Erik the Red , that Viking leader from days of yore, quite possibly deserves the title of being the very first Spin Doctor for naming a frozen land mass “Greenland” in order to encourage settlement there. In spite of a few lush meadows and quiet harbors on the island, it was still a wildly optimistic description, even for a people accustomed to icy winters and fur-lined underwear.
But without a doubt, one the American pioneers of over-the-top marketing was none other than the Father of Invention himself, Thomas Edison. While best known for patenting thousands of devices and processes, Edison also was an aggressive promoter of his products, at one point launching a public relations campaign so daring that, by today’s standards, it would be the equivalent of Honda promoting Toyotas as the fastest cars on the highway.
The year was 1887. Electricity was just beginning to be widely distributed for public use and there were two major types competing for what was clearly a market with huge potential: DC, or direct current, and AC, or alternating current. DC power was Thomas Edison’s baby. He held numerous patents for devices to generate and transmit it, but it had several drawbacks — chief among them that it was difficult to distribute more than about a mile and half from the source and required very heavy wiring to transmit. AC current could be transmitted farther with lighter wiring, meaning it could reach into rural areas and allow for larger, more centralized generation plants. AC systems were being championed by none other than George Westinghouse, whose name is still a standout brand more than a century later.
Edison was heavily invested in 121 DC power-generating plants and used his powers of innovation to create an audacious publicity campaign to disparage the use of AC current. His objective was to position AC as far more dangerous than DC and his strategy was, ironically enough, to actually promote AC current as ideal for capital punishment. Though Edison himself publicly opposed death sentences, he privately paid a man named Harold Brown to develop the first electric chair for the state of New York.
The campaign was dubbed the “War of Currents” and it had many facets. Edison employees staged numerous public electrocutions of animals to demonstrate the killing power of AC current, executing mostly stray cats and dogs. They lobbied state legislatures about the dangers of AC in the home. They even attempted to popularize the term “Westinghoused” as a euphemism for being electrocuted. And, ultimately, they failed. The advantages of AC power far outweighed its slightly greater risk of electrocution. Westinghouse became a top brand in electrical generation. But Edison’s interests were not without value and ended up being absorbed into another brand giant, General Electric.
The tactic of viciously repositioning the opponent is rarely seen outside of the political arena these days. And even the most outlandish election tactics would be unlikely to include the actual killing of cats and dogs. Today, truth in advertising regulations and an ample supply of attorneys would prevent anything on the level of the War of Currents. Yet there are subtler versions of the Edison approach in the modern marketplace. Cable and satellite TV providers spend a great deal of time degrading each other in their commercials. Advertisers like AT&T and Verizon are often quicker to point out the weaknesses of the other than they are their own strengths. And Apple has done a masterful job of mocking PCs in a way that doesn’t seem to offend the users as much as it does chide unnamed manufacturers and Microsoft in particular.
I personally hope that it is impossible in this politically correct era to create a campaign as disingenuous as Edison’s War of Currents. Legal issues aside, consumers are better educated and more skeptical of any outlandish claims. That said, Edison’s approach was ingenious for its time. So as the modern day marketers of the world stay up late to craft their next strategic campaign, they would do well to give a nod to Tom Edison, not just for the light bulb that is helping them see what they are doing, but for showing the world just how diabolical a marketing strategy can be.