The Common Uncommonly

All About Loyalty

The Heart of Snarkness


It’s always fun to watch movies from the pre-9/11 era that have an airport scene.  Talk about simpler times… a couple airport cops and a metal detector set so low you could walk through wearing medieval armor.

Nowadays, we’ve got the good old TSA to deal with.  Personally, I think the agents get a bum rap a lot of the time.  I like to give them the benefit of the doubt and imagine they’re just as unhappy about enforcing stupid rules as we travelers are about following stupid rules.  Of course, there’s always a few bad apples in every bunch, and yesterday I found one.  She was finding it difficult to stifle her disgust for the cattle she was herding through the checkpoint, and this gem slipped out:

“People!  Stay with your items until YOU push them into the machine.  YOU have to push them in.  The belt doesn’t go automatically like at Kroger.  It’s called manual labor, folks!”

Wow.  Thanks for that. 

Pretty impressive sarcasm, especially coming from an agency that claims to provide “world-class customer service.”  Not that TSA really cares about customer service.  Sure, they have to pay lip service to the idea, but as long as they have a monopoly on airport security, they can do pretty much whatever they want. 

Still, as I reflected on that experience, it got me thinking about the rest of us (who do want our customers to like us):  is it ever okay to be insulting when you communicate?  When are sarcasm, snark, or even outright rudeness appropriate?

It seems obvious that a company shouldn’t insult its own customers.  Very few companies have the right mix of brand, communications, and customer base to pull it off… although the stars do align occasionally.  Take Woot, one of many deal-a-day sites on the Internet.  They’re equal opportunity snarkists, splitting their time between making fun of the products they’re selling, making fun of themselves for selling the products, and making fun of their customers for buying the products.  When you call your “grab bag” special a Bag of Crap, and your customers crash your servers trying to buy them whenever they’re offered, you know you’ve got a match made in marketing heaven.

Clearly, though, Woot is the exception.  For the typical brand, insulting customers (even in fun) is too risky. 

What surprises me, though, is how readily companies insult their prospects.  Like…

  • Samsung’s new ad for its Galaxy S II phone.  It’s a direct bashing of iPhone users, who would seem to be a good target group for conversion. 
  • Apple’s “I’m a Mac/I’m a PC” ads.  Sure, they were funny, but as a PC guy myself, having a smug hipster point out my nerdiness doesn’t make me want to buy a Mac.  And if Apple doesn’t sell Macs to PC users, where’s the growth coming from?
  • Miller Lite’s “Man Up” campaign.  Because if you’re drinking any other light beer, you might as well be wearing a skirt.  Boy, I sure am thirsty after having my masculinity questioned!

In general, if you want someone to buy from you, it’s not a good idea to insult them.  So when does snark work?  When you’re not insulting them.  When you’re insulting yourself.  Like Ally Bank’s smackdown of banking.  Or Domino’s Pizza and their “we sucked, then we got better” campaign.

Want your customers to feel good about themselves?  Want them to feel good about you?  Then ditch the snark and stick to something genuine.

On the other hand, if you don’t really care about your customers… I know just the place for you!

Written by Tom Logue

December 8th, 2011 at 2:16 am

2 Responses to 'The Heart of Snarkness'

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  1. Hi Tom,

    I just had to check out this post because I love snark — but not hurtful snark or snide comments directed at me from someone who wants me to purchase something from them. Generally, I keep my snark private (my hubs and I engage together at times). I will occasionally include some in a post on my FWD website.

    Although I’m far from perfect, I can’t imagine the day when I would insult a customer or potential customer ON PURPOSE.

    TSA: I’ve had my own run ins with them. Dragonslayer (hubs) is very protective of our privacy and threw a mini-fit in the airport when they wanted to feel me up — all dressed up, four kids, two violins, and a baby (a relative’s) in tow. Yes, they picked ME as their token “suspicious” character. Needless to say, they got some prime snark from hubs and didn’t feel me up. The did, however, meticulously check my children’s violins and every baby item I owned.

    Samantha Gluck

    8 Dec 11 at 4:56 pm

  2. Yeah, you seem like a troublemaker. Violins and babies are usually a dead giveaway. Hilarious!

    Tom Logue

    8 Dec 11 at 8:55 pm

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