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Sweet Sell of Success

success seminar
Robert Scheer

Stand and Deliver: Attendees at the Peter Lowe Success '97 seminar offer a hearty endorsement for the motivational speakers on hand to spur them to greatness.

The marketing of motivation to the masses

By Kelly Luker

DAYLIGHT HAS BARELY BROKEN, but the eager are already queuing up by the doors of the San Jose Arena. The doors won't open for another two hours, and by then the line will stretch halfway around the massive stadium. But these men and women do not complain. For complaining is a bad thing, spewing negativity into the universe. And today is about getting a mega-fix of positivity from the doctors of can-do--legendary sales trainer Zig Ziglar, astronaut James Lovell, quarterback Joe Montana and, at the top of the bill, former President George Bush. Today is about Peter Lowe's Success '97 Seminar.

Welcome to the $32 billion industry of positive thinking--where there are no failures, only learning experiences, no problems, only challenges, and where everyone constantly smiles.

By 8:45am, every chair in the 17,000-seat arena will be filled, mostly with young, white men and women of all ages hungry for The Good Word from these high priests

of prosperity. On cue, the 70-year-old Ziglar lopes out on stage, and audience members roar to their feet as one. The one-time door-to-door salesman who got his start pushing pots and pans has built his empire selling books, tapes, videos and personal appearances that espouse the secrets to sales success.

Ziglar shares (in motivation-speak, one "shares," never "tells") his story today. Crouching, pacing back and forth, kneeling, Ziglar exhorts his acolytes to "Run your day by the clock, and your life by a vision." Clock is pronounced clock-uh, where Ziglar doubles up and drags out the consonants in evangelistic fervor.

An overhead projector materializes, and Ziglar grease-pens an algebraic formula that goes something like this: Skills multiplied by Right Attitude divided by Character equals Success. He asks a rhetorical question: "Is it great to start-uh? No! Start-uh to be great!" And every single person in the crowd is joyous, high-fiving their seat mates and grinning wider than imaginable--even for this crowd of perennially positive souls.

Bathed in sweat, Ziglar walks briskly off the stage, which will soon be trod by deaf Miss America Heather Whitstone, Mervyn's spokesperson Joe Montana and, of course, Peter Lowe himself.

Peter who?

"That's an excellent question," Lowe says. I immediately feel smarter, more skilled as an interviewer. Those feelings barely fade as I discover that he prefaces just about every response with that statement.

We are chatting backstage at the arena, the sound of former Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz's voice wafting through on the loudspeakers, periodically punctuated by clapping and laughter. Lowe is unfailingly kind and, although he is busy today trying to edify 17,000 people and orchestrate 13 well-known speakers--including a former president--he gives complete focus to our conversation. Considering his abundant freckles, bright red hair and wide mouth, people less benevolent than Lowe's admirers might compare him to a very vibrant, very intelligent Howdy Doody.

Marketing Fervor

LOWE BRIEFLY COVERS HIS history, already laid out in the press packet. Born to missionary parents in India, Lowe worked for a while as a computer salesman before the first few verses of "Is that all there is?" started playing in his head. But Lowe did not write dreary poems or lose himself in a bad relationship, drink or drugs. The young man wisely checked into a hotel room for one weekend--hold the calls--and emerged with a list of 25 things he wanted to accomplish.

"No. 1 was to change people's lives," he recalls. At 22, he quit his job and started putting together day-long pep rallies with motivational speakers. That was more than a decade ago, and his Peter Lowe Success Seminars have since become extremely--well--successful. Lowe's people estimate that PLSS will gross $15 million in 1997.

But make no mistake: Real success is not about money. Everybody in the arena gives lip service to this quasi-spiritual concept, but Lowe walks the talk. Six years ago, Lowe reshaped his company into a nonprofit.

"Before that I was making $10,000 a day," he admits. Now, he says, "we see it as a mission." Lowe is not speaking metaphorically. A dedicated Christian, Lowe broke the cardinal rule of motivational/self-improvement/success rallies by incorporating Jesus into the Mammon. Later today, Lowe will include an optional 20-minute mini-seminar for those who want to proclaim Jesus their savior. Some will hang around for it, but most will get a restless, eye-shifting look and take those precious moments to review their day-planners ("If you fail to plan, you plan to fail!") or punch their cell phones.

The paradoxes bounce off each other like bumper cars at Jim and Tammy Faye's Heritage Park. One would think that selling the secrets of success would be the domain of the successful. But Lowe and other prosperity-peddlers--such as infomercial giant Tony Robbins, onetime professor Stephen Covey (The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People) and writer Napoleon Hill (Think and Grow Rich)--have discovered that the quickest path to success is to sell the secrets first.

It's also hard to ignore the ecstatic fervor that eerily resembles a revivalist tent show. There's the cheering, the clapping, the tears of downright religious euphoria in response to the pragmatic messages that say, "You too, can be successful!"

Although Lowe is serious--as serious as anyone in this relentlessly upbeat camp can be--when he says that money does not equal success, he would be hard-pressed to get the throng here today to agree. The get-rich-quick message has been tempered with spiritual--in Lowe's case, overtly Christian--overtones for the soul-starved '90s, but Rolex watches, Beemers and, well, stuff still seems to be the measuring rod of success for this crowd. One must wonder if the savior who upended the tables of moneychangers in the temple would be tickled about being pimped out to acolytes whose new Bible is a Filofax.

Joe Montana
Say It Is So, Joe: Former 49ers superstar Joe Montana explains the rules of the game to Success '97 attendees.

The Mall in the Sky

'THE MOTIVATION industry is akin to revivalist," says Alan Weiss, Ph.D., whose Rhode Island company, Summit Consulting Group, offers productivity training to large corporations. "That's why they still call them rallies."

Weiss looks a bit askance at the motivation/revivalist movement. He says he is more interested in "the conveyance of discrete skills--like home repair, how to handle conflict, how to communicate better."

The problem with motivational speakers, according to Weiss, is that they have mastered the golden rule of advertising--sell the sizzle and not the steak. Unfortunately, he says, the steak itself is way too lean.

"It's all empty advice," Weiss says. "You're buying self-esteem, you're purchasing a brief trip to the self-esteem store, rather than the longer-term fix, which is the acquisition of discrete skills."

Weiss is also concerned about the trend toward godliness in the industry. "It's a more spiritual tone because people can't deal with the complexities of life," he says.

He also wonders about today's lineup of speakers. "The trouble is, their basic talent is not replicable," says Weiss. "You can't replicate Montana's golden arm."

Oh, but you can replicate those athletes' pithy sayings. Just ask Mike McKee, co-founder of Successories. "Our goal is simple," says the company's soothing voice mail, "to help you reach yours." Successories does this by pushing motivational posters, paperweights, mousepads and numerous other tschotchkes through its 100 retail stores, 14-million-circulation gift catalogue and in-flight Sky Mall brochure. There's a miniature faux-granite football proclaiming, "The harder you work the harder it is to surrender. --Vince Lombardi." A baseball blares out, "Sometimes you just have to play hardball." Posters (McKee prefers to call them lithographs) urge the benefits of Goals, Effort and Teamwork, all inscribed on a soft Hallmarkian background.

"We look at this as ideas for positive people," Successories Vice President Michael McKee says. And, judging by the company's $60 million in sales last year, there are plenty of positive people--or people hoping to be--out there.

Successories' future looks as bright as one of its pastures-with-horsies-in-it posters. The company will be joining forces with the Covey 7 Habits Stores--another retail outlet spawned by, obviously, the aforementioned Stephen Covey and his mega-seller book. These stores' stock in trade are those day-planners apparently surgically attached to every success-hungry go-getter. Judging by the size of some of these leather-bound volumes that more closely resemble the New York City phone book, some people have more to organize in their day than the rest of us.

Tony Walk With Me

LIKE PETER LOWE BEFORE HIM, Greg Link, Covey Leadership Center's senior veep, also thinks I'm an unusually gifted interviewer. "That's a very good question," he says in response to why he thinks his company's approach works.

"We're more in the leadership development industry," Link explains. "Covey's an academic with an MBA. We're more sophisticated than much of the rest of the industry." It is for this reason that Covey's company avoided the infomercial route. "It would make us appear less than authentic," he notes diplomatically. But he has only kind words to say about the infomercial king of success himself, Tony Robbins.

"Tony Robbins has a great message," says Link. "But his firewalk did tend to make people look at him askance."

For cave-dwellers who never channel-surfed past a Robbins Personal Power infomercial, this is the man who is the living icon of success. Once a short, self-professed awkward geek, tossed out of home when he was 17 to live on the streets, Robbins grew to be 6-foot-7 and worth probably several hundred million or so. Last year alone, his tapes and seminars grossed more than $50 million.

The no longer geeky Robbins lives in a castle in the exclusive coastal city of Del Mar north of San Diego, a home built on the promise--sold millions of times over--that "You can do it, too!" He can pull down $4,500 a seminar, which--with smoke machines, strobe lights and screaming groupies--more closely resembles a rock concert.

When seminar participants skitter barefoot over red-hot coals for the finale, they will learn the ultimate power of positive thinking--or the ultimate consequence of not thinking positively.

There's no telling how many $299 Robbins cassette sets rest quietly in attics and boxes around the country, revealing to no one their secrets to attaining a Del Mar castle. No telling how many folks who attended Peter Lowe's shindig can trace a major career trajectory in their lives to one brilliant insight uttered that day. Just as there's no telling how many have heard that success is about chucking the organizers, spending more time with the family and giving up on getting ahead.

And that's the problem--or should we say "challenge"?

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From the June 5-11, 1997 issue of Metro

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