ISIS Turns To Sleight-Of-Hand To Show Off Its Wallet. That's Not Helping, Guys

It's a time-honored tradition at tradeshows for vendors to use outlandish performers—acrobats, models, jugglers, comedians, etc.—to boost booth traffic. But the Hippocratic Oath of publicity is: First, do no harm. ISIS seems to have forgotten that rule in its struggle to gain a mobile wallet foothold, by referring to its show spokesperson as a "cyber illusionist" and its presentation as a "trick." That's not a confidence builder for a financial app.

ISIS has faced criticism for being overly vague and unable to articulate any significant differences—let alone advantages—over rivals such as Google Wallet and PayPal. Add the fact that ISIS is the only one of those three that hasn't done a public trial, and the sensitivity of not appearing substantive should be huge.

Ideally, what ISIS wanted to do at its much-hyped event Tuesday (March 13)—where it officially debuted its mobile wallet—at the South by Southwest conference in Austin is go ultra-heavy on specifics. Geek 'em out, throw out so many advantages, technical safeguards and wonderful features the others lacked that it radically would undermine their reputation as vague marketers.

So what did ISIS do instead? It used as its face at the booth someone who identified himself to the crowd as a "cyber illusionist." (Let's start here. It's unlikely a team of linguists could have come up with a more-regrettable term than "cyber illusionist" for a mobile payments company trying to convince retailers that it is substantive and trustworthy.)

The cyber illusionist then began what he called a demo, but which he also referred to as a "trick." Did anyone in marketing even try and vet this guy's script? If the answer is "yes," that explains a lot. (By the way, the "demo" wasn't a demo, in that the presenter didn't show how the payments would happen in the real world.)

The presentation involved three phones, a lot of fast shuffling and synchronized marketing videos. It was truly a cross between a slick PowerPoint and a Penn & Teller magic routine. There's nothing wrong with that, unless you believe the best way to convince retailers you're not slick and deceptive is to perform a multimedia version of three phone Monte.

Marketing is all about associating words and images with desired attributes. What words are conjured up by a magician calling himself a cyber illusionist and dubbing a mobile wallet presentation a "trick"? Illusion. Deception. What you see is not what you get. Smoke and mirrors. Shell game.

When it comes to mobile wallets, the issues of deployment are deadly serious. PCI security implications, having customers impacted by data privacy decisions, whether the wallet will hurt/help the retailer in growing marketshare are hardly matters that CIOs and CFOs can afford to take lightly.

Most importantly, though, is that it feeds the narrative that there are no serious differences with ISIS' rivals. We asked earlier whether anyone in marketing was overseeing this. A better question might be: Was anyone overseeing this who was not in marketing?