Beyond hype; zombie George Carlin; timidity writer’s block: Newsletter 31 January 2024

Newsletter week 29: The danger of clickbait and other exaggerations, burgeoning deepfakes, a litany of dangers to the news business, plus three people to follow and three books to read.

The Danger of Overpromising

The easiest way to get attention for a product is to overpromise. It is also the best way to get customers to hate you, because they’ll soon figure out you’re a liar.

For a moment, let’s talk about Tesla. I own a Tesla (purchased before it became clear that Elon Musk had become a whack job). And a Tesla is an amazing machine. And I’m not talking about how fast it accelerates, since I don’t drive like I’m in a NASCAR race, nor about whether its better for the planet.

What makes the Tesla surprisingly excellent is how everything is integrated together — it knows to stop playing the audiobook on Bluetooth when it needs to alert me that I’m about to swerve into another car, it uses one display for the GPS and the images of other cars around me, it shows me the view from the camera on my left when I signal to change lanes. Except for tires and windshield wipers, it hardly ever needs maintenance. And I charge it at home and — on road trips — at superchargers, which is effortless and cheap.

And yet . . . this is not what Tesla and Elon Musk talk most about.

Instead, Musk continues to promise that the Tesla will be able to drive itself. The self-driving doesn’t work very well and scares the crap out of me (and if you’re driving near a Tesla, should scare you, too). Tesla also gave us an small, ugly pick-up that weighs three tons has questionable ground clearance, which are poor design choices for a truck, but hey, Musk says it will supposedly drive through a river. There is little reason to trust any of this, because Musk has a well-established track record of overpromising and delivering products that don’t do what he said, way behind any date he mentions.

Why, when you have the best-selling vehicle in the world, would you spend your time on unneeded, nonworking features of delayed vaporware products?

The answer is that Elon Musk is addicted to hype. Dependable excellence is no longer enough — apparently, we prefer late, undependable sizzle.

Perhaps we shouldn’t blame Musk. (Well, we definitely should, but bear with me, here.) We live in a world dominated by clicks. Clickbait — that is, overpromises — drives clicks. That is why my Facebook feed is filled with ads that guarantee you a bestselling book, which is both unneeded and patently absurd. A deodorant promises to make a man irresistible to women (Axe any woman: it won’t). Taco Bell says it will feed you for next to nothing. And at this point, I’m not sure why anyone would believe Donald Trump can perform the miracles he promises — balanced budgets, safe borders, affordable health care — after he failed so miserably to do so last time around.

Advertising has always made questionable promises. But our attentions spans are so short — and marketers are so desperate — that nothing short of wild, implausible, dramatic exaggerations seem to be popular. We are in an arms race of lies and fakery.

The ironic part of this is that, like the original Tesla, most products are already amazingly good.

You can get any piece of information the planet, instantly, with an affordable handheld device that takes amazing pictures and gives directions to anywhere. You can get blueberries in the supermarket any time of year and fly from nearly any decent-sized airport to any other in a two flights. Less than a year after the emergence of a deadly pandemic, we got a 15-minute at-home test, a vaccine, and an effective treatment. Life is good, and most products are cheap and work well.

It’s time for a backlash against the implausible overpromising. I’m ready for the messaging that says, “This product works well at a good price, and the customer service is solid.” I’m ready for word-of-mouth to beat the hype and the clickbait. Honest-to-freakin’-God, at this point, wouldn’t marketing about boring, dependable products actually stand out amid the noise and confusion?

I’ll start. I help authors make better books with less pain. That’s all I promise. Who’s with me?

News for writers and others who think

AI has ushered in an era of widespread deepfakes (subscriber link), including Taylor Swift fake porn and a fake George Carlin routine. While celebrities and copyright owners play an endless game of Whac-a-Mole, the flood of fakery will overwhelm any attempts at enforcement. Believe dependable sources, not your own prejudices. Check before sharing.

What’s destroying the news business? NYU professor Jeff Rosen explains on Threads that it’s a bunch of factors, from rapidly shifting business models to fragmenting audiences to a flood of crap content. No simple solution can possibly fix it.

On Jane Friedman’s blog, Alexander Lewis opines that writer’s block does not exist — that at its base, it is fear of irrelevance. If you think you’re not relevant, frankly, you really should solve that problem first.

Three people to follow

Mike Gualtieri, AI researcher at Forrester who is consistently seeing further than most of the motley crew of AI pundits.

Debby Ruth, media industry wizard sharing future-oriented insights regularly from her perch at Magid and Associates.

Margot Bloomstein, expert on interface, trust, and content that works.

Three books to read

Who Owns This Sentence?: A History of Copyrights and Wrongs, by Alexandre Montagu and David Bellos (W.W. Norton, 2024). Copyrights benefit companies — and the law is both ambiguous and unready for rapidly changing technologies.

The Laws of Brand Storytelling: Win–And Keep–Your Customers’ Hearts and Minds, by Ekaterina Walter and Jessica Gioglio (McGraw-Hill, 2019). Talking about brands sounds complicated, but there are a few rules that make it work.

The Half-Life of Facts: Why Everything We Know Has an Expiration Date, by Samuel Arbesman (Penguin, 2013). Truth is perishable.

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  1. Amen to the desire for honest advertising. I’m reminded of the movie “Crazy People” where an ad agency formed inside a mental hospital does just that, with great results. For example, “Volvo – they’re boxy but good.” (And Jaguar, which I won’t repeat in deference to your more sensitive readers.) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crazy_People I’m “in” for real talk from advertisers (and politicians!) who will speak the truth, plain and simple.

    1. The example that came to my mind is the quartet of Advertising Frogs from “The Muppets Take Manhattan” and their slogan, “Ocean Breeze soap will get you clean.”

  2. Back in the early part of the 20th century, Canadian humorist Stephen Leacock commented, “Advertising may be described as the science of arresting human intelligence long enough to get money from it.” The phenomenon you describe is not new. It’s just that the purveyors of slime are more prolific now with more available channels.