Tax Fears Remain a Fertile Ground for Marketers

Some trusty brand is always selling a machine to crunch our numbers

Please be advised that, as of this column’s publication date, you have 19 days left before the federal income tax deadline. Failure to file returns on time constitutes tax evasion, as the IRS sees it, and is punishable by one year in prison and a $10,000 fine.

OK, hold it. Did you feel a sudden chill, a tightness in your chest, as you read the words “tax,” “deadline” or “IRS”? If so, you’ve experienced a symptom shared by millions of Americans this time of year. It’s more than just a wariness of the government and its prying eyes, but a visceral unease that accompanies the adding and dividing of the numbers that define your fiscal year.

It is, in other words, a fear of data.

Like everything with a yearly deadline, taxes make us nervous. And, like most things that make us nervous, there’s a product that’s advertised to alleviate it. Case in point, the ads on display here. For well over 70 years, data-processing machines have been our trusty helpers—whether it’s a Burroughs Tax Receipting Machine or NeatConnect cloud scanner and digital filing system. Analog or digital, 1940 or 2014, these devices don’t just promise correct accounting but also a measure of relief from the anxiety of math.

“These two ads are really about stress,” observed Tim Calkins, clinical professor of marketing at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. “Even though the technology has evolved, the human insight is the same—people struggle to keep track of all the data. There’s stress involved in both of these situations, and both machines promise to make it less difficult.”

Indeed they do. At the time of this 1940 ad, Burroughs was the world’s leading maker of adding machines, with 450 models to choose from. As Modern Business magazine enthused, a Burroughs machine “brings mechanical skill almost to the point of human intelligence. It is amazing, but it is true.” Never mind that this Tax Receipting Machine was little more than a basic calculator. But it made financial data manageable—which is essentially the same thing the NeatConnect does, just synced up with email, the cloud and accounting software. As Calkins observes, the brands’ underlying promise of anxiety reduction is as apparent in Neat’s slogan (“from tax time to relax time”) as it was in the confident bearing of the clerk working the Burroughs machine in 1940. Point being, “he’s not scrambling with a pencil and paper,” Calkins said.

Of course, evolving technology has done more than assuage the dolorous relationship between humans and data. While Burroughs sold its tax machine to municipalities eager to collect money, Neat takes aim at taxpayers eager to hold onto it. That, Calkins said, “speaks to how technology has been democratized.”

And also to how taxes, inevitable as death, are likely to remain fertile ground for marketers until the end of time.