Friday, March 23, 2018

personality crisis

From my latest WARC column

The nefarious activities of bad actors in the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica debacle may spark an unwarranted moral panic around the use of psychometric profiling in consumer research, argues Eaon Pritchard.

Science is what it is.

As the saying goes, the universe is under no obligation to make sense to you. No moral sense, at least.

It’s been widely reported Cambridge Analytica and others actors in the Facebook data debacle have appeared/claimed to use personality profiling and psychometric techniques as ‘weapons of psychological warfare’ (sic).

This is concerning because we do not need any moral panic around established science simply because of the application by bad actors.

As my good friend Richard Chataway commented on Twitter this week:

This (the CA/Facebook situation) does not invalidate the science. Psychometrics (i.e. Big 5 personality traits) have a much greater predictive power for behaviour than demographics or other segmentation types typically used in comms.

What CA and the other actors in the Facebook data debacle have done with data in combination with the other elements of skullduggery and dirty-tricks reported should be rightly condemned.

But this does not invalidate the science. And it would be very dangerous for this idea to spread.

For those unfamiliar with the big 5, I’ve summarised below. This summary is based on the chapter in ‘Spent’, an evolutionary perspective on consumer behaviour by the psychologist Geoffrey Miller. It’s the best description - and most accessible to the lay person - that I have found.

Most people will understand the distribution of human intelligence. It forms a bell curve, with most people clustered around the middle, close to IQ 100 – the average. Distribution tapers off fairly quickly as scores deviate, so that blockheads and geniuses are rarer.

All the Big Five personality traits follow a similar bell-curve distribution.

Most people sit near the middle of the curve on the other traits, openness, conscientiousness, agreeableness, emotional stability and introversion/extraversion, either slightly lower or higher.

The Big 5 (plus IQ) is established science whereas the typical demographic/personality types used in market segmentation studies, for example, are mostly complete fiction.

When sex/gender, birthplace, language, cultural background, economic status, and education appear to predict consumer behavior the real reason is because these factors correlate with the big 5 + IQ traits, not because they directly cause the behavior.

Similarly the common organisational ‘personality’ frameworks like Myers-Briggs and HBDI are also nonsensical – because traits are normally distributed.

These universal traits are fairly independent and don’t correlate particularly, people display all six traits in different ways and combinations.

Although intelligent people tend to be more open than average to new experiences, there are plenty of smart people, who stick to their football, reality tv and the pub.

Likewise there are plenty of open-minded people who love strange ideas and experiences, but who are not very smart. This explains the market for dubious new technology products and things like homeopathy. Open minded but not so smart = gullible.

(For ad industry observers, much of the research suggests that short-term creative intelligence is basically general intelligence plus openness, while long-term creative achievement is also predicted by higher than average conscientiousness and extraversion traits. Planners would need to score fairly high on intelligence and conscientiousness but are more likely to be disagreeable. Account people could get by on middling for most traits but above average emotional stability is a must-have.)

Importantly, for the situation under discussion, these traits can predict social, political, and religious attitudes fairly well and can therefore be used to nudge people to act in line with their make-up (and corresponding moral foundations).

Left leaning people tend to show higher openness (more interest in diversity), lower conscientiousness (less bothered with convention), and higher agreeableness (concern for care and fairness)

Conservatives show lower openness (more traditionalism), higher conscientiousness (family-values, sense of duty), and lower agreeableness (self-interests and nationalism etc).

That’s one data point.

In my book ‘Where Did It all Go Wrong’ I speculate that the real opportunity for applications of Machine learning and AIs offer us much more than just the better mousetraps of targeting and delivery.

'The big opportunity is for understanding what people value, why they behave the way they do, and how people are thinking (rather than just what).

Everyone will be familiar with the words of the data-scientist W. Edwards Deming who asserts ‘Without data you are just another person with an opinion’.

In our business there are no shortage of opinions.

Deming, quite rightly, demands the objective facts. And we have more facts and data at our disposal than at any time in human history.

However to complete the picture, and to take the opportunity that data and technology give for creativity, I propose an addendum to Deming’s thesis.

Without data you are just another person with an opinion? Correct.

But, without a coherent model of human behaviour, you are just another AI with data.

This could bring new, previously hidden, perspectives to inform both the construction of creative interventions and deeper understanding exactly where, when and how these interventions will have the most power.'

It’s important in light of recent events to note that these methods can can be used by bad actors for nefarious means or the slightly less bad.

But the science is what it is.

value alignment problem

The problem of AI alignment is generally accepted as the challenge of ensuring that we produce AI that is aligned with human values.

For example, if an AGI (Artificial General Intelligence) ever did develop at some point in the future would it do what we (humans) wanted it to do?

Would/could any AGI values ‘align’ with human values?

What are human values, in any case?

The argument might be that AI can be said to be aligned with human values when it does what humans want, but...

Will AI do things some humans want but that other humans don’t want?

How will AI know what humans want given that we often do do what we want but not what we ‘need’ to do?

And – given that it is a superintelligence - what will AI do if these human values conflict with its own values?

In the notorious thought experiment AI pioneer Eliezer Yudkowsky wonders if we can specifically prevent the creation of superintelligent AGIs like the paperclip maximizer?

In the paperclip maximizer scenario a bunch of engineers are trying to work out an efficient way to manufacture paperclips, and they accidentally invent an artificial general intelligence.

This AI is built as a super-intelligent utility-maximising agent whose utility is a direct function of the amount of paperclips it makes.

So far so good, the engineers go home for the night, but by the time they’ve returned to the lab the next day, this AI has copied itself onto every computer in the world and begun reprogramming the world to give itself more power to boost its intelligence.

Now, having control of all the computers and machines in the world, it proceeds to annihilate life on earth and disassembles the entire world into its constituent atoms to make as many paperclips as possible.

The problem is called ‘value alignment’ because we want to ensure that its values align with ‘human values’.

Because building a machine that won’t eventually come back to bite us is a difficult problem.

Determining a consistent shared set of human values we all agree on is obviously an almost impossible problem.

The Facebook/Cambridge Analytics kerfuffle ‘exposed’ this weekend by the Guardian and New York Times is an example.

The Guardian are outraged because ‘It’s now clear that data has been taken from Facebook users without their consent, and was then processed by a third-party and used to support their campaigns’

Ya think?

In fact CA just cleverly used the platform for what it was ‘designed’ for.

This is exactly what Don Marti nicely captured as ‘the new reality… where you win based not on how much the audience trusts you, but on how well you can out-hack the competition.

Extremists and state-sponsored misinformation campaigns aren’t “abusing” targeted advertising. They’re just taking advantage of a system optimized for deception and using it normally.’

And are the Guardian and NYT outraged because parties who’s values don’t align with theirs out-hacked them?

After all, back in 2012 The Guardian reported with some excitement how Barack Obama's re-election team built ‘a vast digital data operation that for the first time combined a unified database on millions of Americans with the power of Facebook to target individual voters to a degree never achieved before.’

Whoever can build the best system to take personal information from the user wins, until it annihilates life on the internet and disassembles the entire publishing world into its constituent atoms.

Is data-driven advertising going to be the ad industry’s own paperclip maximizer?

Any AGI is a long way off but in a more mundane sense we already have an alignment problem.

And this only helps deceptive sellers.


Originally published on my regular WARC column.

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.