Wednesday, April 08, 2020

saving the world (or, can brands really be altruistic?) WDIAGW revisited

This was a chapter in my first book, 'Where Did It All Go Wrong?'  from 2017.

Seems to be kinda relevant these days, too....


Different philosophers define altruism in different ways, however, most definitions will generally play in and around describing altruistic behaviours as actions that benefit others rather than oneself.

The term altruism (French, altruisme) was coined by the 19th century philosopher - incidentally, also the founder of the discipline we now know as sociology (although we won’t hold that against him) - Auguste Comte.

He described altruism as our ‘moral obligation to renounce self-interest and live for others’.

Aside from ethics, altruism in biology similarly describes a range of behaviours that may be performed by animals, which benefit others while seemingly to their own disadvantage.

We say ‘seemingly’ as there is no moral lens that can be applied.

For instance, by behaving altruistically, an organism may reduce its own chances of survival, or the number of offspring it is likely to produce itself, but give a boost to the likelihood that other organisms that share its genes may survive and produce offspring.

It doesn’t make any Darwinian sense to share food with just anybody, it is far more sensible to share with your relatives - they are genetically similar to you.

The costs and benefits of animal altruism in the biological sphere are measured in terms of the resulting reproductive fitness, or expected number of genetic descendants.

It is, therefore, reasonable to suggest that the biological notion of altruism is somewhat different from the ethical concept.

For humans, an act would only be called ‘altruistic' if it was done with the conscious moral intention of helping another, but in the biological sense, there is no such requirement.

So, which definition is appropriate when talking about brand altruism?

In 1973, the Russian biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky famously wrote ‘Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution’.

It could also be noted that nothing in brand behaviour makes sense except in the light of evolution.

Brands, like organisms, have two principal concerns. Survival and reproduction.

Survival should be a self-evident notion, just staying in business. For reproduction, we could think about the number of category entry points in which the brand is salient and perhaps breadth of distribution as measures of fitness.

But, so-called, brand altruism, is perhaps better understood through the lens of Biological Market Theory.

Animals (including humans) can be observed exchanging benefits through reciprocity mechanisms. This happens in a variety of ways and in a variety of scenarios, however, the common thread is that benefits in kind almost always find their way back to the original giver.

This (r)evolutionary theory of reciprocal altruism was originally developed and published in 1971 by the biologist Bob Trivers in order to explain to explain instances of (apparent) altruism among unrelated organisms, including members of different species.

Trivers' basic idea was pretty straightforward: it may payback to help another if there is an expectation of the favour being returned in the future.

Equivalent to the heuristic ‘You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours’. The classic tit-for-tat strategy.

The cost of helping is offset by the likelihood of the return benefit, allowing the behaviour to evolve by natural selection.

However, even reciprocal altruists are vulnerable to exploitation by rogue non-altruists.

Suppose we have a group or category - let’s say supermarkets - made up exclusively of altruists, all playing nicely together, and placing the benefit of their suppliers and customers above their own needs.

It only takes a single mutant to enter the category, adopt some selfish policies to gain relative fitness advantages then the altruistic system starts to collapse and eventually become overtaken.

Altruism, by definition, incurs a fitness cost. So why would a brand perform a costly act?

As an aside, it’s probably no accident that the current popularity of the brand altruism idea corresponds with the development on another on the consumer side - virtue signalling.

Much has been written elsewhere on the pros and cons of online virtue signalling - the highly conspicuous expression of particular moral values done primarily with the intention of gaining status within a social group - but suffice to say that (and depending on which report one believes) apparently upwards of 70% of millennials will claim that the social responsibility record and ‘altruism’ of a brand is a major factor in their propensity to buy or use that brand. Sure.

It is also claimed by many that this generation of consumers is even willing to PAY MORE for altruistic brands! Right.

Maybe so, but what cannot be disputed is the propensity of the connected generation to perform actions (mostly online) that signal to others that ‘I'm a good person'. It’s worth noting that the message need not be actually accompanied by actually doing anything good. This opens the window for brand altruism as a virtue-outsourcing vehicle.

The ‘feelings’ of self-righteousness are so good so it’s no wonder that we are inclined to seek them - and will happily take a shortcut to acquire them.

So, is brand altruism something of a misnomer, and simply a contemporary biological market tactic pandering to the current cultural mode for a particular flavour of virtue signalling?

If this were the case then that may cause some significant cognitive dissonance for the authenticity-seeking future consumers.

(Not all is lost, however. Lack of millennial buying power notwithstanding, there is still much fun to be had given that the only thing people seem to like more than virtue signalling is judging other people!)

Perhaps another idea to consider is this. Brand altruism may simply be interpreted as signal. A costly and strategic signal, that provides an honest indicator of quality.
A brand might make a strategic investment in altruism that acts simply as a signal of its ability to BE altruistic - the brand signals that it has the assets to do so.

In this sense, brand altruism is simply another form of costly signalling the same as investing in high-quality advertising and equivalent to the ‘handicap' for which the peacock's tail has become a metaphor.

It’s kinda altruism, but it’s competitive.

Let’s return to Ambler and Hollier’s The Waste in Advertising, again.

‘The perceived extravagance of [a brand’s altruistic acts] contributes to advertising effectiveness by increasing credibility. It draws especially on the Handicap Principle in biology: animals use wasteful characteristics to signal their exceptional biological fitness. It hypothesizes that excesses in [altruism] work in a similar way by signalling brand fitness…’

In summary, we should probably understand this emerging idea of brand altruism as a part of the brand marketing process through which brands compete with each other in terms of conspicuous generosity (or if you prefer, observable competitive altruism) in order to enhance the status, reputation and perceived quality of the brand.

If some good is worth doing, it’s worth doing in public. And, of course, the more salient the ‘altruistic’ acts of the brand are then the associated ‘generosity’ traits transfer to buyers and users of the brand, more grist to our virtue signalling.

For sure, it is good that brands may wish to contribute to a greater good, or to society as a whole.

But let’s not get too caught up with esoteric notions of ‘pure’ altruism.

Rest easy advertisers and marketers. We can make the world better and still be our selfish, insecure and status- seeking selves.

Or just believe in magic.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

cognitive biases. flaw or feature?

It wasn’t that long ago when the subject matter and context in pop songs had somewhat more substance and sense of inquiry.

Yes, kids, this was pop, believe it or not.

‘There’s definitely, definitely, no logic, to human behaviour. But yet so, yet so irresistible. And there is no map…'

Human Behaviour is the opening track on Debut, the breakthrough album by Icelandic singer- songwriter Björk. The set was produced by Bristol Underground graduate Nellee Hooper and first dropped in 1993.

Talking about the inspiration for the record, Björk looked back on her schooldays.

‘When I went into the sixth form at school, I choose science, math and physics and thought psychology, anthropology, sociology and history and such was for sissies. They call subjects in school about people ‘kjaftafog’, which means nattersubjects.

As I got older, I have learned to appreciate nattersubjects and recently read many books for the first time about psychology and... So I have learned a little about humans.’

But yet so, yet so irresistible. And there is no map

Is there a map? What does motivate human behaviour?

I’ve been a proponent of applied behavioural economics and suchlike in recent years, however, even invoking cognitive biases has now taken on ‘magical’ properties.

When wearing my consulting hat, I sometimes help clients evaluate creative pitches from agencies.

Of course, I pay most attention to the strategy parts of the pitches. It’s always interesting to see what the competition are up to, or where their heads are at.

Some form of applied pseudo-behavioural economics theory is clearly the flavor du jour.

It’s been a remarkable rise. In just a few years behavioural economics has gained significant traction in advertising agencies to the point that nearly every planner and their dog now like to point out how human decision making has become bamboozled by biases.

The irony, of course, is that the standard line trotted out to preface the ‘insights’ – humans are irrational and make emotional decisions etc. – is as fallacious an example of thinking, as the thinking ‘errors’ of consumers the planner is trying to describe.

Planners fail to understand that biases are just tendencies and are also highly context-dependent. This - very thin - focus on biases is unhelpful in several ways. It’s Wikipedia planning.

In one particular pitch I sat in on, every agency played a (magical) loss aversion card in their ‘consumer insights’ slide. Yet demonstrated little real understanding of the concept and where it might or might not come into play, and what purpose it serves in decision making.

They knew the ‘name’ of the thing, though.

Being able to reel off a list of definitions of cognitive effects does not magically turn someone into a behavioural practitioner.

The thing is, most of these commonly invoked ‘irrational’ biases evolved for excellent, rational and adaptive reasons.

When resources are scarce—as they were for 99.9% of our existence as a species—loss aversion would have been a perfectly rational bias to possess.

For early humans, the implications of losing a supply of food would have been significant.

Almost certain death.

Whereas gaining a week’s worth of food meant survival and perhaps trade opportunities for one more week.

Your mind is a collection of evolved, domain-specific programs and whatever you are thinking and doing right now depends on which of these programs is currently in command of the ship.

Each of these programs is functionally specialised for solving a different adaptive problem that arose in what is called the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness, or EEA.

EEA describes the situational and external factors in which an evolved trait adapted over time. And the collective influence of selection pressures that caused an adaptation to develop.

The EEA of early humans that produced our brain development – from around one million years ago until around ten thousand years ago - is very different from our modern world.

And so, it’s an important distinction to make. Being well adapted to a particular environment and being adaptable to environmental change are different.

This is why many psychologists are arguing that many of the problems we face in the modern world are down to modern society representing this evolutionary ’mismatch’.

A mismatch happens when people (or a species) are faced with a fast-changing environment to which their bodies and minds – their hardware and software – are not well-adapted.

We should be afraid of cars and electricity. But we’re not. These are evolutionarily novel sources of danger. Too novel for our old equipment. Instead, our innate fears - spiders, snakes and the dark - have more ancient origins.

It’s not always neat. In fact, it’s a bit messy.

Not least because these programs, or modules, all evolved at different times in our evolutionary history. Not only that, but they also are quite distinct from one another, and can (simultaneously) hold contradictory views.

Although, I’m in two minds about that.

The classic rational economists and the modern behavioural economists have both got the story part right but also partly wrong.

For sure, our decision making is biased in ways that sometimes lead us to make silly choices.

But this does not mean that our decisions are dumb or irrational.

And those economists are correct that we are rational and smart. Just not in the way they think we are.

When we look at the deeper logic of human minds, it becomes clear that all decision making is geared to promote deep-rooted evolutionary goals.

If a cognitive bias positively impacted fitness in the ancestral environment - and if it's still around today then it almost certainly did - it is not a design flaw, it is a design feature.


Adapted excerpt from ‘Shot By Both Sides: What We Have Here Is Failure to Communicate’

Available now at Amazon worldwide and in discerning bookstores.

Friday, September 06, 2019

fairies AND gnomes

It’s now just over 100 years since the famous Cottingley fairy hoax. Two spotty teenage English cousins called Frances Griffiths and Elsie Wright took photographs of ‘fairies ‘at the bottom of the garden of the house belonging to Elsie’s parents in Cottingley, a leafy West Yorkshire village close to Bradford.

Of course, the photographs are clearly staged. The fairies are simply paper cut-outs Elsie had copied from a popular children’s book, Princess Mary's Gift Book, published just a couple of years earlier in 1915. The girls were having a bit of creative fun, hoping to wind up Elsie’s father whom they had borrowed the camera from and been given some quick photography lessons.

It was all harmless fun until Elsie's mother, Polly, attended a lecture on ‘spiritualism’ a couple of years later. Following the talk, she dug out the photos bringing them to the attention of Edward Gardner, a leader of the Theosophical movement.

Boom! The photos were declared totally “genuine unfaked photographs of single exposure, open-air work, show movement in all the fairy figures, and there is no trace whatever of studio work involving card or paper models, dark backgrounds, painted figures."

Very soon the validated fairy pictures began circulating throughout the spiritualist community and landed on the desk of Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes.

Whilst the fictional Holmes is arguably the epitome of rationality and scepticism, the avid spiritualist Doyle immediately endorsed the fairy pics as clear proof of the existence of supernatural entities.

Before you can say ‘Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth’, Doyle had sent Gardner up to West Yorkshire to interview the girls, collect some new photos of the fairies (and a couple of Gnomes who happened along), and penned an ecstatic article for the December 1920 issue of The Strand Magazine. Within weeks the Cottingley fairies became among the most widely recognised examples of early amateur photography in the world, their authenticity further endorsed by Gardner who - having taken a registered psychic with him on the trip oop t’north just to be sure - declared the whole area to be teeming with fairies.

Things had clearly got out of hand, but the girls decided to roll with it. What started out as a bit of kid fun had seemingly caused a large group of adults to completely lose control of their minds. What should they do? Confess to the hoax and face the wrath of cheated believers? Or just carry on with the fiction and go along with what the grown-ups want?

The thing is, the time was just about right in 1920 for the Cottingley fairies.

Throughout World War I, spiritualism had grown in popularity with the grieving British public.

Amid the chaos of war, with deaths occurring in almost every family there arose a sudden and concentrated interest in ideas of the afterlife, and so the prospect of being able to access some supernatural power, or otherworldly influence, would have been consoling.

Spiritualism, mediums and psychics role was twofold; to reunite families with their dead sons and husbands with ‘evidence’ that they were in a better place and as a reassurance of an afterlife that represented a promise of respite from the hardship and turmoil experienced during and after the Great War.

Of course, Spiritualism's success was its entrepreneurial egalitarianism.

The ability to incorporate a variety of other supernatural concepts, including fairies and gnomes, into its repertoire without blinking is phenomenal agility.

New technology also played a major role. Arthur C. Clarke's Third Law states that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic..

This was certainly the case in the early 20th century with the advent of ‘radio’, and telegraphy linking people together during the war. This was close to magical and gave people a way of understanding Spiritualism.

A medium making contact with the spirit world would ‘tune-in’ to the ‘channels and wavelengths’ of the ‘other side’. Even the real world of wireless communications led to experiments in ‘psychic telegraphs’, which inventors claimed could pick up ‘auras’.

In 1920 even any kind of photography was still quite a new idea for ordinary people. The world’s first mass-market camera, the Brownie from Eastman Kodak had only been invented twenty years earlier in 1900.

The most remarkable part of the Cottingley hoax is not that two young girls pretended they found fairies at the bottom of the garden. That is what children do. Play make-believe.

What is remarkable is that so many adults really wanted it to be true.

Fairies and gnomes.


This is a short excerpt from the chapter 'A Cauldron of Illusions' which examines 'magical thinking' and why smart people believe stupid things.
The full essay is in Eaon's forthcoming second book 'Shot By Both Sides: What We Have Here is a Failure To Communicate'. The book will be available towards the end of 2019.

Friday, August 30, 2019

short excerpt from 'notes on the bullshit-industrial complex'

Noam Chomsky once noted that Michel Foucault– often cited as among the post-structuralist and postmodernist thinkers although he didn’t like these labels - was actually intelligible if you sat him down and had a normal conversation.

(Unlike many of the other French philosophers).

Chomsky explains, ‘I don’t particularly blame Foucault [for obscurantism], it’s such a deeply rooted part of the corrupt intellectual culture of Paris that he fell into it pretty naturally, though to his credit, he distanced himself from it.’

Interestingly, Foucault confessed to his friend the American philosopher John Searle, that he intentionally complicated his writings to appease his French audience.

Searle has revealed that Foucault privately admitted this to him,

"In France you must make 25 percent incomprehensible, otherwise people won’t think it’s deep–they won’t think you’re a profound thinker."

The French structuralist Pierre Bourdieu claimed it was markedly worse than that. The BS quotient in the ‘works’ of Jacques Derrida, for example, is probably closer to 100%.

Foucault concurred, saying that Derrida practiced the method of obscurantisme terroriste (terrorism of obscurantism).

“He writes so obscurely you can’t tell what he’s saying, that’s the obscurantism part, and then when you criticize him, he can always say, ‘You didn’t understand me; you’re an idiot.’ That’s the terrorism part.”

But a background theory is mandatory.


This is a short excerpt from the chapter 'Notes on the bullshit-industrial complex' in Eaon's forthcoming second book 'Shot By Both Sides: What We Have Here is a Failure To Communicate'. The book will be available towards the end of 2019.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

how does it feel to feel?

People - especially ad people - get terribly confused about what is meant by ‘emotion’.

For a start its not just one thing.

There are distinctions between the functional emotion (‘the emotional state’), the experience of the emotion, our ability to perceive and attribute emotions to other people (and to animals).

Also our ability to think and talk about emotion and, of particular interest to advertisers, the behaviours caused by an emotion state. The expressions and emotional responses.

But emotions are first and foremost about the states and everything else flows from that.

In essence, to understand what emotions are, and what they are for, requires a fundamental or ultimate explanation.

Your mind is a collection of evolved, domain-specific programs.

Whatever you are thinking and doing right now depends on which of these programs is currently in command of the ship.

It’s not neat. 

In fact, it’s a bit messy, not least because these programs, or modules, evolved at different times in our evolutionary history. Not only that, they are quite distinct from one another, and can (simultaneously) hold contradictory views.

Although, I'm in two minds about that.

Each of these programs is functionally specialised for solving a different adaptive problem that arose in what is called the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness, or EEA.

EEA describes the situational and external factors in which an evolved trait adapted from over time. And the collective influence of selection pressures that caused an adaptation to develop.

It's worth pointing out straight away that the EEA of early humans that produced our brain development – from around one million years ago until around ten thousand years ago - is obviously very different from our modern world.

Our brains and minds evolved to operate in hunter-gatherer and nomadic societies.

And so it's an important distinction to make. Being well adapted to a particular environment and being adaptable to environmental change are different.

This is why many psychologists are arguing that many of the problems we face in the modern world are down to modern society representing a 'mismatch'.

Evolutionary mismatch happens when people (or a species) are faced with a fast-changing environment to which their bodies and minds – their hardware and software – are not well-adapted.

We should be afraid of cars and electricity. But we're not. These are evolutionarily novelsources of danger. Too novel for our old equipment. Instead, our innate fears have more ancient sources. Among them, spiders, snakes and the dark.

And social exclusion (so I have so many followers on Twitter...but why don't they share my post?)

Each of these mental modules, our software or apps, is a specialised structure sculpted to carry out a particular function. But integrated into a complex whole, and activated by a different set of cues.

These functions include 'basic' things like breathing, heart-rate regulation, sleep management, and perception.

Alongside all-important social mechanisms designed for face recognition, mate choice and ‘reading’ other peoples minds. A more ‘recent’ adaptation would be language, of course.

Steven Pinker describes resulting social behaviour as the outcome of an internal struggle among many mental modules, and it is played out on the chessboard of opportunities and constraints defined by other people's behaviour.

Of course, this internal struggle between cognitive programs creates another adaptive problem.

Programs that are designed to solve very specific adaptive problems could, if activated at the same time, conflict with one another, interfering with each other.

For instance, a sleep mechanism has to be over-ridden if cues for self-protection are present. If the house is on fire you better get out.

To avoid misfires, the mind must then be equipped with other superordinate programs that can override some programs when others are activated.

At the same time, certain adaptive problems are best solved by activation of multiple mechanisms at the same time, running from the fire in the dark needs to pump up heart rate regulation and spacial awareness mechanisms.

A superordinate system is needed to co-ordinate the activity of neural systems, snapping each into the right configuration at the right time. Emotions are functional states that regulate behaviours.

This is what Emotions are for.

Orchestrating the mind’s many and varied subprograms so that at any given time the organism is functionally coordinated.

Emotions are adaptations that have arisen in response to the adaptive problem of mechanism orchestration.

Emotions arose and assumed their structures in response to conditions, contingencies, situations, or types of events that recurred during evolutionary history.

Mating and fighting are two big ones, for a kick-off.

Avoiding and escaping from predators, parenting, exchange of trade and favours, establishing rank and status, dealing with the death of family members.

Anger, revenge and love. Deciding what to eat (and not) and predicting other people’s behaviour. These are just a few.

Repeated encounters with these situations selected for adaptations that guided information-processing and behaviour.

Emotions are the superordinate programs that mobilise a subset of the mental mechanisms in any given configuration in response to recurrent situations.

When a condition or situation of an evolutionarily recognisable kind is detected, a signal goes out from the emotion radar that activates the specific combination of subprograms appropriate to solving that type of adaptive problem(s) - and also deactivates programs whose operation might interfere with solving the most pressing problem.

In ‘simple’ terms, an emotion is a SUPERORDINATE program whose function is to direct the activities and interactions of the other mental subprograms.

Perception; attention; inference; learning; memory; goal choice; motivational priorities; categorization and conceptual frameworks; physiological reactions; reflexes; behavioral decision rules; motor systems; communication processes; energy level and effort allocation; affective coloration of events and stimuli; recalibration of probability estimates, situation assessments, values, self-esteem, estimations of relative formidability, relative value of alternative goal states, and so on.

Because emotions are clearly a product of adaptive design they cannot be irrational. In fact, emotions are super-rational adaptations, finely tuned to countering threats and recognising opportunities.

An emotion cannot be reduced down to any one category of effects because it contains evolved instructions for ALL OF THEM.

Consider this before reducing the assessment of advertising to ‘emotional’ or ‘rational’ appeals or entertaining 'new data' that claims to compare the emotional connection rankings of top brands.

There's either a response or no response. Your superordinate system of emotions decides.


Further reading: The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture - (Barkow, Tooby, Cosmides)

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

live and dangerous

I've not posted anything for a while.

I've been busy getting together the next book.

It's in the final stages and going through the mincer, with a bit of luck it will appear later this year.

In the meantime - and closing the chapter on 'Where Did It All Go Wrong?' - here's a video of the talk-of-the-book from the Mumbrella260 conference in Sydney in July of 2018.

Wednesday, February 06, 2019

deeply superficial

Andy Warhol’s famous Brillo Boxes were first exhibited at The Stable Gallery on West 58th Street, Manhattan in 1964.

More than any other early works it was these boxes that shot Andy into superstardom, and prompt the Columbia University philosopher and critic, Arthur Danto to proclaim ‘the end of western art!’.

Those boxes posed this question. ‘What distinguishes a work of art from an identical looking object that is not art?’

In an amusing coincidence, the original commercial Brillo packaging as recontextualised by Warhol was designed by a fella called James Harvey.

Harvey was a lower league abstract expressionist painter – so far down he wasn’t even on the map - who (struggling to pay the bills through his art alone) had bitten the bullet and taken a job in advertising!

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose, and advertising is still a business that few people really aspire to join. In particular, many creatives would much rather be directing movies or writing their novel than trying to get people to buy car insurance.

And so closing the irony loop, the striking Brillo logo had been designed by an action painter; a practitioner of exactly the kind of non-representational, raw expression art that Warhol’s was a reaction against.

Harvey wasn’t a fan of Warhol's work, although he did attend the opening of the 1964 exhibition and is said to have had a long chat with Andy. But didn't mention having designed the original Brillo packaging.

Never cross the streams.

‘66 Scener Fra Amerika’ (66 Scenes from America) is a 1982 documentary film by Danish director Jørgen Leth.

It presents a variety of short vignettes with no discernable connecting narrative, other than exhibiting a seemingly random patchwork of objects and scenes that all together resembles a collection of cinematic postcards from a road trip. Essentially an experimental visual time-capsule of nothing-much-happening smack in the middle of life in Reagan-era America.

The film's best-known scene is a four and a half minutes long segment of Andy Warhol tucking into a Whopper from Burger King. An obvious pastiche of Warhol’s own signature film style, although the entire film is Warhol-esque.

While doing their research in advance of preparing a campaign for Burger King, the fast-food giant’s agency stumbled upon the Andy footage on YouTube and took it to their client.

After much high-fiving and a year of wrangling with the various parties and rights owners, they had secured usage rights and set about preparing it to run as a showpiece in the advertising event of the year, the 2019 SuperBowl.

If not the most flamboyant, it is undoubtedly one of the more extraordinary SuperBowl ads of recent times when looked at from a philosophy of advertising standpoint. Not least in the way it spectacularly snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, as we shall see.

The Warhol/Burger King spot is, in effect, a ‘readymade’.

Readymade was a term coined by Marcel Duchamp, exemplified by the notorious 1917 ‘sculpture’, Fountain.

Duchamp was a French-American painter turned sculptor. While he made his name as a kinda Cubist, he is widely regarded as one of the primary influencers in the rise of conceptual art. His Nude Descending a Staircase, No.2 brought the house down at the 1913 New York Armory Show – even the Manhattan art public was scandalised by this European weirdness - however following that he pretty much abandoned painting and focussed on ‘sculpture’, creating the first of his readymades in 1913.

The theory behind the readymade practice took a while to develop. It was finally explained in the editorial of the May 1917 issue of the avant-garde magazine The Blind Man, edited by Duchamp.

Whether Mr Mutt, with his own hands, made the fountain or not has no importance. He CHOSE it. He took an ordinary article of life, and placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view – created a new thought for that object.
The object has been recontextualised.

There are three essential components to the readymade provision.

Number one; the choice of object is itself a creative act.
Number two; by doing away with the function of an object, it becomes art.
Number three; presenting the object as art gives it a new meaning.

In a nutshell, what is art is whatever the artist says is art.

This mini-manifesto represents the beginning of the movement towards conceptual art – and the post-modern aesthetic - as the status and relationship of the artist and the object are called into question.

The new postmodern artists disparaged modernists and their naive belief that a work of art could somehow appeal to a broad audience who had neither the time nor inclination to get up to speed with the latest continental philosophy gobbledygook.

Vous m'avez mal compris, vous êtes idiot.

If the readymade concept can be understood, at the very least, as a deliberate assault on the conventional understanding of the status and nature of art, is Burger King’s use of an existing non-advertising object ‘found’ by the agency and recontextualised as a 45 seconds SuperBowl spot a assault on the conventional understanding of the status and nature of advertising?

Almost. It is achingly close to being a dialetheia. Or a 'true contradiction'.

Had they pulled it off we could have been saying this Warhol film – this object - is an ad only insofar as it is not an ad.

It is what it is not and this is why it is what it is.

This idea slightly offends objectivism, in where contradictions cannot be true – check your premises! - yet Burger King’s spot is oh-so-close to being an ad that isn’t really an ad and a found object that is not just a found object.


Take the statement ‘this sentence is false’.

This is the famous “Liar’s Paradox”, the statement that everything being said is a lie. So, if the liar is lying, then the liar is telling the truth, which means the liar just lied, which means they’re also telling the truth, which means it’s a lie and so on, and so on.

With Fountain and many of his other 'sculptures', Duchamp’s only contribution was to sign the object and exhibit it as art. Similarly Warhols only contribution to many of the works produced in his 'Factory' (including the Brillo Boxes) was to ‘sign’ or 'authenticate' them as art.

What are potentially true contradictions in media? Or advertising?

What is media insofar as it is not media?

What could we simply label as advertising by ‘signing’ it?

Burger King’s marketing people are quoted in the press as saying 'we didn’t want to change or touch the film in any way that would take away from its original intent’.

Yet they snatched defeat from the jaws of victory by adding the superfluous #eatlikeandy hashtag on the end frame.

Before the big game, BK's social media followers had been encouraged to claim a free Mystery Box Deal via UberEats style meal delivery service DoorDash. The box contained a silver wig, a bottle of ketchup and a Whopper voucher redeemable on game day. It was anticipated that recipients would don the wigs, eat the burger and post pictures and videos of themselves, and some of them did.

But now that made it an AD.

It then ceased to be what it is not – and became only what it is.

To simply run the film and sign it with the logo would have been it.
To allow simply the choice of object is itself to be the creative act.

What could be more of an all-American trilogy!
Andy, Burger King and the SuperBowl.

And a burger chain decontextualizing and commodifying an artist who famously adored advertising for its powers of decontextualization and commodification.

The balls to do that!

But they blew it at the last second.

By the inclusion of a self-conscious, self-contradictory (in the wrong way, keep up) and self-undermining element, what should have been a piece of supremely confident branding on the biggest stage instead becomes more like an overly hesitant parody.

And even after the fact, the boffins of mediocrity at Kellogg School of Management guffed in their assessment ‘It’s also unclear how many viewers will recognize Andy Warhol, who died in 1987, which limits the appeal of the commercial.’

Kellogg could not be more wrong. Warhol is very much an artist of our time.

Self-commodification is now ubiquitous. The idea of a Facebook ‘friend’ is not only a reified commodity but is also now increasingly becoming the way we understand the nature of authentic friendship.

Instagram influencers are not influential through possessing any particular expertise or knowledge, one now becomes an influencer by merely declaring oneself an influencer (a readymade) - and Warhol's 15 minutes of fame dictum is more accurate than ever in the social media era.

Parody is, of course, distinct from pastiche.

Compromise is often thought to be in play when ideas have things taken OUT, but sometimes the most dangerous compromises are the things you put IN.

It can be the difference between an ok SuperBowl spot and what was nearly THE greatest SuperBowl spot of all time.