98: Learning From Public Perception

Screen Capture of jcpenney's New "Auctioneer" AdAlmost 100% of my income comes from the auction industry.  Because of this, a lot of my Facebook connections also derive their livelihoods from the same line of work.  Last week, I saw a number of industry leaders posting and liking a web-published letter from the National Auctioneers Association (NAA) to jcpenney, asking them to immediately pull a television commercial that includes an auctioneer—on grounds of improper representation of a 12-figure segment of the economy.

Having not seen the commercial on TV, I found the ad online.  It shows a trite caricature of an old school “colonel,” calling bids backwards as western music twangs in the background.  And then it drops these statements: “No more pricing games.  Just great prices from the start.  That’s fair and square.”

Anybody who’s been to an auctioneer convention has met or at least seen bid callers that resemble to varying degrees the bid caller hired for this TV spot.  But anybody who’s been to an auction industry gathering can tell you that he represents the exception to the rule—at least the present and future of it.  So, the industry as a whole is probably as embarrassed by this portrayal as my college friend said she was by Crocodile Dundee being a representative of her native Australia.

I think the response, though, is more to the implication that auctions aren’t fair or square sales environments.  Nobody wants to be called unfair.  That implies shady, even immoral, business.  If that were the intended statement of the commercial, I would stand with professional auction marketers around the country in their attempt to stop the besmirching of their profession.

That said, I doubted that was the intent of the ad; so, I called jcpenney’s media relations department.  Kate Coultas, jcpenney spokesperson, emailed then called me to affirm that the intention of the TV spot was to illustrate an environment where consumers are inundated with advertised price points from various places.  A live “outcry” auction proved analogous of that concept.  Having spent time in a candid conversation with Coultas, I trust that the motif was the goal and not an attack on potential customers from the auction community.

jcpenney logo used with permissionIn an official statement, the company stated, “Our ‘auctioneer’ ad is part of our campaign to introduce consumers to our new ‘Fair and Square’ pricing strategy. Our new pricing strategy aims to put an end to the frustration many consumers have with today’s endless retail promotions. The ad is in no way meant to portray the auctioneer profession in a negative manner and we apologize for any offense we may have caused.”

Even before I spoke with Coultas—having watched the series of six ads in which the auctioneer spot falls, I extended grace to Peterson Milla Hocks (known as PMH in trade forums), the ad agency that put the series together to illustrate how jcpenney is breaking away from convention with their new, three-tiered pricing strategy.  And I refrained from any critical remarks of PMH, because they are not auctioneers.  They represent the marketplace, people of the population that only know of auctioneers what stereotypes and TV shows have shown them.  Sadly, in both those situations, an unprofessional or timeworn bid caller most likely contributed to those impressions.  My clients, peers, and I work through branding to combat that stigma, as does the NAA through robust continuing education, public relations initiatives, and a standard code of ethics.

That said, this situation presents itself with a chance for collective introspection—a chance to remind ourselves of how crucial public perception of the auction marketing method is.  Candid auction professionals must concede that, while auctions are above board, they do come with some obstacles to purchasing that retail doesn’t.  Using jcpenney as an example, its customers:

  • do not pay a buyer’s premium
  • are not charged an additional fee to use a credit or debit card
  • do not have to register at the door in order to purchase
  • are allowed to return items under certain terms within a documented time frame
  • do not have to reveal their purchases and the amount paid for them to a crowd from their community
  • are not assigned a number that they have to remember or carry with them while shopping
  • do not have to wait through audible announcement of sale terms before shopping commences
  • do not have to wait for a designated date to purchase an item
  • do not have to wait for a list of items to sell before they can buy their desired item

Am I against auctions or the auction method?  No!  I’ve purchased multiple items in live (on site) and online auctions.  I just sold my iPhone 4 intentionally through the auction method instead of listing it on Craigslist or selling it to a local electronics dealer; and when the winning bidder was flagged as a scammer, I trusted the auction method to sell it a second time.  My wife and I were even runner-up bidders last November on a house and were fully prepared to purchase it, had the bids not gone as high as they did.  If I didn’t believe in the auction method, I’m in the wrong line of work.

What can be gained with the auction method is a liability to other sale formats and vice versa.  One of the tradeoffs for the benefits of live bidding is that an auction isn’t always the most convenient way to purchase.  Some of that is immutable—the nature of the method.  Other aspects are improvable with ingenuity and technology.

Thankfully, courageous auction professionals are working toward making it easier and more convenient to buy things through the competitive bidding environment.  Most auction firms are including simulcast online bidding for those who can’t physically be present at the auction.  Others, including many of my clients, have moved to online-only auctions in which bids can be left at the buyer’s convenience—even for real estate.  One auctioneer I met allows returns of items purchased at personal property auctions.  Another auctioneer, faced with international bidders walking out of his auctions due to the unintended intimidation through his speed talking, told me that he has killed the chant in his bid calling—as have international auctioneers I watch on Velocity.  Some firms are moving to mobile payments and/or killing fees.  Personally, I think eBay’s Buy It Now concept and auction tracking app are both positive ideas for the auction industry.  The list of innovations and redirected strategies is dynamic—a rising tide continuing to lift all progressive boats.

The fight to save and grow the auction industry is in the hands of us who market in it every day.  Our success will require us to step out of our perspective, our conveniences, our assumptions.  Our jobs will most likely continue to require more steps and a wider skill set.  I’m in this, too.  To maintain value for my clients, my responsibilities, packages, and services have changed over the past years.  Have you found that to be true?  If not, how long do you think your status quo will serve you well?

While researching for this post, I discovered that jcpenney also got negative feedback recently for hiring Ellen Degeneres as a spokesperson.  Apparently, OneMillionMoms.com, a project of the American Family Association, is encouraging people to boycott the department store for hiring a lesbian endorser.  Sadly, it’s no surprise that these calls crescendo from evangelical Christian roots and voices.

My friends and acquaintances who have struggled with same-sex attraction are no less acceptable to God than my heterosexual friends who have struggled with porn, premarital sex, extramarital affairs—or for that matter, gossip, laziness, bitterness, jealousy, overeating, or ignoring the speed limit.  We are all broken people who can’t heal ourselves.  Not one of us can attain heaven, wholeness, or God’s favor with our own effort.

So, I don’t understand the boycott—what is wanted, what is hoped.  A sinner-free jcpenney would put the chain out of business in a week for want of a single customer or employee.  Based on John 3:16, we know that Jesus wants Ellen and her partner in heaven—and heaven working here in and through them—as much as he does in and through any of us.  In light of that, how does a vociferous boycott align with those goals?  And how can redeeming, restorative love be observed by the secular world in the fanaticism from those who claim to carry the Holy Spirit in their heart?  Last time I checked, there was no passage in the Bible suggesting anyone boycott an unbeliever into soul-level repentance and saving faith in what Jesus did for them.

[footer]Images used by written permission from jcpenney.[/footer]


  • Rod Smith

    Good article but I failed to see why the last section was added condoning homosexuality? Evidently while you may know the auction business well you don’t know the Bible very well. Compassion yes but misrepresenting biblical teaching no. Using the auctioneer platform to promote the homosexual agenda appears to me a bit unethical.

    • ryangeorge

      Rod, if you check 95% of my AdverRyting posts, you will find a spiritual application in the “Taking It Personally” section beneath the main article. I believe good advertising principles correlate with good spiritual and life principles. As someone who takes the Bible literally, I believe homosexuality is wrong. But the Bible also calls us to love the people God loves and to realize that we all have fallen short. The Bible speaks against gluttony, but the American evangelical movement don’t boycott fat spokespeople. The Bible speaks against exasperating children, but the American religious right doesn’t rail against specific bad parents. Jesus said that those who were forgiven much love much (during his encounter with the woman who washed his feet with her hair and tears). I’ve been forgiven too much not to agree with God’s mercy for others and his desire to draw them to himself as much as any living soul for whom he died.

  • Carl Carter


    As another communications pro serving the auction industry, I also understood the frustration with the stereotyping, but I felt the reaction made us look prickly. When we come off defensive like that, we just multiply the damage by calling more attention to the ads and presenting ourselves in a negative light. I agree with you that our reputation as an industry is made one building block at a time in the daily work we do.

    We would have been better off showing a little sense of humor about it. People who can laugh at themselves get the benefit of the doubt.


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