The Secret Handshake

I WILL NEVER pass muster as a salesman. Even though I’ve been raised in our modern uber-capitalist environment, where advertising and chasing dollars are the norm, I must admit that I just can’t bring myself to join the club of dollar-chasers. This is a flaw of mine. No doubt in 35 years when all my mates are retired and living off their hefty super funds and telling me about the great deals they made to get where they are, I’ll be floundering, having accumulated only what the government forces me to put aside from my standard wage.

Perhaps it’s because I know so much about the machinations of marketing and advertising that I suffer from this flaw. I know that behind every television advert lies a professional and adept team of marketers and advertising gurus who have chosen their target (mark) and conducted their research before unleashing huge sums of dollars aimed at convincing that target to buy their product.

I know that Coke adverts always show young good-looking people swigging their soft drinks while laughing and chilling out on the beach. I know that the aim of this is for viewers to sub-consciously associate the brand of Coca Cola with positive thoughts, youthfulness, health and smiles. So when you’re at the corner shop and confronted with a wall of red Coke bottles, it seems a natural choice.

Although it’s a common facet of today’s society, there is something about this strategy of influence that is despicable to me.

Enter the new Harley-Davidson ‘Dark Custom’ lineup. Here is an edited excerpt from a USA Harley-Davidson letter:

We’re excited to introduce the new lifestyle piece to support dark custom marketing efforts: The Dark Custom Book. This piece is geared to show the young adult audience that Harley-Davidson has motorcycles to fit their lifestyle—right now… Distribute the Dark Custom Book in manners which create “the secret handshake” between young adults in the Harley-Davidson family. Have young adult salespeople or staff distribute the Dark Custom Book to young adult prospects in your dealership. For prospects interested in dark custom motorcycles, who don’t fit the young adult profile, use the existing new model literature to provide them with the information they are looking for.

I wonder if the ‘secret handshake’ by any chance involves Vaseline because to me it sounds like a first class wank. The phrases ‘secret handshake’, ‘Harley-Davidson family’, ‘prospects’, ‘young adult profile’, and last but not least, ‘lifestyle piece’, are not doing it for me. Such blatant use of marketing tools disrespects the very ‘young adult profile’ they are trying to attract—unless the young adults they’re targeting are much more ignorant than me. I would have thought that young adults would see right through this crap—or maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the Britney Spears Generation ‘Y’ kids are completely enslaved to MTV and flashy Dark Custom Books.

The book itself is filled with arty, punk-rock style black and white pictures and graphics. Strangely enough there are a few pictures of a guy doing burnouts on a cool old Shovel chop. The pictures are interspersed with bold statements like: ‘Outlaw choppers wore black’ and ‘stealing a girlfriend is always best under cover of darkness.’

The book seems to be promoting a lifestyle rather than a bike. Now, many of you may say that Harley’s been doing that for years. They use the idea of ‘freedom’ and ‘coolness’ to sell bikes—as much as many others would like to deny it.

The difference with this one is the depth to which they paint the picture for you. So you’re a young guy who likes black and steals girlfriends at night. You also like a dirty bike and you don’t mind getting grease under your fingers—hence all the black. Judging by all the pictures of skateboarders and snowboarders, you’re also into extreme sports. Fuck! Do I hang my balls to the left or the right? Please tell me Mr Book!

‘Custom’ from the factory does not make sense. This is the closest thing the motorcycle world has to Ian Thorpe’s famous $300 jeans—with a tear deliberately placed on the knee! It’s like buying an oil-stained shirt. Come on! No wonder Harley riders have earned a reputation in many circles as mid-life crisis posers.

My idea about selling bikes is to start with a firm base of respect between manufacturer and rider. Avoid tricky gimmicks that insult the intelligence of the ‘prospect’. Concentrate on building quality bikes. Focus on honesty when trying to sell them.

The strange thing about this marketing approach is that the Dark Custom line-up of bikes actually contains some of the coolest-looking stock Harleys I’ve seen. I think they would be popular enough without the attached marketing bullshit. But if you have to try so hard to let me know it’s cool, it probably isn’t.

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