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You never actually own a Patek Philippe...

Patek Nautilus 5711 30

“You never actually own a Patek Philippe,” runs the tagline. “You merely look after it for the next generation.” This long-serving piece of advertising copy for a luxury wristwatch is a slice of genius. But why does it work so well?

It is an example of a particular persuasive technique that — having struggled to find a suitably arcane Greco-Roman jargon term in the lexicon of classical rhetoric — I shall term “The Old Switcheroo”. On the face of it, splashing the price of a car on something that sits on your
wrist and tells you whether it’s lunchtime yet is a perfectly absurd thing to do. Yet in 16 words, Patek Philippe has taken an essentially egoistic act of conspicuous consumption — the purchase of a status symbol — and recast it into something like an act of altruism. And, what’s more, an act of altruism that honours home, hearth, ancestors and generations yet unborn.

Buying one of these watches is not acquisitive; it is curatorial. The tag lines you up with antiquarians, rather than a crowd of vulgar high net worths flashing their bling. It comes down to the words shaping a motivation (sharing something valuable with someone dear to you) rather than a product (an expensive watch). All persuaders, and advertisers especially, know that their challenge often lies not in making people want something but in giving them permission to want it. And here’s where The Old Switcheroo comes in. Motivation is inscrutable: and in that inscrutability is a space for the persuader’s art.

It gives you room to interpret your audience’s motivation back to them in a favourable light. To say a product is 10 per cent fat is to issue a warning; to say a product is 90 per cent fat free is to salute an aspiration. You’re selling the customer a version of him or herself.

I’ve spoken before in this space about ethos — the persona that the persuader presents to his or her audience: an audience trusts a speaker whose motives they feel are honestly declared and understood. A sort of reverse-ethos also applies: a persuader can seek to project a motivation on the audience. Wash your hair with this shampoo because you’re worth it; drink this cider because you’ve earned it.

Crude and often mocked versions of this abound in business and politics: You’re not sacking the staff — you’re streamlining the business. You’re not putting people on zero-hours contracts — you’re giving them the freedom to take charge of their own destinies. You’re not reducing oversight — you’re cutting red tape. You’re not punishing the feckless; you’re helping people out of the welfare trap.

But “reverse-ethos” in its purest, most effective form is when you transform, in the audience’s mind, one desire into another. Everyone likes to feel good about themselves — so if you can persuade people that what they want is actually something they want on behalf of others, you’ve got it made.

It matters how your audience feels about you. But it matters, perhaps, even more, how you make them feel about themselves. And Patek Philippe’s advertising slogan recognises that truth magnificently — which is why the slogan has lasted so long.

It’s almost, in fact, as if it’s being held in trust for future generations.

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