Unthinking

The surprising forces behind what we buy.

How to Charm People: A Lesson from America's Master

The appeal of not being too good.


 

Type into Google the names “Cary Grant” and “George Clooney,” and you learn that over 1,200,000 entries contain those two names together.

You also will learn that George Clooney may be the “new Cary Grant”, “the next Cary Grant,” or merely a famous actor who looks “so much like" Cary Grant.

It’s worth studying American actors because their success reveals something about us. As Cary Grant did for decades, George Clooney manages to be both improbably handsome and wildly popular with male audiences. Six times he’s been featured in People’s Annual 50 Most Beautiful People Issue, a record matched only by Tom Cruise and surpassed by no one. Clooney’s 27 films have grossed over $1.4 billion and attracted millions of men to the theaters. 

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How does George do it? 

It’s because he doesn’t threaten men. And hat’s partly because, like every popular American actor of the last 40 years, he’s not the classic “tall, dark, and handsome.” He stands barely 5’10”  (Which, not incidentally, makes him an inch taller than James Dean, Paul Newman, Marlon Brando and Robert DeNiro, two inches taller than Mel Gibson, Al Pacino, and Tom Cruise, and at least three inches taller than Sylvester Stallone.)

Clooney doesn’t threaten men for another reason: he doesn’t always get the girls. He played sexually-challenged doofuses in Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? and Leatherheads, and a 35-pound overweight depressive in Michael Clayton. In an unusual number of his movies, Clooney has no love interest at all. He almost scored one in both Syrianna and Michael Clayton, but when the movies went into editing, both actresses were edited out. (The editors decided that the romances detracted from the appeal of those movies.)

In his 2008 movie Up in The Air, Clooney’s manages to seduce a fellow frequent flier played by Vera Farmiga. They meet regularly and Clooney’s character resists falling in love with her until one night when he is no longer can resist. 

He leaves a stage in the middle of a speech, rushes to the nearest airport, and flies to Chicago to see her.

Flash forward. She answers Clooney's ring of her doorbell. Seconds later, a male voice from behind her asks, “Who’s that, honey?” We realize that it's the woman who has been doing the seducing all along. Poor jilted Boy Toy George, brought down to our level.

We also love Clooney because he laughs at his handsome image, just as Grant did. Even brief articles about Clooney use the phrase “self-deprecating” to describe him. (As a wonderful example of Grant's similar trait: When an interviewer told Grant that every man wanted to be Cary Grant, he replied, “Why not? Even I’d  like to be Cary Grant!”)

When asked about the women in his life, Clooney used to point to Max--George's now-deceased pet Vietnamese potbellied pig who often slept with him. Men sense that Clooney would buy a dozen motorcycles just so that his best friends could ride with him--which is exactly what Clooney did several years ago.

So do we like leading men who are taller, darker, and more handsome than us? No. We want them to be like us--men too whom we can aspire without fearing it's a stretch.  That’s why Brad Pitt regularly gets hair cuts that appear to cost $4, and why America’s only two tall leading actors-- 6'4" Will Ferrel and 6'5" Vince Vaughn--play chubby goofballs and not slick seducers.  Pitt's hair cuts and Ferrel and Vaughn's cut-ups bring those three men down to our level, so that men don't feel they are looking up; that's why male speakers are told never to dress too much better than the men in their audiences.)

So if you’re the rare Cary Grant look-alike who pokes fun at yourself and looks like you bond with men, we Everyday Joes will buy your act or your products, or help your movies earn over $400 million just in theaters.

But if you’re too good for us--too tall, dark handsome, confident, or self-absorbed--we pass. And men do it to women, too; both men and women can be too good for their own good.

All this recalls the wisdom of one of my favorite people, the entrepreneur/vagabond/shaman Derek Sivers.

"Confidence is attractive," Sivers once wrote, "but vulnerability is disarming."

 

Follow me at Beckwith Partners and on Twitter.

Beckwith Partners specializes in marketing services and intangibles, with an emphasis in positioning, branding and messaging, for clients ranging from venture-capitalized startups to 23 Fortune 200 companies.

Harry Beckwith, J.D., is the author of five books including Selling the Invisible and What Clients Love.

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