Gonzo Marketing, by Christopher Locke

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Subtitled “Winning through Worst Practices”, this book caught my eye when poking around the clearance section of a bookstore. Plus it referred to “gonzo” marketing, and since I’m a huge fan of Hunter S. Thompson’s gonzo journalism, I picked it up.

Christopher Locke was one of the authors of the Cluetrain Manifesto, which I never got around to reading, but meant to. In this book, he builds on Cluetrain and tries to outline what will follow the era of mass media and mass marketing, two institutions that he claims are soon to be dead. He calls his ideas “gonzo marketing”, with the conceit that, just as gonzo journalism rejected any pretense at objectivity and was all about letting loose with one’s individual voice, gonzo marketing rejects any pretense at professionalism and lets loose the individual voices of people within a company.

The idea that mass media is starting to come to an end is a pretty common one these days. The internet is allowing millions of new voices to publish their own viewpoints, and the mindshare held by mass media like television and newspapers is rapidly declining. Instead, people’s attention is spread over the long tail of other media, or as Locke refers to it, micromedia. Locke points out that mass marketing, with ads that appeal to the lowest common denominator, will probably not survive the death of mass media. But how can a large company advertise to the plethora of micromarkets that results? His answer is “gonzo marketing”.

Unfortunately, he never really defines what he means. Building off of the Cluetrain idea that “markets are conversations”, Locke believes that the best way for companies to engage their potential customers is to treat them as genuine people, rather than bovine consumers. For companies to develop an authentic voice, and engage with their audience as equals, not in the predator-prey relationship evident in such terms as targeted advertising. He has a couple examples of ways in which “gonzo marketing” might manifest itself, including underwriting of independent websites without explicit pushing of product, and fostering of communities of interest of their employees with the idea that their employees would serve as ambassadors of good will. But I thought he could have spent less time ranting, and more time developing the concepts of “gonzo marketing”.

He does ask a good question, which is why “professional” is now synonymous with boring. Corporate websites don’t have even an iota of personal voice in them. You can skim somebody’s blog, and get a good idea of the type of person they are in a few minutes, but reading a press release is like watching paint dry. I know that part of it is the fear of legal recriminations, but it’s boring. So I applaud his efforts to encourage more companies to find an authentic voice.

The other criticism I have of the book is that he attempts to write it in a “gonzo” style, which I don’t think works for a book of this type. Gonzo writing works better when relating experiences, than for trying to explain ideas. To convey an idea to a reader requires constructing a good map to the world. And rambling on in a stream-of-consciousness format just makes Locke seem like he suffers from literary Tourette’s. In other words, he’s not a good enough writer to pull off the style and make it interesting.

One of those books that looked more interesting in the store than it does upon completion. Alas.