Pecunia non olet

In the year 70 AD, the Roman Emperor Vespasian imposed a tax on urine.

You see, back in those days, wee was a prized commodity, used to tan leather, clean togas and (this one leaves a particularly nasty taste in the mouth) make toothpaste.  Budding entrepreneurs would therefore collect the liquid from public urinals and sell it on for a vast profit.

Now, the authorities have never liked taxpayers taking the piss. So Vespasian created a levy to get in on the action.  And when his son registered his disgust at this sordid opportunism, the Emperor simply gave him a handful of coins to sniff, saying: ‘Pecunia non olet’.  Or ‘Money doesn’t stink’.

Almost 2,000 years later, this response is still our industry’s favourite put-down.  That horrific TV ad your friends are ribbing you about? ‘Yes,’ we protest weakly, ‘But it’s very effective’.  That piece of junk mail that 99% of people throw straight in the bin?  ‘The other 1% make the whole thing pay back’.  Chugging?  Tele-marketing?  Stalking people across the web with re-targeted ads from a site they visited months ago? ‘We wouldn’t do all these things, unless they worked’.

Now, the olfactory appeal of the ol’ Pecunia is certainly hard to argue with.  But there are are three big problems with this response.  Firstly, all the wastage is horrifically inefficient.  Secondly, it’s needless: all the effort spent on making something that people hate could easily be employed making something they love (which incidentally, a host of studies say is a better predictor of success in the first place).  And finally, there’s an insidious ‘poisoning’ effect, that affects all of us, by turning people against brands and communications of all kinds.

Vespasian eventually discovered this to his cost: he became so unpopular that he was pelted with turnips at one point.  Fortunately, most of us are unlikely to be assaulted with root vegetables any time soon.  But we need to remind ourselves that we too depend on people’s goodwill, and that if we continually abuse it, then we’ll eventually pay dearly.

So this week’s task is to smell your marketing money again.  Go on, take a good sniff. Is there the merest hint of ammonia?  Is there a whiff strangely reminiscent of asparagus?  Do you feel like you’ve been splashing on eau-de-underpass, or the fragrance that Cher Lloyd was sporting at this year’s V Festival?

If the answer to any of these is yes, then stop.  Stop taking advantage of consumers.  Stop playing the percentages game.  Stop using ‘effectiveness’ as an excuse for awfulness.

Because what works in the short-term can be disastrous in the long-term.  And those who continually take the piss, will eventually come to a sticky end.

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