Mud on my Face, and a Marketing Revelation

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This is a guest post by Pamela Wilson

Last summer, in Boston for a few days on vacation, I wandered into a local mall.

I ended up in a store that specializes in soaps and bath-type products that look handmade, and have very basic packaging.

Here’s what happened.

It’s a little embarrassing, actually, because I know a lot about marketing and how it works, and I still fell for this approach.

The marketing process begins

When I entered the store, I was approached by a salesperson who asked if I needed help with anything. I deflected her offer, and continued to peruse the products. She asked if I’d visited the store before, and I said yes. (She established a connection).

I looked around at their soaps, which I had purchased before, but I didn’t see anything that looked appealing. Then I moved to the other side of the store, and the salesperson asked me if I was familiar with their skin care line. I said no, I wasn’t.

For the sake of the story, here’s an important detail. I’m in my forties, and my skin still gets oily. I even get the occasional pimple, much to my annoyance.

The salesperson asked me about my skin type. (Established a connection again). I told her about my oily skin, and she offered two solutions. One was a skin treatment with lavender that smelled great, but probably wouldn’t help my skin. The other was a treatment made with charcoal, which would absorb the oil on my face and clear my skin right up. (Established a connection once again, and made a promise).

So I bought it. It was jet black, and I couldn’t wait to try it.

You know where this is going, don’t you?

I returned to my hotel room with its snowy white towels. I splashed some water on my face, and proceeded to smear the scrub all over my skin. I rinsed it off, and looked up at my grey-streaked face in the mirror. I looked like a corpse!

I rinsed some more, and finally grabbed a towel to dry my face. I managed to get it all off (leaving the hotel towel grey). Once I finished rinsing out the towel with soap and water, I had to laugh.

I spent nearly $20 on a jar of charcoal paste to smear on my face. How did that happen?

It happened because that salesperson had been well trained to make a connection with everyone who wandered in to her store.

The salesperson:

  • Established my level of familiarity with the products when she asked me if I’d been there before.
  • Asked me what my specific problems were.
  • Offered two solutions, one of which was clearly better.

By the time she offered me those products, they seemed like a personalized recommendation. I was sold!

I was so sold that I sauntered back to my hotel, soiled a snowy-white towel, made myself look dead and — by the way — still get the occasional pimple.

These are great lessons for all of us. When marketing is done right, it is a force to be reckoned with. It’s so powerful, it can push people to make irrational decisions.

As people who are trying to master marketing, it’s important to respect this power, remember to use it for good, and do our best to avoid selling people ridiculous products and services.

What do you to keep your marketing ethical, and assure that you can sleep at night? Let’s hear it in the comments.

About the Author: Pamela Wilson helps small business owners grow through the power of great design and marketing. She’s published a quick-start guide to creating great marketing materials, called “Five-Ingredient Design Recipes.”
Grab your free copy here!


  1. SusanJ says:

    What a great story Pamela! And I really love how you broke down the factors that made her sale such a slam dunk for you.

    I find that with coaching, and especially the kind I do where I’m wading into people’s most stuck places, the intimacy factor has to really be there first.

    That personal connection is everything. And the thing is, it’s as important for me as it is for them, because I have to feel it in order to be certain that I’m advising or offering from real caring and never from a desire for the sale.

    That’s not such a big deal in a 10 minute relationship over a sales counter. But I’ve had to learn the hard way too! For a long term coaching relationship, it doesn’t work at all if a true connection isn’t there.
    SusanJ´s last [type] ..Discover the Wisdom of Your Resistance for FREE

  2. Susan: yes! It was a little scary to see how well it worked on me. She struck up a nice conversation, and before I knew it, I was buying something that didn’t even make sense!

    Intimacy and connection are really powerful. It’s nice to know *you* use them to help the person you’re working with. That’s the best use of all.
    Pamela Wilson´s last [type] ..Five-Ingredient Design Recipes E-Book- A Gift for You

  3. Amy Harrison says:

    Great story Pamela!

    I always tend to get pounced on by cosmetic counters and last time the girl told me:

    1. My skin was lovely so I probably didn’t need the products (it’s not and I did)
    2. Out of the 2 eye shadows that caught my eye I probably only needed to buy one.

    Again, I felt I was getting a personal recommendation and bought a ton of stuff (plus I felt good about myself which is very rare around cosmetic counters!).

    They’re good, you’ve got to give them that. :-)
    Amy Harrison´s last [type] ..Describing Business Benefits With a Simple Party Game

  4. Oh yes, reverse psychology … another marketing technique that works great!
    Pamela Wilson´s last [type] ..Five-Ingredient Design Recipes E-Book- A Gift for You

  5. I became a mark for the beauty counter people at about 40. I swear they wait for me, and sure enough, it’s the “are you concerned with eyebags” that used to get me. So YES, those tactics work. But only once. It certainly does not build the kind of relationships I want to have with my customers. So it sets up a need to continually find new prey….. yuck.
    Christine Martell´s last [type] ..Who inspires you

  6. Carole says:

    I get so mad at myself every time I get snookered. I swear it will never happen again, but every now and then someone manages to get past (or knock down) my objections and I fall for it again.

    I love your point about only using this power for good (and not selling ridiculous products). And I really needed a good laugh today, so thank you!
    Carole´s last [type] ..Restoring Our Suburban Landscape with Native Plants

  7. Jill Chivers says:

    Yes, there’s an art form to helping women of, ahem (cough), a certain age with their beauty needs, isn’t there?

    Your story is sharply in contrast with a “pamper” session I was invited to for one of the big-name MLM companies that sell skin products, vitamins, make up and so on. The session was promised as a pampering morning with no selling. Well, within minutes of arriving, I was being ‘pitched’ at. Lectured. No questions were asked, no connection made, no spaces created for curiosity. The woman barrelled into the space, filling it up with claims so outrageous that I found myself arguing with her. In my head to start with, then as the claims became more and more silly (“the only company in the world to…”), out loud. You know you’ve done something wrong when your potential customers are debating with you. Needless to say, I didn’t buy a thing and am now actively turned off that company and its products.

    So, the contrast with your story is very sharp. Simple steps, done well = a sold customer. Advice we can all put into practice.

    Jill’s latest blog: The River (what to do when you’re stuck):

  8. Wilma Connell says:

    I’m ususally skittish when I am approached by salespeople, but once in a while I get caught in the “Connection Trap”. It is definitely a powerful sales tool, if used properly. An honest connection brings on a relation (temporary or longterm) with the customer, which in turn can bring on a sale.

  9. Christine, I hear you! Why is it that department stores always seem to position the cosmetic counters right at their entrances? I think it’s so you can’t avoid them. I just pretend to be very busy fumbling for something in my purse, I avoid all eye contact and make a beeline in the other direction.

    Carole, that’s exactly what this experience showed me: marketing is so powerful, and this young woman was masterful … in a space of a few minutes, and with no apparent effort, she had me. It was a good lesson, though, and at least I got a story out of it!
    Pamela Wilson´s last [type] ..Five-Ingredient Design Recipes E-Book- A Gift for You

  10. Dale says:

    This experience begs the question – if human connection is critically important to our growth (as in without it we die), what did you actually pay for?
    Dale´s last [type] ..METALLink Viola

  11. Amy Hoy says:

    Pam, that’s a great story! Do you think you would have written it if the charcoal goo worked, and didn’t leave you all zombie-like?

    I think I just stumbled across something to add to your breakout of her pattern:

    I read the comments and thought… do we live in different worlds?

    I have never once had anyone at a cosmetics counter ever try to sell me anything. Ne-ver. And it’s not as if I’ve never been in department stores (though I avoid them if possible). I never thought about it at all, til just now.

    They must take one look at me – green hair, t-shirts, jeans and scruffy purple sneakers – and give up.

    So, knowing how to pick your targets. That’s another one. ;)
    Amy Hoy´s last [type] ..All Schnitzelconf Speakers are Male- White- &amp Have That Flippy ‘Do

  12. Patrice says:

    I love that I know based on the conversation that you had that you were in a Lush Cosmetics store. I love their product and first started using them when they were mail order.

    I honestly stay out of the store when I know I don’t have money to spend. I’m not a shopaholic by far but, they are so helpful and conversational that most times I end up at the register without realizing I’m making a purchase till after it’s over.

  13. Mike Korner says:

    Funny, I never have this problem when I walk past the cosmetic counter :)

    Interesting story Pamela. You are right that marketing is a force. Hopefully it never falls into the hands of Dr. Evil!

    You have presented an issue that is thought provoking. You raised ethics as an issue but responsibility needs to be on the table. One could easily add morals to the mix, but I won’t.

    The ethics question is easy on one hand — sell great products or provide great service, stand behind what you sell, and use remarkable and ethical marketing strategies.

    The ethics question is hard on the other hand:
    - Where do you draw the line with persuasion? Let’s say you sell great cookware in your business. You find a young mother and she loves to cook but her pans are bad. You know she would thrive with your pans, but you also know she can’t afford them. You really need the commission this month so is it OK to tell her about your payment plan?
    - What if you own a hardware store, have 20 chain saws priced at $100, and a big storm comes and blows trees all over the ciy. People need chainsaws and the others stores in town are sold. Do you sell them for $100 or raise them to $200? I watched that happen one time and I never patronized that store again.

    The responsibility question is easy — people are 100% responsible for what they buy. You bought the product. No one forced you.

    The responsibility question is hard, too, sometimes. The power of persuasion is mighty.
    - Let’s say you are a beautiful woman and you are a waitress. One day you discover that if you wear low cut blouses that men spend more money. Etihical issue (taking advantage of men)? Who is responsible when the guy tips you with his son’s allowance money? I say it’s him. She is just using her assets, the way designers use theirs or writers use theirs.
    - Let’s say you own a bar and Harry is a regular. You know his wife, too, and you know they are having problem because Harry drinks away their house payment evey month. Do you serve Harry?

    As a marketer, I can’t take responsibility for what prospective buyers do or don’t do. If I sell great products and services, represent them fairly, price them reasonably, stand behind them, and use every ethical and remarkable marketing strategy to increase my chances, I will sleep well at night. Anyone who doesn’t do those things deserves to sleep very poorly.

  14. andrea says:

    i actually love that charcoal paste! i only use it in the shower though, so it can be all washed away before the towels get near me.

    sometimes i do wonder why i spend so much money, so many times, on such WEIRD products that do tend to clog my drain and are fairly high maintenance in a lot of weird ways. and it comes to me that i am getting what i really want: products that are not filled with toxins, products that do what they say they will do much more often than any other skin care line i’ve tried and mostly – products that are designed and made and sold with love and enthusiasm.

    it’s that love and enthusiasm that gets me. and i think about that often in my work – how do i pour more of that love and enthusiasm into what i do? because i think it’s irresistible.
    andrea´s last [type] ..i’m in the paper!

  15. Patrice, I’m laughing! It’s good to know I’m not the only one who can’t resist.

    Amy, maybe I need to try your technique :)

    Andrea, I agree about the love and enthusiasm. When you combine those with a real connection with your customer, you get powerful marketing that will move the most stoic of customers.
    Pamela Wilson´s last [type] ..Five-Ingredient Design Recipes E-Book- A Gift for You

  16. Mars Dorian says:


    grreat story, Pamela. It happens to me as well – I end up buying stuff that I don’t need just because the sales person has been slick as hell !

    The most ethical thing one can do is to care for the customer and to actually recommend a product that helps them !
    Mars Dorian´s last [type] ..6 Thoughts That Help You Lead an Epic Life

  17. Dale says:

    WHAT IF…. people are sssooo craved for a real live, face to face connection there will always be a ‘trap’?
    Dale´s last [type] ..METALLink Viola

  18. Genevieve says:

    I’m actually posting because I’m with Andrea. The charcoal paste with lavender oil and tea tree actually works great when used in the shower. If you rinse it off, you don’t look like a zombie.

    I think this is more a post on how if you’re going to buy something, give it a real chance to work before you toss it and decide that you were a sucker. Very often, things work largely as described *if* given the chance.

    Just because there was good marketing there doesn’t mean you were a victim of snookery of some kind.

    (I’ve been using their stuff for years, and never set foot in a shop until recently.)
    Genevieve´s last [type] ..Plants to Love- Autumn Fern Dryopteris erythrosora

  19. This is such a great story, and one that I can certainly identify with. As a designer and marketer myself, I know the tricks and tactics as well, and am always surprised and slightly thrilled to discover later on that I’ve fallen into a clever and well-designed marketing “trap.” Kudos to those that did their job well! Thanks for the laugh, and the reminder that we need to harness the power of marketing but respect everyone by using it responsibly and honestly.

  20. J.D. Meier says:

    There’s such a world of difference between somebody trying to make a buck vs. somebody trying to make somebody’s life better.

    I actually think a big reason why I drive so hard to help Underdogs make the most of life is a direct response to all the marketing I fell for.
    J.D. Meier´s last [type] ..Lessons Learned from Dr K on Interpersonal Skills and the Art of Persuasion

  21. Guin says:

    Funny story. One thing though. I come from a sales background, and I, for one, would label what happened ‘sales’ and not necessarily ‘marketing.’ Marketing is defined as the process through which goods and services move from concept to the customer where sales is a combination of techniques used to supplement advertising and marketing efforts in order to exchange goods or services for money. BTW, as a top sales person, I’m oddly the one who nearly always falls for the sales pitch…which is why I generally avoid salespeople like the plague if at all possible (especially ones like the lady in your story). :)

  22. Mary Wiseman says:

    Great advice Pam. I’m in with the others who use these products in the shower. Also, if I’m really looking for something and the clerks are helpful, I don’t usually mind. Recently, I had a very excellent experience, getting some wine. I went into my local wine shop, showed the clerk a wine label of some wonderful wine I had in NYC at a Tappas Bar last Spring….I had an image of the label on my iPhone. He looked up the wine, took me to the Spanish wines, discussed each of the types of wines he thought would come closest to the NYC wine, pointed out the differences in costs & why that was so…..and I chose. As I left the shop I said thanks, he said you’re welcome and to come back and tell him what I thought of the wine. The wine was great and I will definitely return.
    Mary Wiseman´s last [type] ..Computers Can Read Your Brain

  23. Hi Pamela,

    First off, I have to say something that hurts me to admit. I am less likely to feel bad about soiling hotel towels with muck. It’s awful but it’s true. The foundation that I apply right before a business dinner and then wipe off 3 hours later I KNOW is going to be washed away in the laundry done before I am resting my head on my pillow at home so I don’t worry about it as much.

    Second, I think it makes perfect sense that you bought into the salesperson’s story. I am in sales (don’t damn me) and the first thing we HAVE to do is connect the client’s pain with the product’s benefit. Now skin care products are tricky- you have to use them for a bit of time before you can truly gauge their benefits (just like anything- 21 days is the magic number right?). Have you seen any benefits from continuing with it?

  24. Pamela,

    There is no amount of marketing in the world that can make a person buy something that they don’t want, but if the marketer can bring out those emotions in the buyer, the sale is going to happen.

    I think the marketer is ethical and has a duty to their customers to let them know about a product that will help them solve a problem. If the product delivers on what is promised, exactly as promised, then the marketer is doing his/her job.

    -Joshua Black
    The Underdog Millionaire
    Joshua Black | The Underdog Millionaire´s last [type] ..Are You Creating a Sale or A Customer

  25. Sarah Arrow says:

    Hi Pamela,
    I love that Charcoal stuff, it works wonders on my skin, I cannot recommend it enough! But being a Brit we find sales people don’t try and interact with us unless we really ask, I think it’s a cultural thing. If they do ask if we need any help it’s done begrudgingly!
    Sarah Arrow´s last [type] ..Is this the most complicated chicken recipe ever

  26. I did continue to use the product, for all who have wondered. It made the bottom of my shower pretty dirty, too! I do love their products in general, and will continue to shop in their stores when I see them.

    What I found most interesting about the experience was how the salesperson did an excellent job connecting with me in order to sell me a fairly mundane product. If she can do that for a $20 skin care product, all of us who are trying to sell higher priced products can do it, too.
    Pamela Wilson´s last [type] ..Shake It Baby- Shake It for Real Good Marketing!

  27. It’s funny that even if you know all the tricks you can still be sucked in.

    I pay way too much for comic books. My wife pays way too much for shows and bags. Not until we got married and looked at our joint budget did we connect with reality instead of the emotions that marketing helps to channel for us.
    Hashim Warren´s last [type] ..4 Ways To Get A Raise Without Asking

  28. Joel Nielson says:


    Along with the others… thanks for a great “REAL WORLD EXAMPLE”.

    Questions are powerful! And when we mix the right questions questions with the “servers heart”, we (as marketers) get to enjoy a connection with others so few people understand.


    Joel Nielson
    The Ad Critter | copywriter, designer
    Joel Nielson´s last [type] ..Landing Page Design Simplified Use these Free Tools!

  29. Pam,
    I’ve fallen into this trap too. In fact I did last week on my vacation. Sometimes I think we don’t want to feel like we’ve wasted a sales person’s time and they know they can pray on our impulse buys especially if it seems like a “good deal.”

    We can all use this same technique to our advantage through. I typically mention on my consultation calls that the other person might hear my daughter in the background. Work at home parents recognize the similar problems and life styles. Learning more about our clients can definitely make the difference in making us stand out from the crowd. I’ve even used a love of hockey, to make a connect to a client in the past.
    Erica Cosminsky´s last [type] ..Life of a Transcript With Our Family

  30. I like how you went from remarkable marketing to responsible marketing. That’s such an important point and one we probably don’t discuss enough. Great post!
    Coreen Tossona´s last [type] ..Shell- Let’s go! What 10 things are wrong with this print ad

  31. Eddie Gear says:

    Hi Pamela, This is great. I’ve been through your interview on building ebooks and now this. Its great.

  32. Steven H says:

    Good piece, but of course actually having a good product can be the best form of marketing. People are more likely to want to reproduce rational decisions than irrational ones. A poor product will only yield first-time customers, but people won’t come back.

    Thanks for the anecdote!
    Steven H´s last [type] ..PsychNews- Sep 19 – 25

  33. Nice lesson. I think we humans tend to make more decisions out of emotion rather than rationale anyway. Marketing seems to be all about evoking and then playing on that emotion doesn’t it?
    Siddharth Goyal´s last [type] ..Doing Business with Paypal in India

  34. Amy Tobin says:

    OK – I think this is SALES, not marketing. And I always told my reps: If the customer has instant buyer’s remorse, you did something wrong in the sale.

    Will you ever go back to that store and buy again?