Lessons in Sales from John McCain

As far as I know, John McCain has never sold for a living. Though you could argue that insofar as he’s a politician, he’s never done anything else.

Whether or not you believe all politicians are salespeople, some do it differently than others. McCain “sells” in a particular way.

It’s an approach to selling that most salespeople instinctively avoid, but that many of the best salespeople have learned to seek. It’s an approach Hillary Clinton is belatedly coming to recognize.

It’s simple: be transparent.

As Howard Kurtz writes in Accessibility Opens Doors to McCain in the Washington Post,

Reporters rarely quote his aides because the man himself is available to react to just about everything. And that "infinite" access, says Boston Globe correspondent Sasha Issenberg, helps the Arizona senator.

"He’s pretty good road-trip company," Issenberg says. "The guy stays up on sports, movies and what’s in the news. I’ve had the ability to have extensive conversations with him — often Socratic dialogues — about the issues. He’s a richer candidate in stories written about him than other candidates are in stories written about them."

How candidates treat reporters shouldn’t matter in the coverage, but it does.

William Kristol, writing an ope-ed for the NY Times called Thoroughly Unmodern McCain, makes a similar point:

John McCain is a not-so-modern type. One might call him a neo-Victorian — rigid, self-righteous and moralizing, but (or rather and) manly, courageous and principled.
Maybe a dose of this type of neo-Victorianism is what the 21st century needs. A fair number of Republican and independent voters seem to think so, if one can infer as much from their support of McCain at the polls. But, amazingly, a neo-Victorian straightforwardness might also turn out to be strategically smart.

McCain has been the only Republican candidate who hasn’t tried to out-think the process. Perhaps out of sheer necessity, after his campaign imploded last summer, he simply picked himself up and made his case to the voters in the various states.

Meanwhile, the other G.O.P. candidates are creatures of our modern age of analysis and meta-analysis, and their campaigns have sometimes been too clever by half.

There’s a reason transparency works: and a lesson for those would would fake it.

The reason transparency works is it reveals motives. Unlike appeals to qualifications, credentials, experience, testimonials, track records and competence—transparency speaks to intent.

If we see someone as being transparent, then nagging questions about motive disappear. We no longer speculate about what’s in it for him, what’s the hidden meaning, why’d he say that, is he lying, and so on. We accept the person at face value for what they say, even if—sometimes, particularly if—what they say reflects imperfection. That works in sales, and in politics.

And here’s the lesson for those would would fake transparency: you had better be really, really good at it, because, if you are caught faking transparency—all bets are off. There’s virtually no recovery from being found out intentionally lying about being truthful.

The best way to be transparent about your motives? To be sure your motives are clean in the first place. We don’t like someone who’s being transparent in order to gain something (like the Presidency). We want transparency as an end in itself—a principle, a value, not a means to end.

Here’s how it’s done, from Kristol again:

There was a serious moment when BBC correspondent Justin Webb asked why McCain kept bringing up global warming — not a popular cause with many Republicans, particularly in Michigan, where resistance to fuel-efficiency standards is strong.

"You’ve got to do what you know is right," McCain replied.

"You could lose as a result," Webb said.

"There’s a lot worse things than losing in life," the former POW said.

Transparency sells. The “trick” to using it is to live your life in a way you don’t mind being exposed.

Then just be who you are.

7 replies
  1. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    These are nothing more than simply propaganda tactics. Yes salesmen use them, but realizing that propaganda is nothing more than the art of persuasion, it becomes evident how these tactics could be and are used pervasively elsewhere.

    Check out "Age of Propaganda" by Anthony Pratkanis for more information.

  2. Jeff Hardin
    Jeff Hardin says:

    Charles –

    Anyone who would stand up in front of Iowans before the caucus and tell them he doesn’t favor the corn ethanol subsidy is OK in my book … not because I necessarily agree or disagree with him about it – but because it tells you that he operates from core principles that are largely absent in other politicians.

    That principled core is what makes him attractive as a candidate to people of all party affiliations.

  3. Jeff Cullen
    Jeff Cullen says:

    Where’s the conflict of interest disclaimer? Are you sure you’re not John’s Campaign Manager? If I was a voting American (and isn’t it about time it was compulsory to vote) I wouldn’t care how "transparent" a politician was…If he speaks openly about what is on his mind, I may respect him, but I won’t trust him if I don’t believe what he says is correct. We can applaud his intentions, but should the world trust him just because he was transparent about what he thinks is right…about ethanol…oh, yeah, and that other thing…sending more troops to stay in Iraq until "we whoop those suckers…"

    So, in relation to Sales, yes, the Customer approves, and applauds Transparency…but they don’t buy it. Transparency may open the door, and it may keep the dialogue going…but if the product is wrong, or the needs are not met, there won’t be a sale.

    Charles, as a political commentator…ah, er, well…don’t give up your day job.



  4. Charlie (Green)
    Charlie (Green) says:

    Jeff, I won’t be quitting my day job anytime soon. 

    But just in case I want to, and to make sure you realize I’m hardly a McCain shill, check this post from a year ago–quite critical of McCain on the same issue.

    And I quite agree with you; trusting someone is not a sufficient condition for buying from them.  I may trust my local Mercedes dealer, but hey I’m not buying on my current Toyota budget. 

    Trust enables a sale, and increases the odds that–when somebody actually needs what you’re selling, they’ll buy it from you. Trust doesn’t drive sales, it enables them.  Ditto in politics.

    The great thing about transparency is, it makes it very easy to see if you’re a liar.  If you act transparently, and claim to be truthful, it’s the easiest thing in the world to check on.  Again–doesn’t mean you should vote for someone if you don’t buy his policies–it just means you can more likely trust him to dependably do what he says than someone who is clearly not trying to be so transparent.

    And as for "Anonymous" (if indeed that really is your name, snark snark), of course propaganda, sales, and trust are all variations on the art of persuasion.  The difference is not in the technique, but in the motives.  That’s why we have con men; they’re very good at copying technique.

    There’s no guarantee that if you buy a  painting by Vermeer, it won’t be a fake.  The better the forger, the more likely you are to get taken. 

    There are only two solutions: stop buying paintings (stop trusting), or get better at knowing the differences between forgeries and the real thing.  And there are still no guarantees.  That’s why they call it "trust."

  5. Shaula Evans
    Shaula Evans says:

    Charlie, I find your post very interesting — but probably not for the reasons you intended.

    The McCain campaign has gone to great lengths to position John McCain as a "straight-talker" — however, campaign message-control and positioning aside, McCain’s actual record doesn’t support his straight-talking claims.

    For example, see the Washington Times’s editorial this weekend about how McCain has on numerous occasions spoken out of both sides of his mouth while trying to explain his voting record.  McCain has tried to stake out self-contradicting positions on issues including immigration, campaign finance, abortion, the environment, judicial appointments, and taxes and spending.  (All of this is substantiated in the public record.)

    Someone who changes his tune to get votes and lies to voters is what I’d personally call a panderer and a sell-out, not a model of moral rectitude or an example for sales people.  (That’s just me.)

    Now, what makes this post interesting to me is that you are a well-educated and intelligent person, and probably more politically informed than the average American voter.  And yet, you seem to believe the "sales job" of the McCain campaign, and have chosen to reiterate their sales message without any independent research or verification of the facts.

    Caveat emptor.

    So is the trick to be transparent? Or to convince people that you’re being transparent (whether you are or not)?

    Or is the trick in sales to rely on most consumers (/voters / stakeholders) not making the effort to perform their own due dilligence? I.e., that most buyers will not in fact beware.

    I prefer to play things straight up, and not fake sincerity or try to hoodwink people — and I do think that’s what you’re trying to say, too.

    I just wish you had chosen a better example to illustrate your point than John McCain.

  6. Charlie (Green)
    Charlie (Green) says:


    Thanks for the excellent comment.  I think you’re probably right about McCain not being a great example, for the reasons you state. 

    In fact, even one of my own previous blogs noted McCain’s apparent ability to flip flop on the issue of ethanol in Iowa. 

    I agree he’s not an example of moral rectitude.  Nor was Gary Hart, to pick another political example, who famously dared reporters to follow him and take him at his word.  They did so, and turns out his word wasn’t worth much either.

    If McCain so sows, so shall he too reap.

    In a narrow sense, McCain and Hart both exemplify one thing I’m saying to do–make yourself available, be transparent, speak openly.

    They both apparently missed the other part of what I suggested–namely to live your life in such a way that it confirms what you say. 

    There is one contradiction that is far worse than any other, and that is to say that your distinguishing characteristic is truth-telling–and then proceed to not tell the truth.   Which is what McCain’s strategy sets him up to fail at.

    As you and Jeff both point out (more kindly that I probably deserve), McCain does not seem to live up to this second part.  

    And so, mea culpa.

    I’m not a political blogger, but if I’m going to use examples to make a point, I should get the examples right.

    So, oops.  Sorry.  And thanks for setting me right.

  7. Jeff Cullen
    Jeff Cullen says:

    Charlie! Don’t sell yourself short. I think I’d trust you on politics more than I would politicians. And anyway, I am from Australia, so my understanding of your politics is lacking somewhat. Even though your political choices affect us and the world at large enormously. No pressure, folks, just get it right!! But, seriously, the point you make shouldn’t be lost. We have had a change of government here for the first time in eleven years. The economy is strong, unemployment is low. Inflation – whipped. Confidence is high. Why did the incumbent lose? In the end, many people simply didn’t trust them anymore. Regardless of the performance of the day, voters cited instances of mistrust that went back several years. That, and the "surprise agendas" not discussed at election times – also a lack of transparency and trust. So, please, from one "political amateur" to another, keep up the good work!


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