“The Catcher in the Rye” and the
Art of Phony Marketing

Catcher in the Rye


It’s the new catch-word in online marketing, whether in corporate circles or among the entrepreneurs who can make the most of it.

But what does it mean?

Let’s cut our losses and forget the clueless corporate crowd. It’s much more interesting to focus on the micro-businesses that are cropping up everywhere (with more coming due to the blessing-in-disguise layoffs this recession is fueling).

Many well-intended souls are all about authenticity. After all, this means you don’t have to care about that phony marketing and sales stuff… you know, like understanding human psychology and engaging human emotion.

How’s that working out for you?

My guess is that, like me, a lot of these “anti-marketing” marketers are big fans of The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger. The story’s “anti-hero,” Holden Caulfield, was as authentic as they come, and he railed against all things “phony.”

But is Holden worth listening to when it comes to online marketing? I’d say we’d have to take a closer look at “Catcher in the Rye” author J.D. Salinger to answer that question.

J.D. Salinger on Human Psychology and Emotion

Make no mistake… The Catcher in the Rye is an authentic piece of art. It’s so authentic in its examination of teenage sexuality and angst (mixed in with a healthy dose of profanity) that it made 1951 heads swim.

The first teacher to get the axe for assigning the novel in class got canned in 1960 (she was later reinstated). By 1981, “The Catcher in the Rye” was both the most censored book and the second most taught book in public schools in the United States.

What in the world caused this divisive uproar?

Was it the authenticity of Holden Caulfield? Yes, but that’s not the whole story.

The rest of the story… was the story itself.

I’m not saying J.D. Salinger wrote “The Catcher in the Rye” for fame and fortune. I think it’s pretty clear at this point the man wanted neither.

But did J.D. Salinger purposefully craft a story that would connect with the emotions and psychological hot buttons of his audience? Did he strategically tap into the hearts and minds of an entire generation, and every generation since?

Yes, he did. And that’s what all you “anti-marketers” need to understand.

The “Great American Novel” tends to make the Great American Author filthy rich and terribly famous.

Why do you think that is?

Put Some Art into Your Marketing

People who think art is sacred and marketing is dirty tend to be terrible marketers and marginal artists.

People who think art is irrelevant and marketing is about tricking people into buying shit they don’t need tend to be terrible marketers and worse human beings.

Be authentic.

Be real.

But put some art into your marketing.

Touch people’s emotions and mess with their minds (you know… in a good way).

It’s what they want.

About the Author: Brian Clark is founder of Copyblogger and co-founder of the writer-friendly Scribe software. Get more from Brian on Twitter.

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Reader Comments (55)

  1. says

    I really enjoyed this post Brian.

    I find authenticity and ‘understanding human psychology and engaging human emotion’ compliment each other well.

    A genuine connection requires both parties (much like if a tree falls in a forest) to occur.

    The marketer presents themselves with an understanding of these principles and the recipient feels understood and engaged with.

  2. says

    Awesome article, Brian! Something that I’m rather excited about is the way complicated times often inspires the art community. And to bring that art, that creativity and spark into your marketing… That’s so the sort of thing that feels really good to be creating *and* that gets your customers all kinds of interested. I just did my own very, very minor form of this with an “art project” for Valentine’s Day that went out to clients and other favorite people and it’s been really great hearing from people who got the mailing and how it brightened their day (and inspired them to hire me ;-)).

  3. says

    Hello Brian, You and your writers at Copyblogger are by far the most authentic writers I have seen; your material is interesting, witty and unique. I enjoy and look forward to your posts each and every day. As a new blogger, your advice has been priceless.
    Thanks for the great material!

  4. says

    Terrific post, Brian. It’s high time that art and commerce moved in together. Artists can be entrepreneurial and entrepreneurs can be artistic. When that happens, we get close to authentic magic.

  5. says

    I particularly liked the part about making the author “filthy rich.” But I also liked not being afraid to market “art.” Good art will hold up over time. I look forward to your posts. Kari

  6. says

    Brian – this is a brilliant post…one of the best and most incisive I’ve read in quite a while. As a marketer who feels a constant tug of war between art and persuasion, high philosophy and sales psychology, I walk this edge constantly, and it’s not an easy business. One wants to leave beauty in this world, because beauty transcends and lifts the world. Yet one also wants to inspire action.

    As Ogilvy said, “When Aeschines spoke, they said, ‘How well he speaks.’ But when Demosthenes spoke, they said, ‘Let us march against Philip.'” If we want to effect change, we need our constituents to march–and that takes more than authenticity alone.

  7. says

    Another great, sensible, articulate article by you Brian. Authenticity and art mixed with emotion and passion from one of your earlier articles is where it’s at. Not always easy to achieve, but worth every bit of the effort. Marketing isn’t a dirty word, it’s just that some dirty people mess it up.

  8. says

    I’ve worked in a few “sales” position and struggled with the concept until I realized the difference between an effective salesperson and a pushy one.

    An effective salesperson helps someone make a decision to get something they want or something they need. A pushy salesperson tries to get someone to make a decision to get something they don’t want or don’t need.

    In the hands of a good salesperson you feel heard, taken care of. In the hands of a pushy salesperson you feel like you’ve just been slimed.

    But to know what a client really wants or really needs you have to work with them on an authentic level. Good selling is a service business. When you stop thinking of it that way, it becomes a process of manipulation and coercing.

    For books, people want to be entertained or educated. “Messing with their minds” is one way to entertain them, so you are giving them the service they came to you for. It’s all about finding out what people really want.

  9. says

    Amazing article! Too many people are trying to be that con-artist marketer hoping to strike it rich, to only fail miserably when that one guy that can be trusted comes in and sweeps everyone off of their feet.

  10. says

    As both a marketer and a writer, this post is right-on. I get your blog via email and had to click through to comment. Your posts are always excellent. I like the way you used “The Catcher in the Rye” example to make a point. Marketing is not about tricking people. It is about considering who your audience is and figuring out how to give them something they want. You certainly did that for me in this post. Bravo!

  11. says

    It’s easy to think of great novelists as being “above” mere commerce, but most of them squarely considered themselves professionals, and professionals get paid. Even someone like Flannery O’Connor, who was no fan of most popular fiction, spent a lot of time grousing at her agent asking when they intended to get into gear and sell one of her stories, because she had bills to pay.

    Craft (and compensation) and art aren’t enemies. In fact, they can go quite nicely together. :)

  12. says

    That is the best article on marketing I’ve seen all year! I’ve been talking to clients about authenticity lately and you have perfectly encapsulated what I was meaning – and very elegantly too!!

    I love a holistic approach – when people bring who they really are to their clients and their business, amazing new possibilities emerge…

    What if we were all willing to be the amazing people that we really are?

  13. says

    “mess with their minds … in a good way” Love that!

    I HIGHLY recommend Dan Pink’s book “A Whole New Mind” for more good mind messin’ ideas.

  14. says

    Hm…what is art except persuasion? Just as a jazzman can convince us of his own truth at the moment, or a writer his, so an artist can.

    The point in art is to get to the resonance, it is a call and response from your heart and mind to the heart or the mind of another. How is that different from marketing, from selling? Selling your truth as it is at the time.

    And if you are really good at it, your art, people thank you for it. It brings pleasure, eases pain, solves a problem. Perhaps endures and resonates on and on.

    So artful marketing…yes, most certainly. Hearts and minds… does anything of worth happen without them?

  15. says

    Effective authentic marketing necessitates fine artistry and it’s about time someone said so.

    When performed with a passion that encompasses a deep understanding of human nature and emotion, a true belief in the value and benefit of what’s being offered, and a sincere caring for your audience, authentic marketing is a thing of great beauty to behold.

    Legendary marketers, like great novel writers, painters and other artists, are masters at grabbing and holding attention, empathizing with, challenging, uplifting and enabling audiences to see with their own eyes and experience for themselves the value and benefit of the “masterpiece” at hand.

    And because they’ve taken time to “walk a mile” in their prospects’ shoes before they attempt to communicate with them, great marketers are able to tap into and speak in the “voice” their audience is best able to hear and that will most readily elicit the desired response.

    If effective authentic marketing isn’t a fine art form, then I don’t know what is. Your passion and masterful “strokes” always keep me coming back for more, B.

  16. Andrew Wells says

    Brian, I really enjoyed this post. I try to reread the Catcher in the Rye every couple of years. I too, wrestle with the moral implications of marketing. I believe there is a very small distinction between ethical and non-ethical marketing. So on the same note, for all the “pro-marketers” out there, be mindful and respectful of that distinction.

  17. says

    When I see “Catcher in the Eye”, my eyes light up. :-) But, seriously, it’s one of the rare books that really evoke emotion from a reader. I first read the book when I was in high school. I’m in my 30s now. But, whenever I see Catcher in the Eye displayed in the bookstore, I want to re-read it, or at least browse a few favorite pages. It’s that kind of connection that keep me going back to the book.

    Thanks for the post. We, bloggers, could learn a lot from Catcher in the Rye.

  18. says

    You write:

    The “Great American Novel” tends to make the Great American Author filthy rich.
    Why do you think that is?

    Good point and so true. How can you on the one hand be so against marketing and with the other, create a work of art that is dearly appreciated by so many people?

    It really does seem like an oxymoron.

  19. says

    May I also add… and I could be wrong about this… but could it be possible that some artists are so against marketing because if they begin to market and do not succeed, they will then have no excuse for their lack of success?

  20. says

    On my journal, I basically try to sell myself – as my writing doesn’t slot into any specific genre. It’s really more about creating a fanbase and admirers than it is making personal connections.

    What I mean to say is that once you garner enough attention, it becomes very unproductive to make a personal connection with every single person.

    I’ve seen it happen to people who blew up really quickly YouTube. They struggle with handling it and start reverting to “you guys” instead of the 5 specific people who were originally watching them.

    It amuses me.

  21. says

    Loved this post. By way of example: my husband doesn’t enjoy reading novels much. He loves reading car magazines. His favorite is Car and Driver. He’s got me hooked on it for the same reason he loves it…the writing is excellent! Pithy, witty, artistic and addictive. And I don’t even care that much for cars:)

  22. says

    Brian — you’re starting to get through to me because of your balanced approach to thought leadership and marketing — not too many people are doing this.

    I realize marketing is important but I think people take it as an end in itself, and completely ignore the genius that goes into the original product. This is ugly.

    I’m glad you have revealed the essence of what many of us bloggers are trying to creating: art. But then to say “put some art in your marketing” — now that’s great stuff. That gets us out of our caves and into the real world.

  23. says


    Very interesting post.

    All too often, people forget that the goal of marketing is to position a brand by shaping the perceptions of target market segment customers about it. Messing with people’s heads, as you have put it, is the number one job of any marketers who knows what they’re doing.

    The point is, a product is not just its core benefit. A product is really a combination of many things, including feeling that is derived from consuming it. Designer labels sell so well not only because of their quality, but because they offer the customer the feeling of exclusivity and luxury. Rolex and Omega watches are so highly sought after not merely because of their quality, but because of the status that they convey upon the wearer.

    Deprive a luxury product of its status perception and, more often than not, you will end up with a devastated brand – as Lacoste found out when they decided to take their product mainstream and sacrifice exclusivity for mass consumption.

    In the case of Lacoste, the product itself did not change one bit – what really changed was the marketing associated with it, and, in turn, the perception that customers had of the product.

    Like it or not, but, when the chips are down, it is the marketing that surrounds the brand, rather than the brand itself, that makes or breaks a business.

    For this reason, there’s nothing wrong, to use Brian’s expression, in “messing with people’s heads” – it’s not only right, but it’s also how us marketers earn our keep.

    Because in the end, we are responsible for one thing, and one thing alone – the bottom line.

  24. says

    This is a very interesting post.

    I find it particularly interesting that advise to Touch people’s emotions and mess with their minds.

    This explains the power of ORANGE’s (the mobile phone company) advertising. In their advertisements nothing links their advertisements directly to their products, but it messes with people’s minds and actually makes you think about the product more.

  25. says

    I absolutely love this post. I’m an authenticity, shame, and belonging researcher at The University of Houston. I also just started an “artful” authenticity campaign on my blog (I’m an old-school community organizer and that’s come in handy in the social media world).

    I can’t wait to share your post with my blog readers. Thank you!

  26. says


    Considering that this is my favorite book and so often mis-cited, I really enjoyed your article. Emotion is still the key to connecting with an audience — if you really believe in your product and yourself, then nothing in your writing about it will be “phony,” and holding back on emotions other than indignation is no less phony on its own.

  27. says

    Well, it’s not Teletubbies, but it’s a still good article. The kind folk at MYOB have just this day given me a Small Business Owner blog to write. They’ve done nothing to temper my unusual style. I don’t even use their product! So I can promise frank exchanges & minor mind messing for sure! Best regards, P. :)

  28. says

    Be authentic.

    Be real.

    But put some art into your marketing.


    Be in it for the long haul, and set yourself up to be sustainable.

  29. says

    I absolutely LOVE your site. Thank you, not just for this entry but for so many with valuable insight. You practice what you preach and I truly appreciate it.

    The Stumbling Blogger

  30. Doug Hughes says

    Wow, yeah… I remember the book vaguely, but back in those days I was too busy being an authentic teenage screwup to read it.

    Since we’re on the topics of psychology and marketing I am surprised nobody made mention of the marketing psychology contained in the statement that, “By 1981, “The Catcher in the Rye” was both the most censored book and the second most taught book in public schools in the United States.”

    Telling eh? Is that the herd mentality that we so often try to evoke in our prospects? Ooh…and what about the controversy…and the opportunity to unite different markets against a common enemy.

    I don’t know how things were when the book came out. Like I said I was too busy being a misunderstood teen. But today I can imagine a book so controversial would be an (authentic) marketing goldmine. The Da Vinci code had a similar polarizing effect on the masses that led to tons of back-end and long tail sales.

    One more thing…

    Nice writing – ooh – I hate that this site always makes me so green with envy.

  31. says


    Considering that this is my favorite book and so often mis-cited, I really enjoyed your article. Emotion is still the key to connecting with an audience — if you really believe in your product and yourself, then nothing in your writing about it will be “phony,” and holding back on emotions other than indignation is no less phony on its own.

  32. says

    Great post– just found it on Twitter.

    People really do want to be sold. It’s in our natures to take advice from others and be influenced…even if we may say otherwise.

    Connection to others…we crave it, we need it, and we use it to our advantage all the time. Sales is communication, and people vote with their wallets on who’s doing the best job communicating.

    Communicating a message that appeals to the masses will result in sales even if the intention to sell is not the writer’s intention. Creating a message for that purpose is no less valid, and only those who want to be poor would object.

    Dave Cleinman

  33. says

    I’m a former English teacher, and while I have to disagree that creating great art will make you rich and famous, there have been many great writers who managed to mix “art” with the juicy stuff that is appealing to the masses. As a matter of fact, writers who cross the boundary from high-brow lit to popular paperbacks are some of the best at what they do. You’ve made a very interesting point here. I think authenticity itself is the core of a marketing strategy. Phony can’t be sustained for long. However, a writer needs to be “authentic” about what matters to the readers, or he will have none.

  34. says

    That last subhead, “Put Some Art into Your Marketing”, may be the best 75 (or so) words you’ve ever written and I hope that the 95% of the people who need that really, really, really get it.

    Thanks for that.

    And may all that need it, throw those words down on the hot dusty ground and roll around in them like a hyena in a pile of ….. never mind, you know what I mean 😉

    And if you’re one of those who think you don’t need this, then you need it more than anyone could ever need anything. Get off the delusional train and buy a ticket on a marketing train heading 180 degrees in the opposite direction.

  35. says


    Yeah. Put some risk into your marketing.

    Put some blood into it. Some pain.

    Some truth. Put some Ani into it.

    Some risk. You’ll fail more often than you succeed. But when you succeed…..

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