On opening night, the audio engineer for my high school’s production of Damn Yankees told me a secret about his job. “If I do a bad job, people aren’t shy about complaining. If I do well, I get a few compliments after the show. ‘Good work on the sound’, things like that. But sometimes I’m perfect. And the way I know that happened is if nobody tells me anything. If they don’t notice the audio at all.”

Thinking about a perception — being consciously, actively aware of it — is the brain’s way of inviting it to shape reality. That’s why the easiest way to intensify feelings is to focus on them. A massage feels good largely because by the end, you’ve spent an hour thinking about how good you feel. Happy people think constantly about their reasons to be happy. The collective heart rate in an office elevator goes up as soon as the tyrannical boss steps aboard. These feelings — relaxation, happiness, intimidation, and so on — are self-reinforcing, and their power is directly correlated with our awareness of them.

This is especially obvious when it works against us. People become familiar with it when, say, they look down while climbing a sheer cliff-face. The advice “don’t look down” is a pithy encapsulation of a principle we learn early in life: our perceptions are strongest when they sit at the front of our minds — and often because they sit at the front of our minds.

In this regard, our brains assume the world is being honest. The boss seems intimidating; we dwell on how intimidating he seems; this makes him seem even more intimidating; we think about this more; I heard he fired someone for wearing yellow on Tuesday; etc. It is emotions that dictate behavior, and emotions answer the world as it seems. With enough momentum, they’ll simply override an appeal to reason like “What if the boss isn’t as scary as he seems?”

This essential naivety of the brain is what makes the audio engineer’s job possible. When he’s on the ball, the audience is free to get wrapped up in the apparent truth of the scene. That heightened awareness is self-reinforcing and strengthens the suspension of disbelief. But if the engineer makes a mistake, the sound of it draws the focus to what he’s doing and jerks the audience back to reality.

So why does the engineer’s best job sound like no job? A masseuse succeeds most when you focus on the massage. An intimidating boss wants you to fear him. But the audio engineer wants you to think about anything but his work — if you notice him, he has failed.

What differentiates the engineer is that he traffics in an entirely unique class of perceptions. These aren’t self-reinforcing, they’re self-destructive. Their power is inversely correlated with our awareness of what’s actually happening — as soon as they’re discovered, they’re useless. They include illusions, deceptions, steganography, surprises, anything that is not what it seems. And they stake their success on the brain’s willingness to believe that what seems true, is true.

The Confidence Man

Consider the following Dirty Rotten Scoundrels–style racket:

  1. Find a rich woman.
  2. Seduce her.
  3. Convince her you need a few million dollars.
  4. Take the money.
  5. Run.

A man named Helg Sgarbi is currently sitting in a Munich prison for using that routine to separate six women from a total of $38 million. His final victim was Susanne Klatten. They met when he sat down next to her at a luxury resort in Austria. A passionate affair began. Two months later, in the underground garage of a Holiday Inn, she gave him a box containing €7 million in cash.

(She only broke things off and went to the police a month later. Sgarbi had maintained close contact after the payout and sent Klatten demands that quickly escalated to straightforward blackmail — he’d secretly videotaped the two of them having sex and told her that for €14 million, he’d be willing to sit on the tape. Had he made off with the initial €7 million, he’d likely still be a free man, nothing to his victim but an old love affair.)

Susanne Klatten is the daughter of Herbert Quandt, scion of a family that has been one of Germany’s richest since World War I. She learned early on her way to becoming one of Germany’s most powerful industrialists that her position made her a target; as a teenager, she was the target of a foiled kidnap plot, and her family spent the late 1970s hiding from the Baader–Meinhof Gang. She used a pseudonym, Susanne Kant, even with her future husband, revealing her identity to him only after they’d been dating for months. She owns 12.5% of BMW and nearly all of Altana, a multinational chemical company worth more than $2 billion.

So she’s not your classic dupe. Imagine Warren Buffett driving out one night to meet someone behind an Arby’s and hand over a trunk full of cash. What Klatten did makes about as much sense — until, that is, you read what she said about the episode. Sgarbi never asked her for the initial €7 million; he told her that he’d had a car accident that killed the daughter of an American Mafia boss, and that he was expected to pay the mobster €10 million. He claimed to have mustered €3 million on his own. Klatten could see where the story was going, and according to her conversations with police, she preemptively told him that she wouldn’t help. “I said, ‘Stop it now. The responsibility is yours. You have to confront this situation by yourself.’”

But her attitude soon changed, for the simplest of reasons. “I thought he was asking for help from me in an emergency. I reflected again on these facts, feeling bad about how I had treated this man. I refused to help a man that really needed it.” There’s a reason these criminals are called confidence men. Sgarbi’s trick wasn’t getting Klatten’s money, it was getting her affection. Once that was done, the money was easy.

Back, then, to perceptions. The way things were: Sgarbi was a world-class con man. The way they seemed: he and Klatten were deeply in love. She explains their connection in touchingly accessible terms: “He was charming, attentive, and at the same time he seemed very sad. That stirred a feeling in me that we had something in common.” Her bullshit detector had been switched off. A con artist’s job is to create an illusion that distracts the mark away from reality, and for that he uses the mark’s emotions. As the vividness of the grifter’s illusions grows — the target’s emotionality is a barometer of this — so will his success. In other words, the more affecting the play, the less the audience will notice anything else.

Poker Face

Con artists are far from the only people to ply a good fraud. Humans stretch truths, invent lies, hold our tongues, use big words, and try to look like we know what we’re doing. The question isn’t “Who puts on a show?” so much as “Who does it well?”

Surprising nobody, the Italians have a word for this. When a person hides all the planning of an action, making it appear to have been effortless and almost careless — but still successful — that person has displayed sprezzatura. The practitioner’s apparent nonchalance completely hides his burning desire to get the result he’s after. Sprezzatura boils down to the ability to create an illusion so convincing and so thorough that for everyone watching, it replaces reality. Most public entities — celebrities, companies, etc. — are at least partial experts at this. Shaping your narrative is important, after all, and a free market selects against those who can’t do it. But there are experts and there are experts. And then there’s Lady Gaga.

A New York magazine profile from earlier this year gets right to the point:

“Before the meeting, I assumed that someone with a stage name like ‘Lady’ (her given name is Stefani Joanne Germanotta) was going to be a bit standoffish — that’s the strategy employed by most nervous young musicians on the occasion of their first real interview, in any case. But I never thought she was going to actually be Lady Gaga. These days, very few artists play the media like Bob Dylan, or stay in character as Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh did in his early career. ‘But Lady Gaga is my name’, she said, amazed that I would have thought otherwise. ‘If you know me, and you call me Stefani, you don’t really know me at all.’”

In another interview, when asked about staying in character, she expounded on the concept without even acknowledging that she’s playing a character:

“I think you should look nice all the time. When I meet celebrities and they’re in casual clothes, I’m always like, ‘Whaaat?’ I don’t mean to be judgmental, but it would do them better to be who they really are, all the time … This is really who I am all the time. When I get out of a car and there are 30 fans waiting for me, I know I’m dressed the way I should be. There’s a reason they have that emotional reaction.”

She’s not in character, she’s just being herself; the fact that people like her is incidental to her natural self-expression. Except, of course, she is in character, and people like her because she’s working damn hard to make sure they do. Unless she’s not. If she spends 14 hours a day as Lady Gaga and two as Stefani Germanotta, which one is the character? There’s such a thing as an illusion so complete that it’s indistinguishable from reality. As George Costanza put it, it’s not a lie if you believe it.

No performer, no company — in fact, no person — lets the public fully behind the scenes. So hiding the backstage doesn’t make Lady Gaga different. What makes her different is that she takes the pretense one step further. She hides the very existence of the backstage. Her persona is a show so engaging that not only has she made people forget the engineer, but she’s convinced them that it’s not even a show.

This Message Will Self-Reinforce in Five Seconds

Large companies may be the only entities on Earth that worry more than celebrities about how they’re perceived. In 2009, companies spent $117 billion trying to win American hearts. A lot of that money went to ad agencies, whose expertise lies in showing you which companies to love. The agencies that can’t sway affections go out of business.

The problem is that they don’t control the products they push. Only the best agencies get to be selective with clients, and even then, not many clients like being told how to do their jobs. So agencies are stuck with the task of convincing you to buy a product that may not be any good. And they work hard to do this well because the client wants a great ad. If the product is a five, you’re made to think it’s an eight. The higher your expectations climb, the better the ad agency looks.

Like any incentive system, this one can go badly awry. If you hide a product’s shoddiness well enough to convince people to buy it, that’s not an achievement. It’s a disaster that produces disappointed buyers. The bigger the gap from reality to expectations — the very gap that clients push their ad agencies to create — the greater the disappointment. This is not the stuff that repeat customers are made of.

Advertising is of course always a show. There’s always an element of artifice to it, or at least a rosy tint. But many companies regard advertising as nothing more than artifice. Mere sleight of hand to mask a product’s deficiencies, or even its essential crappiness. As it happens, though, no ad will sway someone who saw the product, put her hands on it, and walked away disappointed. Product quality is a prerequisite for sustainable sales. A Potemkin village might look nice, but you’ll have a hard time convincing anyone to move there.

Some companies understand that, and a fair-sized subset of those manage to make good products. Within that subset, there is a further subset whose marketing manages expectations well. Instead of relying on deception — a self-destructive tactic whose power vanishes as soon as it’s discovered — the companies in this group focus on cultivating positive, self-reinforcing perceptions about their products. Point out something that your product does superbly, then let people ruminate on the fact that your product does that thing superbly. It’s a remarkably elegant approach. When you market to plant the seed of a self-reinforcing perception, your ads ring increasingly true as people use your product — as opposed to the self-destructive approach, where the ads ring increasingly hollow.

This group of companies shapes their marketing in a way that few have the skill to do. But even in this rarefied air, there is one last subset, and its border is the demarcation between great marketing and the best marketing. The companies that comprise it are marketing’s Lady Gagas — the ones that figure out what to put in the show and then get right to work on making you forget it’s a show at all. They go from marketing well, to marketing well while not even seeming to know they’re doing it. As if that’s what they’d be doing if there were nobody watching, simply because it pleases them.

Even with a great product, that’s a tough spell to cast. Humans can’t be reasoned into forgetting about reality. Especially if reality says that someone’s trying to sell them something. But capture people’s emotions, and it’s a different story. Emotions make a powerful end run around people’s reasoning faculties — as Helg Sgalbi knows well — and emotional impact is essential for companies to create transcendent marketing. Even more than companies need people to think about them, they need people to feel about them.

The famous companies that do this well — Disney, Apple, Zappos, Southwest Airlines, Virgin America, etc. — are famous largely because they do it well. They craft their output meticulously, and they do it with such sprezzatura that to use their products is to enter a new reality where everything is somehow effortless and wonderful. Not necessarily because it is, but more because you feel it is. (Infamous companies are usually infamous because they excel in the same way, just in the opposite direction. You expect horror when you call Comcast, so that’s what you feel you get.)

The J. Peterman Company is a paragon of the form, remarkable for its self-assurance. Browse their site and you’ll find pictures of the products buried in a small section on the side of each product page. Instead of pictures, the main image above each product description is a watercolor of the item. The descriptions themselves are written in the voice of J. Peterman, the company’s fictional-but-swears-he’s-not proprietor. They’re short on details — the phrase “machine wash cold, tumble dry low” appears nowhere. They’re more evocative than informative. The goal is to conjure up some romance. Maybe nostalgia, too, or a bit of wanderlust. Here’s the entire description of one item in the latest catalog:

“Sometimes you find the best things in the unlikeliest places. Take this corduroy jacket. As English as the Union Jack. But I found it in Florence. I was sitting in Fuor d’Acqua in the San Frediano neighborhood. Terrific seafood place. (Better than Greens in London at half the price.) In walks this couple. She’s beautiful. Tanned. Dripping in gold. He’s equally handsome and tanned, but wearing this jacket, dripping with casual insouciance. Most of the other diners were not-so-furtively glancing at her. I, as usual, was looking out for your best interests. English Corduroy Blazer (No. 2782).”

Then they write what it’s made of and move onto the next item.

This doesn’t look like a company that cares what you think, and that’s disarming. The copy doesn’t push the jacket, it focuses on this Florentine restaurant scene. It’s a master stroke of sprezzatura that smothers your ability to think, “They’re just trying to sell me a jacket.” Instead you start imagining the faces of the couple that walked into the restaurant.

A letter from J. Peterman appears in each catalog, the same letter every time. In it, he shares his product philosophy. “People want things that are hard to find. Things that have romance, but a factual romance, about them … I think that giant American corporations should start asking themselves if the things they make are really, I mean really, better than the ordinary. Clearly, people want things that make their lives the way they wish they were.” That’s on the first page of the catalog, and then it’s on to the products.