Sincerity, Sham and Satisfaction in Marketplace Performance


John Deighton (1992) ,"Sincerity, Sham and Satisfaction in Marketplace Performance", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 19, eds. John F. Sherry, Jr. and Brian Sternthal, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 462-463.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 19, 1992      Pages 462-463


John Deighton, University of Chicago

"... the giant swarm of poor moths and gnats, rushing silently and madly into the enticing flame! What unanimity in agreeing to let oneself be deceived! Here quite clearly there is in operation a general human need, implanted by God Himself in human nature ... an indispensable device in life's economy."

Confessions of Felix Krull: Confidence Man

Thomas Mann

This talk explored the implications of the idea that fraud is marketing at its most artful and and consumer judgment at its most inept. It contended that the mechanics of a successful fraud should show us the points at which consumers make errors in processing evidence and the methods by which these errors can be magnified. A confidence trick, or con, was identified as the most revealing form of fraud for this purpose.


The structure of a con maps well into the language of dramaturgy: roles, setting, plot, script and so on (Brissett and Edgley 1990, Leff 1976, Nettler 1982).

Four roles are common to most scams. The mark is the victim, selected on the basis of some psychic susceptibility to the appeal, much as a marketing prospect is psychographically profiled. The roper is the prospector who seeks out, or 'bird dogs' the victim. The scam depends on the mark's confidence in the roper, so the characters and interests of mark and roper are similar. In some scams the roper works alone, but in many there is a confederate, or inside man. Finally there is the character, usually offstage for the entire drama, who is the source of the bundle or fictitious payoff.

A prop common to many con stories is the poke. This is a reward received by the mark as bait to increase the probability of the score or ultimate act of defrauding. Poke and bundle are usually in the same currency, often money but in some cases affection, respect or affiliation.

The objective of the perpetrator of a con (and indeed of the initiator of any transaction) is to convince the mark that playing his or her part in the transaction will bring returns greater than the value of what is given up. To make this belief credible, a spiel or plot is needed that asserts mutual gains from trade between the mark and the roper.


The bald structure of a con as just outlined is not the source of its interest, any more than the fascination of generations with Romeo and Juliet could be attributed to its 'boy meets girl' structure. The phenomenon of interest is the tensions and resolutions in a particular plot.

One particular plot is the pigeon drop plot (McCormack 1976). In the preamble to this solution the roper selects a mark and arranges for the mark to find a 'lost' wallet or notebook or diary. This item discloses that a third person, the inside man, is engaged in a very profitable illegal enterprise, for example the fixing of gambles in a syndicate. Roper and mark return the article, and in gratitude the inside man invites them to participate in a round of his enterprise. In this way the mark is compromised, and receives the poke in the form of a small win.

The score then follows. The inside man announces that he wants to exit the syndicate. He would like to make a last, very large, win, but to place the bet would tip off the syndicate to his intentions. So the mark is invited to conduct the last transaction, pooling his money with that of the inside man and sharing the winnings. The drama ends and the mark emerges into reality when the inside man defects with the stake.

The Ponzi is a variation of the structure. The roper tells the mark that he will give extraordinary returns on any investment. The mark tries a small investment, and receives back a large fraction of the stake (the poke). The mark tries larger stakes, and lets on to others that they can do the same. When the roper is satisfied with the size of the potential score, he defects. This plot, once started, becomes self-sustaining. The challenge is to start it.

Charles Ponzi started it in Boston in 1920 by saying that, in the aftermath of the First World War, several European currencies were trading at rates far below the rate at which the US Postal Service would exchange their International Postal Reply Coupons into dollars. His scheme, he said, was to use dollars to buy the foreign currencies, then buy the Coupons, remit them to Boston and sell them for dollars. He advertised in Boston newspapers that he would give fifty percent interest on ninety day unsecured deposits to raise the capital to run the scheme. While his statement about exchange rates was correct at the time of the first announcements, he in fact never purchased any coupons. Investors sent him $15 million within months from which he returned them their interest. The scale of the response took Ponzi by surprise and he was arrested before he could score.

The consumer's qualm in a Ponzi scheme is not why he or she is being offered the deal. The deal is advertised to anyone smart enough to see its merit. So the issue is whether the deal is as good as it seems. Ponzi constructed a story good enough to pass this test. As the story came under public scrutiny, however, experts hastened to explain its defects. The story's fictional quality became clear, in every respect except the payment of interest, which was quite real. Consumers then faced the question of whether to continue to act in a fictional drama paying them real money. The choice amounted to calculating whether the fiction could go another round, and the consumer's analysis of this question was clouded by the desirability of the answer being yes.

The Trinity Church con, which took place in lower Manhattan in the 1920's, cast the mark as entitled to the bundle by birth. Willis Gridley identified thousands of descendants of one Anneke Bogardus, whose children had sold the church in 1705. He approached them with a spiel that asserted that there had been an error in the conveyancing, so that each was heir to a share in the property. His drama involved no poke, yet three thousand of the descendants paid him $50 each to press the claim.


When an interaction between marketer and consumer is compared to the interaction between roper and mark in a confidence trick, three crucial similarities appear.

1. Enticement. The marketer allows the consumer to glimpse a vision of the desired end state of product use. Just as the con depends on the pull of the bundle, so consumer action is driven by the enticing sense of a future with the product.

2. Scripted Action. The marketer contrives a role for the consumer to play which is well-defined and leads plausibly to the bundle. Levi's 401 Jeans work hard to coach consumers on how to walk, how to talk, how to be and where to be in their jeans. American Airlines tell business executives how they will have to act if they want to earn the right to be 'something special in the air.' Ed Debevec's restaurant employs gum-snapping, brassy waitresses to paint patrons into the roles that will ensure that they will feel they are having a good time.

3. Confirming Experiences. Corresponding to a poke in a con, a satisfying consumption experience contains a steady stream of small rewards that convince the consumer that he or she is on track toward the glimpsed vision of ultimate satisfaction. As we have argued elsewhere (Deighton 1984), marketers are more tempters than adversarial debaters. Their claims easily find partial confirmation in a consumer's experiences.


Brissett, Dennis and Charles Edgley (1990) Life as Theater: A Dramaturgical Sourceboook. New York: de Gruyter.

Deighton, John (1984), "The Interaction of Advertising and Evidence," Journal of Consumer Research, 11, p. 763 - 770.

Leff, Arthur Allen (1976) Swindling and Selling. New York: The Free Press.

McCormack, Donald (1976) Taken For a Ride: The History of Cons and Con-men. London: Harwood-Smart Publishing.

Nettler, Gwynn (1982) Lying, Cheating, Stealing. Cincinatti: Anderson Publishing Company.



John Deighton, University of Chicago


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 19 | 1992

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