Wednesday, February 28, 2018

a zinger of a signal

The KFC apology ad from last week was interesting from a few standpoints. Most obviously it was a cute creative execution. Deftly reworking KFC into FCK and the almost Gossage-esque copy.

Secondly, there's the pratfall effect. Brands are fallible, so if a brand is open about its failings and can admit to the odd weakness it's a tangible demonstration of a degree of honesty and, therefore, makes other claims a bit more more believable.

But on a more basic level the choice of media in which to deliver the apology is worthy of comment.

KFC took out full page press ads in the Metro and Sun newspapers.

Why is that significant?

The Handicap Principle is a hypothesis originally proposed in 1975 by Israeli biologist Amotz Zahavi to explain how evolution may lead to 'honest' or reliable signaling between animals which have an obvious motivation to bluff or deceive each other.

Zahavi describes how - in order to be effective - signals must be:

1. Reliable

2. And in order to be reliable, signals have to be costly.

It’s an elegant idea: waste makes sense - ‘Conspicuous’ waste in particular.

In my recent book I make several references to The Handicap Principal, here's one excerpt:

‘By wasting [conspicuously], one proves conclusively that one has enough assets to waste and more. The investment - the waste itself - is just what makes the advertisement reliable.’

Psychologists will tell you that humans are pretty good intuitive biologists.

We have innate abilities to be able to identify the kinds of plants that are safe to eat, or animals that are likely to be predators or venomous.

We are also pretty good intuitive psychologists. We can identify what others are thinking and feeling, or what kind of mood they are in with very few cues.

I’d also argue that people are pretty good intuitive media strategists.

We don’t know how much a full-page ad in the broadsheet newspaper costs, exactly. But we do know that it was pretty damn expensive.

We don’t know exactly how much that retargeting banner ad costs but we know that it’s pretty cheap.

Likewise, we can easily and intuitively detect high or low production values that reflect the level of economic investment in any piece of communications. All these indicators are signals.

The kinds of signals that carry an implicit sense of ‘cost’ on behalf of the signaler can be trusted, to a degree.

The signaler has put their money where their mouth is'.

For this reason The KFC apology can be 'trusted' to a degree. It's the extravagance of the gesture that contributes to advertising effectiveness by increasing credibility.

That's the Colonel's secret recipe.

It's not data-driven, there's no surveillance-fed algorithms, no targeting or tracking or data-leakage, it needs not know anything at all of it's audience.

It's just a big, juicy, costly, zinger of a signal.


My book 'Where Did It All Go Wrong? Adventures at the Dunning-Kruger Peak Of Advertising' is out now on Amazon worldwide and from other discerning booksellers.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

everything changes. everything stays the same

'The Renaissance (1350–1600) produced favorable conditions for charlatans. Old ways of thinking were cast aside, and it seemed that anything was possible.

A semiliterate village dweller might have been aware of a new discovery, but he or she was probably not sufficiently educated to distinguish fact from fiction. Charlatans could not have flourished without the support of a willing, naïve audience.

The extraordinary power of impostors is therefore only to be understood after a consideration of the minds and circumstances of their gullible victims, the crowds who sought them out, half convinced before a word was spoken.

If charlatans had not existed, villagers would have invented them.'

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

now you can buy my book...

‘A proto-meme is beginning to ‘go critical’. This book is a part of that meme. 

The meme is not fully formed but at its core is one thought. Somewhere the advertising business has kinda lost the plot, we’re not sure exactly sure where. 

So many incompetents, who can’t know we are incompetent because the skills we need to produce the right answers are exactly the skills we lack in order to know what a right answer is.

What happens now? Who knows?

But this book tackles it head-on with punk rock, cheap philosophy and evolutionary psychology as we take a hair-raising ride to the Dunning-Kruger peak of advertising…’

With a foreword written by Mark Earls ( author of Herd, I'll Have What She's Having and CopyCopyCopy etc) the book is available on Amazon worldwide and in more discerning bookstores.

There is also a Kindle version, however the 200 page paperback fits nicely in the back pocket of your selvage for optimum disagreeableness trait signaling.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018


To properly understand advertising, it needs to be viewed as part of popular culture.

When it works it is often because this is the environment it inhabits.

Not any particular media vehicle.

If anything, this has only become more important as the number of potential media choices and environment grows.

I'm fond of Paul Feldwick's 'showbusiness' argument, that goes something along these lines.
Advertising and entertainment have forever been inextricably linked.

The best advertising has always borrowed most of its creative themes from 'show business'.
The popular music, comedy, celebrities, sport, drama, sexiness and fashions of the day.

Advertising and popular culture are two parts of the same whole.

Paul suggests that not much has really changed since PT Barnum and The American Medicine Show.
A song-and-dance to put a smile on their faces, and put them in the mood to buy.

Maybe everything is PR. Or at least 'publicity'.

Media themselves are only an audience gatherer.

Sure, they can help with engagement by attracting an audience appropriate for the message and maybe keeping a bit of attention.

Media engagement, however, does not equate to advertising engagement. Nor is that media's job.

Paradoxically, in spite of the infinite number of media channels now available, when great contemporary advertising works it is often because it truly inhabits the broader culture - and it stands up on its own.

Advertising is a mass phenomenon.

'The publicising function of good brand advertising is all-pervasive'.

As the old saying goes 'If you want engagement, make a more engaging ad.'
This is an engaging ad, if ever there was one.

And there's no business like showbusiness.

Monday, December 25, 2017

sugar-plum fairies dancing in their heads

Merry Christmas and the usual thanks to all who have read, shared and commented in 2017.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

supernormal stimulus

Human biological evolution solves only ‘adaptive’ problems, the kind that concern surviving long enough to successfully pass on our genes into the next generation.

Among these problems are; what to eat, avoiding getting eaten, finding the best quality mating partners, and competing with each other for status and resources.

These are the kinds of problems that were the most common in the ‘environment of evolutionary adaptedness’ - the stone age hunter-gatherer environment our ancestors navigated - not our modern world of technology, media, celebrities and consumerism.

It was during this time - that’s approximately 99% of human existence, the stone age lasted for a couple of million years - that our minds did almost all of their evolving. A time when we lived in small groups of maybe only a few dozen people gathering plants and hunting animals.

Our modern world is a tiny, tiny blip in comparison.

We only developed agriculture about 10,000 years old, the industrial revolution was just over 200 years ago and the internet has only been around for about 20 years. Not nearly enough time has elapsed for our minds to adapt to these new conditions. Our modern minds are designed for solving ancient stone age problems, not for dealing with the supernormal stimulus of the 21st century.

The theory of supernormal stimulus was developed in the 1950s by biologist and ornithologist Nikolaas ‘Niko’ Tinbergen. He found that biologically salient objects, like beaks and eggs, generated far more interest from his bird subjects when they were painted, pimped and blown up in size.

In one experiment herring gull chicks pecked more at big red knitting needles than adult herring gull beaks, because they were bigger and redder and longer than real beaks.

A young student of Tinbergen called Richard Dawkins experimented with male stickleback fish and supernormal dummy females. The real female sticklebacks naturally swell up when they are fertile and full of eggs.

By making his dummy female fish much bigger and rounder than normal the males became more attracted to the dummies. Dawkins is credited with introducing ‘sex bomb’ into the lexicon in describing this example.

Evolution has designed male Australian jewel beetles go after for cues of shiny amber-brown surfaces with the presence of dimples, as these were almost certain to be female beetles. This normal stimulus triggered a normal adaptive behaviour. But Australian beer bottles – stubbies - give off these exact same cues, only much bigger and shinier.

They are everywhere in the male beetles' environment and the boys are getting distracted. Beer bottles are a super-normal stimulus for male beetles, triggering a maladaptive behaviour.

Of course, many animals exaggerate features to attract mates, mimic other species or protect themselves against predators. But these changes happen slowly over evolutionary time.

Supernormal is a term that can be used to describe any stimulus that elicits a response stronger than the stimulus for which it evolved.

Junk food is a super stimulus version of real food to humans. Things like sugar and fat – that were biologically salient, but scarce in the stone-age environment – are all around us, in abundance, every day.

But it’s not just the external cues that are super-normal, but the internal rewards too. A Big Mac gives you a bumper hit of sugar, fat, and flavour far more intensely than a bowl of rolled oats or boiled cabbage.

Oscar Wilde famously stated ‘I can resist everything but temptation’.

None of us can. Stuffing our faces with calories, drinking and taking drugs, gambling, obsessing over the lives of celebrities whom we are never likely to meet instead of going out in to the real world and forming real relationships, competing for status at work and generally wasting time with people who wouldn’t care if we lived or died rather than spending time with our families. These are just a few examples of common, and maladaptive, behaviours.

Of course, all of these new temptations mentioned are hard to resist, because in the world our minds evolved to inhabit they didn’t exist. They are supernormal stimuli that elicit a response stronger than the stimuli for which their response mechanisms evolved.

Humans, however, now have the cultural tools that allow us to consciously manipulate these signals in real time, and the makers of these tools know this very well.

If you were the planner in an ad agency anytime between 1965 and about 10 years ago, your work was fairly straightforward. You would do your research, find some insights and – if you were any good – develop an interesting platform that creatives could jump from to make the ads.

But the sexier modern advertising environment has raised our reward thresholds. The old rewards just don’t synergise 24-7 mindshare, do they?

Our new blockchain content glasses are super-normal stimulus causing maladaptive behaviours.

The super successful products of the digital economy like Facebook, Twitter, Tinder, Instagram are all supernormal stimuli. They work so well because they are perfectly adapted to create supernormal stimuli for our stone-age minds. We are wired to compete for status among our peers in the small groups on the savannahs we used to inhabit. But now we can super-compete with millions of strangers on the internet.

So, the next time you hear about how the internet is rewiring our brains, it’s really the internet adapting to and exploiting how our brains work.

Because, rather than being an all-purpose information processor, the mind consists of a number of specialised ‘modules’, or apps, designed by evolution to cope with certain recurring adaptive problems.

The mind’s ‘apps’ are specific processes that evolved in response to our ancestral environment. Our minds have apps for mating behaviour, gossip, looking out for family members, making deals with strangers, signalling personality traits and so on. The successful products of the digital economy are the ones that mirror and exaggerate these response mechanisms.

What’s modern is in our environment, not in our minds.

And an OS update takes thousands of generations to load, unfortunately.

So for your next disruptive innovation idea, just find a super-stimulating version of a natural reward. But make it sexier, cuter, sweeter, bigger, louder or with more teeth.

There’s a free strategy for you. Off you go.

Psychological junk food.

Although, AI robot sex dolls is already becoming a crowded category.


The above is an excerpt, adapted from Eaon's forthcoming book 'Where Did It All Go Wrong? Adventures at the Dunning-Kruger Peak Of Advertising' which comes out in January 2018 and will be available for pre-order soon on Amazon worldwide.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

when love breaks down

Onora O'Neill's 2002 Reith Lectures series 'A Question of Trust' are as apt today as they were then.

In the 5th of her lectures, 'Licence to Deceive', the Cambridge Emeritus Professor of Philosophy was principally referring to the state of journalism but, in 2017, we can apply her insight to what has happened to advertising in general and by advertising technology in particular.

'Do we really gain from heavy-handed forms of accountability? Do we really benefit from...demands for transparency? I am unconvinced.

I think we may undermine professional performance and excessive regulation, and that we may condone and even encourage deception in our zeal for transparency.'

The final sentence is perhaps the most disturbing.

How can we discern the trustworthy from untrustworthy? O'Neill argues that we should perhaps focus less on grandiose ideals of transparency and rather more on limiting deception.

This means media agencies stepping up, taking back our lunch money. Reclaiming the control of strategy that -  in a decade of Dunning-Kruger peak stupidity - we've ceded to our Silicone Valley overlords. The smiling assassins.

(As a fun police aside, I would put a stop to agency staff walking around wearing the swag they have received from vendors. Facebook and Google t-shirts etc. Enclothed cognition!)

And O'Neill was some 15 years ahead of my Google/Facebook 'crunchy-on-the-outside-fluffy-on-the-inside' metaphor.

'The new information technologies may be anti-authoritarian , but curiously they are often used in ways that are also anti-democratic. They undermine our capacities to judge others' claims and to place our trust.'

The IAB and others say, 'We need to make measurement sexy. It's a topic we need to embrace and give a lot more love to'.

Good luck with that.

Because it's when trust moves out, that measurement moves in.

And not everything that can counts can be counted.

When love breaks down,
The lies we tell,
They only serve to fool ourselves.

We are where we are, and it's going to be a long road back.