Archive for Bad Marketing

The ESP MusicCord PRO, an audiophile power cord

You already know my bias here–obviously I’m going to say the ESP cord is a scam. But I honestly believe in testing things to determine the truth. If the results defy my prejudices and prove me wrong, I will always own up to it and give credit where credit is due.

A friend loaned me an ESP MusicCord PRO for testing. Rather than relying on my own ears, and opening up the possibility that somebody might say I was lying, or that the test wasn’t fair, instead I did a single-blind test on TalkBass, where everyone could decide for themselves what they were hearing. Here is the link to that test. I did a previous test that was also informative, but had many flaws in methodology so I nixed it; however the flaws did not change the validity of the results–they only pointed out the need for more stringent methods.

I took a pre-recorded bass track, and ran it through a tube amp with a post-power-section line out, and then recorded the resulting output. I powered the tube amp with the MusicCord, and with a flimsy cheapo 18 AWG cord of the same length. I recorded one track with one of the cords, as a “control”; then I recorded two more tracks, one with each of the two power cords, for comparison. Absolutely no post-processing was done to the tracks. Then I posted them with the simple question “which track, A or B, sounds like the control?” Since the source material was identical, any audible difference could be directly attributed to the power cord swap. If a majority of people could tell that one track was “more like” the control than the other, then that would suggest there was merit to the idea that the power cord could have an effect on the sound.

The result, predictably, was that there is no evidence of any audible effect from the cable. Just as many people “got it right” as “got it wrong”, and 80% said they could not hear a difference at all. And more to the point, ESP claims the difference is obvious, like night and day. Their video “proving” the effect has a dramatically audible difference. But in my test there is absolutely NOT a clear or night-and-day difference. Even the people that thought there was a difference admitted that it was a barely audible distinction, and that the perception vanished after one or two more listens to the tracks.

So even if we were to cling to the few people that “got it right”, and ignore the statistical evidence outweighing them, we would still have to question whether ESP’s “proof” was created in a legitimate, unbiased manner. Actually we know it wasn’t, because the musician visibly plays more enthusiastically when using the MusicCord, and this changes the tone, the dynamics, and the amplitude. He also begins playing lower notes at the point where he says how much fuller the lows sound. So their “proof”, their demonstration, is in fact a lie. A cynical, predatory, calculated lie, with no other purpose than to extract your money.

It’s exactly like the pills and potions that promise a larger “manhood” or a cure for baldness. They proliferate until the Feds get enough complaints about individual brands to investigate and shut them down. So far, there have not been enough complaints about these fraudulent power cord advertisements. And unfortunately, there is no way to prove that a person doesn’t hear an improvement! So as long as the only thing the cable-makers claim is that their cords “sound better”, there is really nothing the regulatory agencies can do about it.

It’s worth noting too that the $160 ESP is actually one of the cheapest audiophile power cords out there. Some of their competitors cost ten times as much, no exaggeration! Each one of those companies has customers, too–and those customers develop such belief in the product that they will not only swear they hear the difference, they will even evangelize other audiophiles to buy the cables too. This frees the vendor from even having to make their own fraudulent advertisements! The suckers do the dirty work for them.

For your continued amusement, here is another TB thread on the same subject. And here is an article about a double-blind (ABX) test on a MUCH more expensive power cord.

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Product endorsements versus the truth

Whenever you find yourself in a technical discussion about whether a given “miracle” product actually does what it claims, WITHOUT EXCEPTION there will be at least one person who says “Mick Bigtime endorses it, and Mick is world-famous for his artistic accomplishments, so obviously the product must do what it claims.” Some of the more realistic-minded people in that category will say “whether it does or doesn’t do exactly what is claimed on a technical level, Mick likes it and therefore it does something good, and that’s all I need to know.”

There are so many things wrong with those lines of reasoning that it makes my head explode.

First, there are a lot of other reasons why an artist may endorse something. Sometimes they just like the reinforcement it gives to their famous status. Sometimes they like getting a discount on their favorite brand or getting backline support. But the main, most important reason is that they are just as prone as anyone else to being fooled by psychological factors that make any of us hear things non-objectively. Being famous does not give anyone the power to defeat their own brains.

Being a successful musician does not automatically give someone an engineering education on how their equipment is designed internally. It does not mean they understand the real reasons why a device will seem to work a certain way. When they talk about the science behind the gear, nearly always they are just parroting what they were told by the people that sell the goods. The “defenders of the faith” will say they don’t need to know why something works the way it does–they just trust that if a sucessful artist likes it, then it works, and that’s all that matters. But when the artist has bought a bill of sale, bought into the claims of a manufacturer without really understanding, and allowed themselves to be fooled, then the faithful are sucked in with them, like debris in the undertow.

I’ve heard some endorsing artists say “I get paid for the quality and sensitivity of my hearing, so I know that what I heard is real”. The thing is, that artist only knows what they heard–they typically don’t know why they heard it. And this is important because when they (as endorsers) go around saying they heard such-and-such a tonal effect from some great product, they influence other people to buy that item, even though those other people will probably not get the same results! Or more importantly, they may be able to get the exact same results without spending so much money.

For example, my favorite axe to grind, instrument cables. If a certain cable is claimed to have “deeper lows and smooth warmth”, odds are it had higher capacitance relative to whatever other cable it was being compared with. If it is claimed to have “bright sparkling highs and fast transient detail”, odds are it had lower capacitance. If it’s a $200 cable and Mick Bigtime endorses it, then Joe Consumer will think he has to spend that kind of money to get those tones. But instead he could just shop for cables by paying attention to their capacitance, and get ones higher or lower according to taste, for normal working-man’s prices.

Of course there are cases where it’s all in the imagination, as with boutique power cords. There are no excuses there, no matter how famous the endorser, no matter how good their ears–any difference they heard with a super-exensive IEC cord was strictly imaginary. Same goes for high-end HDMI cables, and other digital cables. People who endorse imaginary things, and the people who spent big bucks based on those endorsements, need a serious freaking wake-up call.

That’s where science comes in, and that’s why it is seriously worth your time to pay attention when somebody who has no financial stake in the product makes an effort to explain factually HOW the product does or doesn’t work. It’s not a case of “lab nerds listening with their calculators instead of their ears” as some kind of enemy to “real musicians who know what they hear”. In fact those so-called nerds are trying to help the musician get better results for less money! Once you have learned some science behind the products, you are not so dependent on the hyped sales pitch from the vendor; and you won’t be fooled by the misleading appeal of a famous person’s endorsement.

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Marketing copy writers: quit while you’re ahead!

Lately I’ve been especially irritated by one particular aspect of much of the advertising copy in the music-gear world: the tendency to take a good product, with perfectly legitimate good features, and make it disgusting by advertising false or misleading features instead.  This is probably prevalent in other fields too, like cameras and cars, but I don’t pay attention to them as much.

One example is instrument cables.  You’ve seen my post about “snake oil” claims, and you may have seen me ranting on this subject over on TheGearPage; but what really bothers me, more than the falseness of their claims, is that the cables usually have legitimate good merits—so why not focus on those in the ad copy?  Why not say “our cable has extra rugged construction, great flexibility, heavy-duty plugs with extra strain relief, and beefy solder joints” instead of all that nonsense about fat wires for bass and thin wires for treble, or “time aligned” signal transfer, or transmission-line theory applied to non transmission line cables.  Why lie when you have perfectly good truth to tell?

Evidence Audio is a perfect example of this. Their “Lyric HG” is actually one of the best-quality cables on the market, with excellent real, measurable performance. Yet the Evidence website and marketing materials are drenched in utterly irredeemable bullshit. Not just hyperbole, but outright lies, weasely misinterpretations of “science”, and tonal claims that are nothing but fantasy.

Another case is the Tech21 “1969″ amp head, about which my TalkBass acquaintances will have seen me arguing already.  The amp is probably really good—it has many fine qualities, well worth advertising.  But they decided to crap all over it by making ridiculous claims about “analog wattage” versus “digital wattage”, and asserting that because their amp is analog, therefore it works like an all-tube amp, and making a big deal about how “digital” amps have limiters because they sound bad when clipped… ignoring the fact that most analog solid-state amps also have limiters, for the exact same reason.  And ignoring the fact that most so-called “digital” amps are analog but with a switch-mode power supply…  They could have just said “our amp sounds awesome when driven into clipping, just like an all-tube amp, unlike most other solid-state heads”.  This is a great selling point, a real desirable feature, and it could plausibly be true.  Why all the misleading sleazery instead?

I’m sure I’ll think of more examples later, and expand on this post.  Bottom line though, copy writers: stick with the legitimate good qualities of your product—your customers will respect you for it.

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Small biz owners: do you speak for your brand?

If you spend much time on internet forums for musical gear, you will have seen (or been) the owners of small companies posting answers to questions or challenges about their products… and you will have seen some of those conversations go very badly.

The fact is, forums can be brutal places, full of keyboard warriors and idle hotheads.  But you cannot just ignore those venues, because they are a fast-moving word-of-mouth network about your goods and services, and if they spread bad words then your business could go down in flames without you even knowing what happened!  So you have to participate—and if you are not so great at communicating via the internet, then you really ought to get somebody who is good at it to do the talking for you.

I can name so many examples.  Ken Smith is a classic—he has been banned from public forums several times due to his foul, mean-spirited attitude; and I personally will not ever buy anything from him.  You may argue that a consumer is buying the goods, not the attitude of the company owner—but many consumers, like me, don’t want to send our money to a person who has insulted or attacked them, no matter how good the products may be.

A contrary example is Genz Benz: their public communication with customers is so good that I very much want to buy Genz Benz products—without even trying them!

A bass builder I’ll call “D.C.” is another negative case: he started out selling fake Fender guitars made from cheap Chinese parts with a Fender decal on the headstock.  Then people on forums called him on it, and he got defensive and outraged.  D.C. went ballistic, calling everyone on the forum idiots and other names, and fighting viciously with anyone who pointed out his obvious shenanigans.  Then later he stopped putting the fake Fender decals on, and posted “see?  I don’t use fake Fender decals”.  And later he started using a less obvious supplier of Chinese parts, and said “see?  Everyone who said I use those other parts is a moron and a liar”.  Obviously this is not a person I would do business with, and many people that saw how he behaved feel the same way.  The sad thing is, if he had been honest and civil from the start, he would be in a much better position now, because there’s nothing inherently wrong with the quality of the products he makes.

In most of these cases, the hostile brand owner thinks they have the right to talk that way.  Ken Smith says “I’m a New Yorker, this is how we talk”.  But the New Yorkers I know personally are just brusque or direct in their speech—not actually mean or nasty.  Another guy I dealt with said it was because he was Irish, he couldn’t help flying off the handle.  D.C. said “I was being attacked on the forum, wouldn’t you want to defend your livelihood too?”  But the thing is that if what people are saying is true, then you have no right to get upset; and if what they are saying is false, then you should be able to calmly and maturely demonstrate evidence that supports the real truth.

So you and me, let’s take stock for a minute.  Are you a hothead sometimes?  Do you flare up when people say things you don’t like?  Do you find yourself arguing on the internet more often than not?  Does it seem like everyone there is dumping on you for no reason?  When somebody says something bad about one of your products, do you immediately think “there goes another keyboard warrior big-mouth who doesn’t know what he’s talking about“?  When somebody questions your attitude, do you get upset thinking they are saying something bad about your products?

All of those are warning signs that you might not be the best person to represent your company on the internet.  I know, money is tight, you can’t afford a PR person to just sit around happy-talking with everyone on the net; but surely there is somebody in your company or in your family who has a level head and a cool manner?  Stop thinking about how much it will cost you to have them do the talking, and start thinking about about how much it already costs you in lost sales every time you open your mouth defensively!  Remember, you may be responding to only one or two people directly, but hundreds, maybe even many thousands of people will read what you just said!  And they are all potential customers.

Another, much more innocent angle is older people who are not comfortable with communicating via email and the web.  Many people who have the experience, the inclination, and the capital to start a small business are people who already had a long career (perhaps as an engineer, or a builder for a larger company)—and that means many of those people are older.  A lot of older people just aren’t familiar with the current norms of internet communication, and this can lead to some terrible misunderstandings and even fights.  There’s an amplifier brand trying to get off the ground, and they’re having a lot of trouble right now because the owner has made some very clumsy communication gaffes; and he doesn’t know how to stop the cycle and get out of that hole.  He’s doing the best he can, with good intentions, but everything he says seems to make matters worse, and it’s just not working for him.

If that sounds familiar to you at all, take stock and consider whether there is anybody else in your company or family who might know how to handle these things better.

Even if you are the one person who knows all the answers about your products; even if you are the one person able/authorized to make commitments about service, prices, or other obligations; even if it’s just you, nobody else in the company—if bickering on the internet has been a problem for you, then take this seriously: you will really benefit, and survive longer, if you delegate the communications to somebody else.  They can relay important questions to you, and then they can take your answer and deliver it to the person with the question or problem.  Let somebody else do the talking.

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Greenwashing make Hulk mad.

OK, this doesn’t have all that much to do with audio electronics, but I just have to take a moment to vent about greenwashing.  For those that haven’t heard this term yet, greenwashing is when a company uses bogus or flimsy ecological claims to advertise and promote their goods.

Examples:

—A car company that has a hybrid model, where the ads are full of trees growing, flowers and grasses sprouting everywhere, innocent deer, and the syrup-voiced announcer assuring you that buying this car will save the planet for future generations.  News flash people, buying a car does absolutely no good for the earth!

—Detergent that comes in a bottle made of 10% recycled plastic, where the detergent company wants you to know how much they are doing for the planet and the children.

—Mayonnaise made from “only real ingredients” because they care about your health.

—Oil companies that advertise they are committed to sustainable energy sources such as wind, solar, nuclear… and oil of course.  Like they really give a crap about windpower.

—Garbage bags that are biodegradable, which is supposed to be so earth-friendly, except that when the bags break down they just disperse plastic particles all through the groundwater and food chain.

—A chicken company that brags their chickens are “all natural” because they don’t pump their birds full of water and salt… even though everything else about the chicken factory is horrible.

—And my favorite, where the announcer says “green isn’t just a color nowadays; green is everything from the foods we eat to the cars we buy… so we thought we’d help you save a little green, by taking 10% off our everyday low prices.”

You see and hear these sorts of advertisements every day.  Seems like every other ad on TV is crowing about some eco claim, saying they’re protecting the planet, and soothing you with pictures of trees and birds.  It pisses me off, because the large majority of their claims are badly exaggerated or outright empty.  For some people this will result in buying lots of consumer goods that don’t do diddly-squat for the environment.  For others this will annoy them into a reactionary attitude of “screw those hippies and their eco nonsense”.  Neither of those results is good for the planet, the environment, or the future.

There are legitimate eco products and businesses out there, but most of them don’t have the kind of advertising budget it takes to get on national TV or major radio shows.  So all we see all day are ads from companies that don’t really have anything good for the environment, but they DO have massive advertising budgets, and they are willing to lie to you through their smiles and computer-generated acres of trees and flowers.

I don’t really have anything constructive or original to suggest here.  I just hate the empty promises we get barraged with all the time, and it makes me especially mad when those empty promises play on people’s desire to “do the right thing”.  It turns us all into fakers, hypocrites, and reactionaries.  You want to do some real good?  Don’t buy so much stuff!

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Vintage gear: the cons and cons

Wait, isn’t it supposed to be “the pros and cons”?  Well, it’s true that there are lots of pros out to con you.

We’ve all seen and heard endless claims about how older instruments and gear are better; nobody makes ‘em like they used to; the originals are the only ones worth having; and of course vintage mojo is the source of sweet tone.   Sometimes those things are true, in specific instances, but not true to nearly the extent that so many people would lead you to believe.

Some older gear is simply old.  Equipment gets beat up over time with use, and electronic components will commonly expire and drift out of their ideal operating range.  This can cause older electronic gear to perform and sound quite differently than it did when it was new, to an unpredictable extent.  Capacitors are one common victim of old age–you will hear repair techs talking about a “cap job” pretty often when refurbishing older gear, and this just means replacing all the capacitors, especially the electrolytics.  When somebody says their old preamp or EQ for sale is just like the ones the Beatles used at Abbey Road Studios, you have to wonder: did it sound different for them when it was operationally new?  Remember that vintage gear was new back in the old days, and probably did not have all the quirks, mechanical hiccups, noise, or distortion that such an item may have 50 years later.

So when you see a piece of gear or an instrument being advertised as vintage, just replace the word “vintage” with “old” in your mind, for a quick reality check as to whether the item will be sure to give you the tone or performance that is claimed.

I’ve only recently realized what an issue this could be in my compressor reviews, as many of the comps (especially rack units) were old, well-used, and probably out of spec.  Is the MXR Dual Limiter really as bad as I said, or was it just that the one I happened to buy was decrepit?  I’ve been told by a former Aphex engineer that the Dominator 720 was designed to be totally free of coloration or distortion, yet the two I bought had terrible tone and distortion, even though one of them looked like it was in “mint” condition.  Should I buy a third one, brand new, just to find out the truth?  One of my internet acquaintances bought an Aphex 651 that was unused old stock, still sealed in its original box, and it’s giving him all kinds of trouble–even though it could be sold as “new”.  Sure it had never been used, but it still got old.

Some people have had great experiences with vintage gear.  Their favorite items might be old, but were well-maintained over the years, or were refurbished recently.  Or they just got lucky.  You might get lucky too, but you may have to buy an awful lot of duds before you find the good stuff.  If you see (for example) a vintage guitar in really good condition, you have to ask yourself “why didn’t it get played much?”  Even the great instrument companies turned out plenty of not-so-good units, even during their glory days.  That’s a natural side-effect of using natural (highly variable) materials like wood, and of course human error in the assembly.  As a result, there are lots of vintage guitars out there which are in surprisingly good condition, because nobody wanted to play them–they sucked.  70′s Fender basses are a classic example: for many years people avoided them because they were thought to be much lower quality than the early 60′s stuff; but when the frenzy of vintage guitar buying hit its peak in the late 90′s and early 00′s, and prices skyrocketed for 60′s guitars, both buyers and sellers started looking at stuff from the 70′s as a plentiful and more affordable source of “vintage mojo” for sale.  Sure, there were certainly some gems from the 70′s production; but you’ve got to realize that the only real selling point today for a typical 70′s Fender bass is that it’s old.

So does “old wood” really sound better, after aging and playing in smoky bars over the years?  Maybe, sometimes.  Wood and metal do both change on a molecular level over time, and under vibrational stress, so there is legitimate science behind the claim.  However, the actual audible results are not at all predictable.  Maybe a certain piece of wood sounds better when it has aged, but maybe worse or maybe the same.  No guarantee, and no way to know without trying the instrument yourself and hearing whether you like it.

Naturally we consumers want to buy mojo that will make us sound better and look cooler.  And naturally a seller wants to unload their merchandise on anyone they can convince to buy it.  This creates a “perfect storm” of fools parted with their money.  Sellers will say all the right things to make you believe that magical fat sweet tone will be yours, if you just buy their classic vintage gear.  And we suck it up.

It’s the same axe I always grind: “Use your own ears, and don’t believe the hype”.  And realize that any old gear you buy may need some work to be brought back into spec, for proper performance.

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Pedal builders often get too full of it.

Some of my best friends are pedal builders.  Really!  But today I want to talk about an unpleasant trend that I see more and more of, as the population of pedal builders increases.

“We use only the finest carbon-comp resistors and Alpha pots for superior tone.”  Sounds great, right?–except those are not actually great, special, expensive, or rare components.   They are common as dirt, and they will not necessarily improve your tone.  Same goes for the “indestructible housing” and the true bypass switching “so none of your precious tone is lost”… come on.  It’s just the same Hammond box and Alpha switch that everyone else bought from a catalog, and they do not imply any greatness on the part of the builder who bought them.  In fact often the 3PDT switch isn’t even implemented very well, lacking a pull-down resistor or other pop-reducing circuit.  The pedal company Aya brags that they use five different kinds of solder in their pedals, for better tone!  Por favor.

Another one that galls me is the claim that I see quite often that a compressor pedal is “based on the LA2A” or “uses a genuine opto-isolator just like in high-end studio compressors!”  But the reality is that merely using an opto-isolator will not necessarily give you results even close to what the pedal builder wants you to believe.  For one thing, those “genuine” opto components in nearly all opto pedals are just common little inexpensive bits from a catalog, while the high-end units have custom-designed opto components that have their own signature response.  Plus the vintage and high-end units typically use audio transformers, tubes, and a variety of other bulky and expensive components that add just as much to their tone and action as the opto elements do.  I’m not at all saying opto pedals are “bad” (in fact I usually like them a lot), but what I am saying is that the hyped-up advertising text about “based on the LA2A” etc. is usually nothing but empty words.

I also see way too many pedal builders puffing up their “artistry” by yakking on about the subtle nuances of their designs, when really they just copied an existing circuit and made one or two little adjustments.  I got into this over on a guitar forum recently, and offended some pedal builders there–they wanted to preserve the sanctity of their lofty status as craftsmen, when many of them are really just hacks.  A lot of the time a “boutique” pedal builder’s only contribution to the pedal is the labor to assemble it, and the paint job.  Some of these builders even use pre-made circuitboards from another supplier (such as GGG or BYOC) yet they still brag about the refinements of their “handmade” pedals.  Many of these builders don’t know anything about electronics and circuit design beyond what they learned by copying Tubescreamers and Fuzz Faces.  One of these geniuses (Michael at Mammothsound) actually tried to tell me that a buffered switch is the same as a 3PDT switch, and that relays are never used for bypass switching, and get this–”I know, because I build pedals!”

Don’t get me wrong, pedal building can be a deep art, the product of many years of education and experience.  There are some builders out there who really bring something worthy to the table with novel, complex, or elegant designs, and I truly admire their efforts.  I aspire to be like them when I get my own electronics business up and running (after I complete my EE degree).  But those deeper designers are in the tiny minority.  It makes me ill when I see one more variation on a common old circuit, given a fancy paint job and a clever name, surrounded by hype.

Certainly if a person has a product to sell, they should advertise.  But don’t try to sell me yesterday’s leftovers on a fancy new plate.

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Consumers bonding with providers

Many years ago I was a tattoo artist.  During that time, while building up my clientele and networking with other tattooists, I observed that customers were very eager to stick with one artist and say that he or she was “their” tattoo artist.  Often this was the first tattooist that had worked on that customer, or at least the first decent one.  There is a bonding experience that occurs when somebody marks you for life.

Strangely, I later saw the exact same thing occur with the significantly more trivial relationship between a consumer and the products they buy.  A person buys Brand ABC speaker cabinets, for example, and suddenly Brand ABC is the best choice possible and can do no wrong.  If someone else comes along and says “actually, Brand ABC cabs are fairly inefficient and the specs they published are misleading”, the loyal customer is infuriated!  They must defend their brand!  They will say the other person doesn’t know what they are talking about; they will say the cabs sound awesome and that’s all that matters; and if they have exchanged even one email with the person in charge of Brand ABC, they will say he is the most honest and trustworthy person they have ever met.

I’m not saying this happens to every consumer every time, but it happens often enough that I observe people on forums acting this way every day.  It’s amazing the lengths they will go to in defense of their brand.  I suspect very often people feel that any criticism of the products they chose (and paid good money for) is a criticism of them as people.  Saying “Brand ABC published misleading specs” translates, in the mind of the Brand ABC user, into “you are an idiot for buying something bogus”.  Another common mental translation is “Brand ABC cabs sound bad”.  The specs critic never actually said that, but that’s what the loyal user figured they meant.  Then the user will say “they sound fantastic to me, and that’s all that matters, and you must have bad hearing, or never actually play any gigs”, even if the critic was just trying to comment on unrealistic claims made by the manufacturer.

News flash: your equipment choices do not define you, and criticism of the equipment you chose is not a criticism of you.  Speaking for myself, you can point out flaws in the make or marketing of the equipment I use all day long, I don’t care!  Like anyone else, I made my choices based on what sounded, felt, and looked good to me, and what I could afford.  I have plenty of criticisms of my own gear–nothing is perfect–and that’s OK.  I can acknowledge the shortcomings of any item without feeling bad about it, because it doesn’t reflect on me personally, and it doesn’t detract from the good qualities of those items.  Presumably the good qualities outweigh the bad, or I’d sell off the item in question.

Of course it’s perfectly OK to trumpet about those good qualities!  Just don’t do so as a way of trying to shut up people who have something disagreeable to say about your brand.  And for goodness sake, try to read criticisms at face value–if someone says your guy made a bad decision, don’t counter by saying your guy is awesome.  Awesome people make bad decisions all the time.  That’s life!  Roll with it.

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