The term “softboy” came across my IG feed earlier this year. (Which probably means it’s like, 7 years out of date now because I am old, so by the time things make it to me they’re no longer things.)
It’s a variation on a fuckboy.
You know, the Red Pill guys, those dudes who do and say anything to get what they want, then manipulate, lie, and generally act like irresponsible douchebags in the dating world.
A softboy is a fuckboy who wears a feminist T-shirt.
He says all the right things, is performatively woke, and is still a totally manipulative, raging asshole.
It took me a minute to figure out why this term stuck in my head so hard, until I realized — this is the exact same dynamic I’m seeing in the online marketing world.
The dude-bro dynamic is dying. What’s coming next is worse.
So roll your mind-tape back to the early 1900s. Ads are pretty straightforward, and you get such gems like,
“They all laughed at me when they learned I can’t play the piano … they’re not laughing now!”
You know, the classic John Caples stuff.
(For the non-nerds, this dude basically invented modern marketing. It had been around in a sorta kinda form forever, because there are always humans out there who are willing to bullshit other humans, but typically up until this point, that kind of marketing mostly lived in snake oil shows. Which, btw, is the direct predecessor to modern cosmetics ads. But I digress.)
The premise here is pretty straightforward: you have this problem. We have the solution. Sorta manipulative, for sure, but by and large, and exchange of “I can help you solve your pain.”
Fast-forward through the decades though, and marketing became ever-more aspirational. Instead of providing actual solutions to actual problems (because there’s only a limited number of those), people started making up problems so that they could provide the solutions.
See: Gilette marketing women’s razors and body hair becoming “unhygienic” overnight as a prime early example.
Marketing became more and more psychological throughout the decades, eventually developing into what’s called objective-correlative marketing, which is where the underlying promise is that if you buy this object, you will experience a correlative state of being.
So, if you buy a Cadillac, you’ll BE cool.
If you smoke Winstons, you’ll BE sexy.
If you use Pond’s cold cream, you’ll BE lovable.
See the dynamic here?
A neutral object is imbued with the power to bestow a state of being on someone, and since, as humans we’re highly motivated by what’s called a consistent identity model of decision-making, in which we make decisions based on the kind of person we believe ourselves to be, and then double down on those decisions pretty much forever, this works like a dream, because if you’re not sexy and you want to be sexy, then the no-brainer decision is to buy the object that gives you the sexy state of being.
This is important to understand because it’s the moment that things shifted into a primarily psychological state of being in the marketing world.
It’s when we metaphorically moved from the equivalent of the gold standard to a fiat system in our marketing interactions.
It’s when reality stopped mattering, and the game became totally composed of interactions in the ether.
Once that happened, and we all agreed to play the mind-game, this perfectly set the stage of the rise of the second wave of masculine marketing, which on the internet is known as dude-bro marketing.
We in the online space have all been at the mercy of dude-bro marketing for about the last 15ish years, which is where you get such lovely tactics as countdown clocks and tripwires and a whole lot of other psychological tactics lifted straight from Red Pill land and applied to the then-newish world of online marketing.
Audiences were new and fresh-faced, we signed up for email lists voluntarily, and, while manipulative ad tactics have been around forever, we weren’t used to seeing them in our inboxes, and so for a while, this stuff worked really super well. The dude-bros taught us to “neg” our audience — just like a douchebag in a bar deliberately undermines the girl he’s trying to pick up, dude-bro marketers undermine their audience’s confidence, making them feel unsure, insecure, and afraid, and then position themselves and their product as the solution, which makes conversion a no-brainer.
There’s also the femme version of dude-bro marketing, btw which is the FLEB — the female lifestyle empowerment brand. Same tactics. Shinier hair. And, weirdly, like, a lot of motorcycles. I never understood that part.
While there’s been a small and vocal cadre of people who have told the dude-bros to get fucked from minute one, by and large this stuff worked. For a while. The hacks brought in money, the internet was the dude-bro’s ATM, billions of dollars changed hands, and the question, “But, like, how do you monetize that?” entered our collective lexicon.
But the problem is that dude-bro marketing has a strategic basis of psychological manipulation, and a tactical basis of hacks. Hacks have a short half-life, which means that they’re great if you want churn — aka, you get a bunch of people in the door, beat them with marketing copy like they’re cash piñatas until the dollars fall out, then forget about them and move onto the next crowd.
The thing is, people will only go through that a certain number of times. My completely anecdotal experience based on 12 years of being in business and seeing this shit go around and around is that most people will go through the dude-bro cycle 1-3 times before thinking, “There’s got to be something else.
But now, dude-bro marketing is shifting to something that may very well look nicer, but is underpinned by a manipulative and abusive system created and led by people so out of touch with the realities of everyday life that it honest-to-god frightens me.
Enter: the third wave of masculine marketing.
I’m affectionally calling it “softboy marketing”.
Softboy marketing is both infuriating and insidious, because it uses all the tools of dude-bro marketing, but with a thin veneer of humanism and a healthy slathering of performative wokeness on top of it.
My entry into this world was an online conference I attended where I was told that I’d learn “new ways of doing business”.
The leader of the conference, Marty McWoke (not his real name, obvs, but I swear it’s 2 degrees less ridiculous than his real name), then went on to teach us that:
“You should treat your customers like humans!”
“Your values should inform your business!”
“Diversity, like, really matters, y’all!”
At first, I thought he must have been yanking my chain. Because he was making these pronouncements like they were coming down direct from the mount.
Um, people are people?
Values are important?
Uhhh yeah. Yes … these are facts, Marty. Well fucking spotted.
Facts that I and others in my online business circle have been banging the drum on for years (and being told that we’re unrealistic, and rebels, and too emotional, and too soft to be in business.)
But no, these are new thoughts to Marty McWoke, and, frighteningly, most of the other people in the seminar, who seemed completely blown away by all these “revelations”.
The whole thing very California-smug, and finger-waggy, and it made me so mad I knew something was in there, so I took notes, took a step back, and analyzed it. Here’s what it all came down to:
The commodification of basic human values.
And here’s where it got super fucking gross.
Because all of these ideas, these basic values, weren’t just being mansplained to us. They were being taught as marketing hacks.
“You should treat your customers like humans! (Because that will, like, super up your conversions.)“
“Your values should inform your business! (Because that makes your marketing way more compelling, especially if you manage to line up your values with the latest online activism flavor of the month.)”
“Diversity matters! (Because then you can reach new markets.)”
I say, with the deepest contempt: fuck. that. noise.
Basic human values are not marketing hacks.
What’s more, every single example used to illustrate these “revolutionary” tactics was wildly divorced from the reality most business owners lived and — here’s the double whammy — presented as such an obvious and universal example that if anyone didn’t follow it, they were idiotic and morally deficient.
See: the example of “working in a different setting can lead to inspiration” being illustrated by:
“I was hosting a meeting with a bunch of board members, and we just weren’t getting things done, so I flew everyone to a ski resort and we all played around there for a while then worked.”
Or, for the example for “follow your inspirations, often good business things arise out of that” being
“So I was tasked with selling this particular fancy pants brand of yoga leggings. And I got the idea that we should do a yoga session at the Super Bowl. And a bunch of celebrities and football players *just showed up* for it and it was amazing and the brand took off!”
Motherfucker, that didn’t “just happen”, a whole team of people worked their asses off to make that happen FOR YOU, and the fact that you mention not ONE of the realities that went into making that happen indicates to me that you are so far divorced from the reality in which you live you have no business leading anyone anywhere because you are incapable or unwilling to understand the consequences of your actions.
Because, here’s the deal.
Some well-meaning, big-hearted business owner who doesn’t have the resources that Marty McWoke does gets all jazzed about following their intuition and does so, because the way the lesson is presented is “Follow intuition –> amazing results”, and so they go out there and try their little hearts out, but fail, because they were not given the correct information about how this shit works and were led to believe something by somebody who couldn’t lead their way out of a paper bag.
And when they fail, they believe it’s on them. They didn’t try hard enough. Their idea wasn’t good enough. They weren’t “inspired” enough, or “didn’t want it enough” or whatever else these fucking sharky “motivational speaker” types say.
When the truth is, they were under-resourced and misinformed from the start.
But they don’t know that. And so they get quiet. And they get sad. And they stop bringing their gift to the world. Stop championing their conversation. Think that those types of things are only for “winners”.
And that, to me, is goddamn tragic.
But Marty McWoke will never know. Because he is so distanced from the consequences of his actions that he’s apparently just now realizing that humans are humans, and that values-based business matters. And what he is choosing to do with that information is extract money from people.
He says all the right words. But it’s hollow, and toxic, underneath all the foofy California nicey-nice bullshit exterior. And I’m going to fight it the rest of my business life, because there is such ENORMOUS potential for us and for this industry to actually change the world, and make the world we want to live in, and I’ll be damned if these assholes ruin that for us.
Entrepreneurship is one of our most democratized access points to power. And it’s one we need now more than ever, not only because we can, or because your dreams matter, but because of a bigger shift in the commercial eco-system that’s seeing shifts in corporate super-organisms that are threatening … well, everything.
With the rise of the externalizing of customers and the exponentially increasing pace of change, we’ve got a recipe for mass harm.
But we do have one move left.
More on that in part 3.