Is Your Marketing Killing Laura Palmer?

David Lynch’s landmark television show Twin Peaks sets out to answer one question: “Who killed Laura Palmer?”. I’m not going to spoil the answer for you if you haven’t seen the show, but I will tell you just a little bit about Laura. I promise, this is definitely about marketing eventually.

laurapalmervideoLaura Palmer was the classical all-American girl next door prom queen. She delivered food for Meals on Wheels and tutored a developmentally disabled teenager. She was bright-eyed, blonde, and gorgeous. And, as with many David Lynch projects, her sunny, smiling exterior hid a dark underbelly. She was the victim of horrific abuse and struggled with addiction. She ran drugs with a cadre of dangerous criminals and engaged in a series of lurid affairs many men in town.

Laura Palmer contained multitudes.

One of the main themes of the Twin Peaks series is that Laura Palmer functioned as a canvas for the people of the town to project their desires upon. To her classmates, she was the beautiful social butterfly. To her best friend Donna, she represented a seductive independence from banal suburban life. For certain men in town, she was a fantasy woman who represented virginal purity or repressed desires. Even for Dale Cooper, the valiant FBI agent sent to investigate her murder, she was less the human victim of violence and instead a prototypical Damsel in Distress for Cooper to chase, an echo of a woman from his past he’d failed to save.

During Laura’s funeral, her boyfriend seizes on this projection. He screams at the assembled mourners, “You wanna know who killed Laura Palmer? We all did.

He has a point; Laura’s friends and family saw her as an archetype rather than a person and this dehumanization pushed her deeper underground. She was treated as a symbol, stripped of her human dignity, and this sparks the terrifying events of the show.

I find myself thinking about Laura Palmer sometimes when I’m working on marketing campaigns, particularly when we’re discussing our personas and how we want them to engage with our content or website. Other departments will come to us and say things like:

  • “Can we remove this button so that people can’t empty their shopping cart quickly?”
  • “Why aren’t we on page one of Google? Do some more SEO.”
  • “Execs want to know if you can lower our bounce rate.”
  • “Let’s advertise things we don’t actually sell on the site so people know we’re industry leaders and could get those things if we really wanted to.”

laura screaming in anger

Again and again, I see ideas come across that privilege our business objectives over a customer’s interior life and experience. Again and again, I see us reducing reducing customers to the exhaust, the byproduct seeping from marketing activities.

Can clever marketing get people to fill out forms or buy products they otherwise wouldn’t? Of course. I’ve read my Cialdini and my Gardner and my Gladwell; I know how to exploit psychological shortcuts to nudge people where I want them to go, and to some extent you can’t be a good marketer without that. Even so, centering customer agency and dignity is the most sound strategy for building long term relationships. Ethical business people want to put the right content in front of customers at the right time to help them make an informed decision to buy the right product. Why? Because returns are expensive and happy customers will come back for more.

No potential customer is out there hoping to be viewed as some numeric part of a conversion rate. No one looking to solve a problem is eager to be reduced to a mathematical function in your reporting. These numbers exist to make decisions about marketing materials, but those decisions need to be made with a view of the customer as a full being:

  • Bounce rate is just the mathematical result of site visitors giving up on your site immediately because it’s frustrating or opaque. You don’t “lower bounce rate”, you be more relevant and easier to use.
  • Blog subscriptions aren’t there to beef up an email automation list; they’re evidence that people in your industry view you as a place to learn things that help them solve problems. Again, do the hard work and be more relevant.
  • Rankings on search engines are simply measures of how much of a value you are in your industry. You don’t “do more SEO”… you guessed it: be more relevant.
  • Profit margins are the rewards customers give you for solving their problems, not bonus points to be scrounged up just to move a bar graph higher. You don’t increase margin, you provide more value.

This message was reinforced by the #Inbound conference this year: stop treating customers as outputs and treat them as inputs. I would take it one step further: almost always be talking about what the customer needs rather than what your business needs. Obviously our KPIs help us know if our efforts are working, but I think we should be careful to remember that KPIs are the byproduct of obsessing over customer intimacy, not the other way around. Laura’s crying out for help; listen to her.

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