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Thomas Edison's Nasty Marketing Tactics

Everyone's favorite inventor played dirty to succeed

Electrical currents passing between circuit boards

Thomas Edison Used to Be My Hero

In fourth grade, I read a biography of Thomas Edison, the creator of the light bulb and the man responsible for movies. When you’re 10 years old, that was a really big deal. I have to admit that it’s still a big deal 50 years later.

Creative souls, innovators, and visionaries turn me on, and Thomas Edison had been on my radar for decades. I’ve been to his summer home and laboratory in Florida twice. Both times, I was blown away by the brainpower, the hundreds of inventions, and the more than a thousand patents.

Then I read Graham Moore’s “The Last Days of Night,” a novel about the battle between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse to supply cities with electricity. “The Current Wars” was an ugly period in the history of marketing. In a brutal, bitter fight, Thomas Edison employed downright dirty publicity techniques. I was crushed upon learning what he did, and my opinion of the famed inventor plummeted, a hero falling in full-flame from the sky.

The Current Wars

In recent years, much has been written about the fight between titans of industry to bring electricity to our cities. The titans of industry were fighting to control the greatest need of our nation: electrical power. The problem was this: Thomas Edison, a phenomenal marketer and brander of his products, had invented and patented the lightbulb. But he’d developed it based on the principles of Direct Current (DC).

Nikola Tesla was a creative genius who was convinced that Alternating Current (AC) was the way of the future because it could be transported long distances and go through a transformer to change the voltage. George Westinghouse also believed in Alternating Current and teamed up with Nikola Tesla to buy his existing patents on AC machinery. They desperately wanted to defeat Thomas Edison and his quest to make DC the standard for America.

But Thomas Edison was not to be deterred. He used every technique he could think of to cast Alternating Current in a bad light. (Sorry. I couldn’t resist the pun.)

Thomas Edison’s Down and Dirty Marketing

It’s shocking.

Thomas Edison was so motivated to win the current wars that he resorted to dirty marketing. If you have lost your moral code and want to crush your competitor, what do you do?

You market their product as dangerous and deadly.

That’s exactly what Edison did.

Characters of a Real-Life Marketing Drama

Thomas Edison personally opposed capital punishment, one of the thousands of people in the population who objected to the barbarity of public hangings. The debate was so intense that as early as 1834, New York lawmakers were discussing the elimination of hanging because of so many botched attempts. The convicted didn’t always die quickly, swinging and kicking, choking for long minutes. In some cases, the criminal was decapitated.

Enter Alfred P. Southwick. Southwick, a dentist and engineer who had experimented with using electrical current as a numbing agent during oral surgery, was serving on an official committee investigating means of execution other than the controversial hangings.

Southwick had been influenced by the death of George Smith, a dockworker from Buffalo, New York.

To teach people about the newly harnessed force of electricity, the new power plant in Buffalo had invited the public to come into the plant. They wanted to eliminate superstitions and misunderstandings about electricity. As the public came into the plant to see the equipment, many visitors found that they got a pleasant sensation from the vibrations of the railings around generators. Getting that tingling sensation became a cool thing to do, an unofficial perk to touring the power plant.

After a night of heavy drinking, George Smith must have wanted to find out what all the buzz was about. He broke into the power plant. Instead of standing by the generator and putting his hands on the surrounding railings, he put both bare arms directly on the generator and was electrocuted. The staff found him the next morning, both arms still attached to the machine, with no outward signs of injury.

Southwick assumed that George Smith had died quickly and painlessly, and since he was searching for a new method of capital punishment, he thought of electricity and contacted Thomas Edison for ideas.

And you know what Edison says?

Even though he detested capital punishment, Edison suggested an “electric chair” that would kill people using Westinghouse’s Alternating Current.

Not such a nice guy after all.

Mean Marketing Tactics

Edison had no shame in his fight against Westinghouse.

  • He secretly connected with a guy named Harold Brown to design an electrical chair using Westinghouse’s Alternating Current.

  • He empowered Harold Brown to actively smear Westinghouse’s push for Alternating Current.

  • He knowingly encouraged Harold Brown to purchase Westinghouse AC “dynamos” from companies that already owned them because George Westinghouse had refused to sell any equipment for purposes of execution.

  • He coined the phrase “Westinghoused” to describe what happened to convicted criminals killed by the electric chair.

  • He knew about and condoned the use of animal killing to defame AC, hiring Harold Brown to travel to Eastern cities demonstrating the danger of AC by electrocuting dogs with Alternating Current day after day. (The strays had been purchased from neighborhood boys for a quarter each.)

  • He made these public statements:

“Just as certain as death, Westinghouse will kill a customer within 6 months after he puts in a system of any size.”
“Direct current is like a river flowing peacefully to the sea, while alternating current is like a torrent rushing violently over a precipice.”
  • He utilized this marketing line:

“Do you want the electrocutioner’s current in your children’s bedroom wall?”

Westinghouse Put Up a Good Fight

No one wants to have his product labeled as the deliverer of death, and Westinghouse did what he could to overcome Edison’s attacks:

  • He refused to authorize any sales of his equipment for purposes of execution.

  • He spent thousands and thousands of dollars to stop the execution of William Kemmler by electric chair. He was unsuccessful. Kemmler was executed on August 6, 1890, in a gruesome debut of the electric chair, which didn’t deliver enough voltage to kill him on the first round. The event took eight minutes and ended after two administrations of current which induced violent muscle spasms, burst blood vessels, and burning flesh.

  • Westinghouse nearly went bankrupt buying out Nikola Tesla’s patents and offering him a royalty on AC equipment so they could beat Edison.

The Triumph of Westinghouse’s Alternating Current

At the end of the battle and despite Edison’s dirty marketing, Westinghouse won. The Alternating Current delivery systems created by Tesla and manufactured by Westinghouse made AC accessible and safe. Edison’s claims turned out to be false.

In 1893, Westinghouse’s company was selected to electrify the Chicago World’s Fair, and two years later, it was Westinghouse who was chosen to install AC generators at Niagra Falls.

Edison’s electrical exploits fizzled out and he moved on to developing movie projectors, batteries, mining equipment, and experimenting with rubber. His electrical company merged with another company, Thomas-Houston, to form General Electric, GE, a company that believed in and pursued products that utilized Alternating Current.

Lessons for Modern Marketers From Edison’s Sleazy Strategy

  • No matter how much negative marketing is done, if one product is superior to the other, it will survive.

  • The “halo” theory of marketing, where an experience with one product will positively affect your opinion of the rest of the company’s product line, is powerful. Everyone believed in Edison-branded products.

  • The “horn” theory of marketing is the opposite of the “halo” effect. When you have a negative opinion of one product, you dislike the entire brand. This is what Edison tried to do to Westinghouse. It utilized fear-mongering and worked only short-term.

  • What’s better than “dissing” the competition? Promoting your strengths, which illustrates confidence, knowledge, poise, and maturity — all traits that engender trust.

  • In today’s time, Edison could have easily been sued for defamation because he named Westinghouse. If you are going to illustrate why your competitors aren’t worthy, don’t name them by name.

  • In the weird world of business, you don’t want to discredit your competition. You never know when you’ll be forced into a merger.

  • Smearing the other players in your industry only makes you seem petty, vindictive, and unprofessional. It results in the loss of reputation.

Believe me. I know. Thomas Edison will never again be the paragon of virtue that my 10-year-old self believed him to be or the brilliant, benevolent marketer that my adult-self had supposed.

While I respect Edison’s intellect and drive, his reputation is forever tarnished by his down and dirty marketing against Westinghouse’s Alternating Current.

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