e.g., “we all have X concern” when the victim profiles of the instructor and students are wildly different), but also shared goals for the school or system (e.g., “we need this programme to reach a wider market” when the “we” somehow magically includes the customers).
False Charm and Niceness. When the instructor is overly friendly to customers in order to gain their trust. (E.g., by faking a personal connection or interest that just isn’t there, such as asking personal questions and tuning out the answers.)
Typecasting. When the instructor uses insults to get customers to buy a product or participate in an activity they would otherwise pass up on. The customers will do something they might not want to in order to counteract the insult. (E.g., “you’re too proud/ scared/ weak/ girly/ stubborn/ insecure/ whatever to do X.”)
Loan Sharking. When the instructor pushes unsolicited freebies to customers to make them feel obligated to buy additional products. (E.g., “you know those free videos I sent you? They cost a lot to produce, but if you buy our DVDs…”)
Discounting the Word “No”. When the instructor continues to push a product regardless of the customers clear rejection. (E.g., literally any attempt to push a product when a customer has stated a clear “no”, regardless of content.)
Emotional blackmail. When the instructor makes customers feel obligated to buy into activities or products, or swamped by guilt if they resist. (E.g., “if you don’t sign up to extra classes, we will have to let one of our instructors go”, “if you don’t attend the weekend seminar, the school will lose money.”)
Negging. When the instructor makes a deliberate backhanded compliment to a customer to undermine their confidence and increase their need of the instructor’s approval, thereby buying into their products. (E.g., “You move pretty well for a weak/ fat/ old/ disabled/ female person”, “I love how you don’t care when you mess things up”, “Congratulations on your grading! I didn’t expect you to pass!”)
So what? Self-defence is an industry. Self-defence instruction is a product. Self-defence instructors are specialists; they have a right to make a living from their work. The strategies I listed are mentioned in many if not most marketing books (though often under cuddlier labels) because they work. Why shouldn’t instructors market their products by using tried-and-tested marketing strategies?
My problem is that these strategies turn up in other places. I cut-and-pasted the first five from the Wikipedia list of Pre-Incident Indicators from Gavin DeBecker’s “Gift of Fear.” If you Google Emotional Blackmail, you’ll be inundated with pages about domestic abuse. The seventh is a standard pick-up artist tactic. All these tactics are routinely used by predators, abusers, and creeps to gain access to and manipulate their chosen targets.
Ah, but self-defence instructors use these tactics for good! They want their customers to access products that will benefit them! They are merely appealing to their customers’ monkey brains…
…And that’s when my brain start screeching at me that I’ve gone and lost it, because, to me, that kind of statement is a nail against the chalkboard of reality.
I understand how you can sell a self-defence product by using abusive or predatory tactics, same as you’d sell a car or a telescope. You want to shift a product and these tactics facilitate that process: no problem. I’m totally with you.
I do not understand, however, how you can sell the ability to self-defend while normalising abusive and predatory tactics. You are literally training your students to fall for these traps, to treat them as benign. You are rewarding their failure to pick up on them, or to notice them but go along regardless. You might be preaching about the evils of loan sharking in a class, but if you got your students into that class by loan sharking the ever-loving shit out of them, what do you think is actually going to get through, your words or your actions? And considering how many self-defence students are past or current targets of domestic abuse… No. Just no. You cannot teach them to defend themselves against their abusers by embracing their abusers’ tactics. It just can’t be done.
The correct answer to emotional blackmail, negging, discounting “no”, loan sharking, typecasting, false charm, and false teaming is “fuck off”, or permutations thereof. If you are making your students rep any other answer, you are making them rep failure.*
I don’t care what your motivations are: what you are doing is actively diminishing your students’ ability to self-protect. I don’t believe that your class content, however good it may be, could ever make up for that.
At the very least, if you’re going to use these techniques, call them by their names. “I emotionally blackmailed my students into joining the weekend seminar.” “I used typecasting to get them to compete.” “I loan-sharked them into buying the DVD series.” And if you cannot use those words in association with yourself, if you find them so unpalatable that you have to resort to cuddlier labels even though you know their proper names, then this mismatch ought to tell you something.
*Yes, OK, sometimes people are perfectly happy to be manipulated. However, I personally believe that they should do so consciously, and without ever discounting the fact that they are dealing with a manipulator.