Few know what’s going to go big. If everyone did, the first editor to read Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone would have proclaimed “Holy fuck Jesus YES! Here’s a big advance! Take our money! PLEASE!”
But nope. She got rejected more times than you wanted to punch Draco Malfoy in his smug little face. And yet people threw money at that Keanu 47 Ronin movie and watched hundreds of millions of dollars evaporate into thin, poorly acted air.
The health and fitness industry is rife with infighting. The big dividing line is between “mostly full of shit” and “mostly science based.” As a proud member of the latter I dedicate a portion of my time to battling the former. However, there is infighting among the sciencey crowd who say calling out bullshit is a waste of time.
We see endless examples of achieving fame and fortune by spewing unscientific hokum, and many go to great lengths to expose the male bovine droppings. I remember when my friend Yvette the SciBabe destroyed Vani the Food Babe in Gawker and it went viral. Some of the science-based health and fitness folks got all sanctimonious, saying we shouldn’t “give them oxygen.” They allege we’re only giving them the exposure they crave.
But Vani Hari’s reputation took a major hit because of that piece. There is ample evidence that she lost a lot of followers and business because of Yvette’s thorough evisceration. Others were additionally warned away from joining the ranks of the “Food Babe Army.” So, the exposé was far from a waste of time. It worked. Just like Woodward and Bernstein’s exposure of Nixon worked.
But that’s not where I wish to focus this piece. Around these conversations of exposing charlatans, I’ve oft heard it said by my science-based colleagues that what the Food Babes of the world are truly good at is marketing, and that if we want similar success we just need to be do “better marketing.”
And that claim is largely bullshit.
My column in the Los Angeles Times came about because of a cold call. That was some pretty aggressive marketing right there. Despite being a new writer, I impressed the health editor and they gave me a shot, and I rapidly built a loyal following of readers.
That was seven years ago. For seven years, I’ve been a health and fitness columnist at one of the most respected newspapers in the land, getting another column with the Chicago Tribune that also runs in dozens of other papers, and writing for all sorts of other major publications and getting quite a bit of traffic to my blog.
And I will never be anywhere near as famous as Vani Hari or her ilk. I have slowly grown my Facebook page to 50,000 followers. Food Babe has over a million and she got them in less time, despite having difficulty stringing coherent sentences together.
Let’s talk about another one of those “great marketers,” Tim Ferriss (who has 750,000 followers on Facebook). First off, I’ve heard it tell that his marketing tactics can be kind of douchey. But despite being a master of self-promotion, the real secret is that he sells a fantasy.
The idea of working only four hours a week, or getting an amazing body in only four hours, is outlandish, and people eat that shit up. I read the introduction of The Four-Hour Body and it was one big violation of the first law of thermodynamics. And his alleged gaining of 34 lbs of muscle in only 28 days via a sum of 4 hours of lifting has been exposed as bullshit.
I should mention that I have an MBA in marketing and worked in the field for a dozen years before becoming a writer. A big part of marketing strategy is “product differentiation.” You need a product that is going to stand out from others and grab attention to drive sales. No amount of amazing marketing tactics is going to skyrocket the sales of something that doesn’t turn heads on its own (perceived) merits.
If you have chosen the righteous path of selling reality, then you’ve automatically hamstrung your marketing efforts by selecting a difficult to promote product. In other words, your product differentiation sucks.
Better marketing is only NOT bullshit if you’re willing to go to the dark side and create a fantastical product, the claims of which people cannot ignore.
This isn’t an absolute, but the evidence indicates it to be true. It helps understand this better when you realize that 85% of the planet believes in a higher power or powers, despite any scientific evidence to support such.
Imagine a charming, attractive, intelligent, Ivy-league-educated physician. This doctor is strictly science-based and never promotes any quackery and doesn’t engage in sensationalism. If you’re a TV producer, would you give them a show? Would you put them up against Dr. Oz and not expect them to be crushed? Would you think such a show would last past a single airing?
Recently, my friend Dr. Spencer Nadolsky was lamenting the popularity of “Dr.” Josh Axe, because many of his patients come to him saying, “Dr. Axe said …” Axe is not a physician, but a chiropractor who spews a constant stream of anti-scientific bullpoopery, much of it dangerous. Oh, and guess what? Axe has 1.5 million followers on Facebook and has been on The Dr. Oz Show.
By comparison, Nadolsky is an actual doctor, strictly science-based, super buff and ripped, and has a tendency to post photos and videos with his shirt off. But the poor guy only has 17,000 followers to his page (follow him – he’s great!)
Comedian Steve Martin said, “Be so good they can’t ignore you.”
But Yoda said the dark side is “Quicker. More seductive.”
Yet I’d argue that Yoda was wrong about the dark side not being more powerful. Just look at what hits the New York Times bestseller list in terms of diet books. The clear majority are unscientific. Atkins. Gary Taubes. Mark Hyman. Paleo. That blood type diet guy …
Like I said, sensationalism is what sells. And a critical part of your marketing strategy is that all-important product differentiation. If you’re unwilling to promote pseudoscience, chances are you’ll languish in relative obscurity. People don’t want to hear that health, fitness and weight loss come from a lot of hard work. They want a quick fix. They want a miracle. They want to hear that they’ve been lied to by Big Government / Ag / Pharma etc. and that only YOU know the TRUTH.
They want to put goddamn butter in their coffee.
Can you achieve fame and fortune by being honest, decent, and science-based? Yes, but it’s far more difficult, and rarer. Reality is a hard sell for a lot of people, so you must be truly unique and “so good they can’t ignore you” to achieve such dreams. Neil deGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye found a way to sell science. And the MythBusters did too via inclusion of some high explosives. Better marketing alone won’t cut it. It takes a tremendous amount of hard work and good luck to pull it off.
But at least you don’t have to sell your soul.
James S. Fell, MBA, CSCS, is an internationally syndicated fitness columnist for the Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times, and author of Lose it Right: A Brutally Honest 3-Stage Program to Help You Get Fit and Lose Weight Without Losing Your Mind, published by Random House Canada. He is head fitness columnist for AskMen.com, and a contributor to Men’s Health, Women’s Health, the Guardian, TIME Magazine, and NPR.