Shock tactics, like shocks, only work for a short time

At the two-day International Metal Writer’s Conference that ended on 29 May 2017, I listened to Paul Harris whose stone-cold sober talk showed the chops of a seasoned, and trained, journalist. He knew why he wrote, how to get the story, and how to get it straight. In an industry “…in which many people are paid to pump a stock or project”, as Harris said, it was refreshing to see someone stick to the classic rules of writing for the public – detailed, fact-checked, unbiased, clinical reporting. In sharp contrast, the speaker after Harris who had thirty minutes of the packed audience’s time, Jeff Berwick, was over the top. Calling himself “The Dollar Vigilante” (misspelled “Vigillante” in the conference programme) and speaking mainly about Bitcoin, he succeeded in shocking the audience with his extreme point of view and insults. 

Emotional barrage

He started his talk on “Why cryptocurrencies are crushing gold…and why gold and gold stocks will make a comeback”,  by saying that the people who didn’t believe his earlier prediction that Bitcoin will be the next big thing were idiots – and went on in that vein. Berwick is good-looking, well-spoken, hearty and confident. None of that helped improve his appeal when he gleefully insulted the people who had given him their time, particularly the one person in the audience who had put up his hand when Berwick asked “who doesn’t like Bitcoin”. He did not answer the question “why gold stocks will make a comeback”, as per his topic. What he did say, a number of times, is how much he dislikes Chair of the US Federal Reserve Bank, Janet Yellen, whom he likened, if I recall correctly, to a member the mafia. He did say, “bitcoin is the digital version of gold and silver”,  but failed to explain the connection – if any – between “Bitcoin Mining” and Mining.

Shock tactics like those Berwick applied, sometimes work, but if they do, it’s not for long. After the presentation, people have to go home and do the research and check the math, and go talk to their banks, and then his information will be irrelevant. Berwick uses words like randomly aimed cannon balls, and judging by his big smile while doing so, he has no care for what they precisely mean or imply, or what the effect can be.

Words actually matter

A case in point: In the formal financial sector, which Berwick seems to hate with passion, specifically in Canada, there is an odd little thing that many Canadian small investors don’t seem to know about: – the difference between “advisor” and “adviser” in the title of the financial person with whom you are dealing. An “advisor” – with an “o” – can sell you shares in a toothpick factory in Timbuktu, or whatever they choose in order to make money for the financial institution. An “adviser” – with an “e” – is a legal term which means that the person has a duty to act in the client’s, not the insitution’s best interests. An “advisor” is simply a salesperson of financial products:

“A few years ago the Canadian Securities Administrators (CSA) confirmed to SIPA that “financial advisor” is an “unregulated business title” that can be used by anyone. Then why was it so difficult for small investors to learn this? SIPA-registered financial advisors [with an “o”], are registered as a “dealing representative” which is a salesperson without a requirement to look after a client’s best interests. […] SIPA’s detailed search on the CSA website discovered there are only 4,076 persons in all of Canada registered in the categories where a true fiduciary, professional responsibility is legally required to be delivered to you as the investor. This means they must act solely in the client’s best interests.” [Go here to find out how to check.]

Words matter, word choice matters, even one little letter can make a huge difference in someone’s life. Berwick’s audience would have to reinterpret or look past his barrage of verbiage in order to make investment decisions, and do their own fact-checking. Berwick’s presentation gave me no confidence in his financial or mining industry acumen, even without the post-conference fact-checking. (Note that on his LinkedIn profile’s education section, Berwick writes: “Skool is for Suckas”.)

Companies that use shock tactics

There are many businesses that employ shock tactics to get attention for their products or services – like Little Baby’s Ice Cream, whose advertisements are Surrealism crossed with suggestiveness; and the “aggressive, outrageous, infuriating (and ingenious) BrewDog”, a UK-based craft beer company.

BrewDog still breaks taboos in their marketing. They delivered the world’s strongest beer of that time, called “The End of History”, in  a limited run of 11 bottles, each artfully stuffed inside a deceased wild animal – seven stoats, four grey squirrels – costing between £500 and £700. Yep. Deceased wild animals with bottles stuffed in them. And that was just one of the stunts they have pulled. Little Baby’s Ice Cream advertising is just plain creepy, which is shocking because ice cream is usually the most benign of foods. Their first commercial was viral hit called “This is a Special Time” in which an alien-looking person eats his own head with a spoon while gazing at you lasciviously. One of their ads, below, called “Love Lickers” is less creepy, but it’s still pretty weird. Don’t say you weren’t warned. They have been at it since 2011, and I see lately they have been doing community projects, I suppose in an attempt to balance out the sheer insidious grossness of their ads.

However, ice cream is just ice cream, and beer is just beer. Mining is a whole different kettle of fish, and the mature audience at the conference did not need shock tactics to galvanize them. Shock tactics, like shocks, only work for a short time and ultimately create repulsion, not attraction. Serious and insightful commentary would have worked better, particularly at a conference where stock tippers abounded under the friendly pseudonym of “newsletter writers”. 

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