Marketing Lessons From Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson

In my company’s coaching program, one of the key concepts is that people listen with their eyes. According to the studies I have seen, about 80 percent of what we perceive through the senses is visual. Lawyers, who tend to be, by nature and training, more likely to try to convey their ideas through speech and logic, are often resistant to the concept. “What should matter,” they tell me, “is what a good lawyer I am.” And I tell them, that’s like going into a singles bar and saying “What should matter is what a good person I am.”

I won’t repeat all I have to say on this subject. I first published an article about it ten years ago, and although my thinking has evolved, my opinion hasn’t changed.

I found myself thinking about this over the past week, as the scandal involving NFL players Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson came to a boil.

Rice (of the Baltimore Ravens) is the player who cold-cocked his wife (then fiancée) in an Atlantic City casino elevator, then dragged her unconscious into the hall. The incident was investigated. Rice admitted to the NFL commissioner that he hit his wife (as if we couldn’t figure that out). The NFL gave him a two-game suspension. The public was appropriately outraged at the leniency of the sentence, and the ante was upped to four games. Then the scandal-mongering website/television show TMZ bribed someone in the casino and got its hands on the video tape of what actually happened in that elevator. (There’s a whole ‘nother issue about why the NFL never saw that tape, leading to the inescapable conclusion that they didn’t want to.)

The elevator tape is appalling. A 250-pound heavily muscled football player delivers a staggering left hook to a petite woman, whose head bounces off the elevator handrail before she falls to the floor unconscious — as in, out cold.

My instantaneous reaction was that Rice was very lucky he didn’t kill her, because that punch surely could have done so.

It was horrifying.

But was it any more horrifying than it was in July, when Rice admitted to hitting his now-wife, and dragging her unconscious out of the elevator?

Yes, it was, because we could see it. And the visual sense overwhelms all others, including common sense.

This incident was followed in the headlines by the news about Adrian Peterson of the Minnesota Vikings, accused of abusing his 4-year-old son by “whooping” him with a “switch” or as Keith Olberman more accurately put it: “beating a 4-year-old child with a tree branch.”

At first we heard stories of cultural differences and how different parents have different philosophies about corporal punishment. Then we saw the photos of the little boy, the marks all over his body (including his scrotum) and the defensive wounds on his hands.

We respond viscerally to what we see, for good or for ill. As Malcolm Gladwell argued in his book Blink, we form a visual impression in the first few seconds of any encounter, and once we do so, it is extremely difficult to change.

Call it, with some grim irony, a marketing lesson from Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson. What people see is going to be more important than what they hear, or read, or think.

Now put them both in jail, where they belong.

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