Thursday, December 11, 2014

The Dunning-Kruger Peak of Advertising

You may be familiar with the case of one McArthur Wheeler.

Wheeler was a man who, in 1995, proceeded to rob two banks in Pittsburg, in broad daylight, using no other method to avoid detection other than covering his face with lemon juice.

As lemon juice is usable as invisible ink, Wheeler was certain that it would render his own face invisible, and therefore prevent his face from being recorded by the surveillance cameras.

Wheeler was supremely confident as he had tested his hypothesis by taking a proto-selfie with a polaroid camera and the result had give him an image of only wall, with no face apparent.

Unfortunately he had simply aimed his shot badly.

The story inspired a series of experiments by David Dunning and Justin Kruger of the Department of Psychology, Cornell University.

The results were published in 1999 and henceforth the phenomenon - If you’re incompetent, you can’t know you’re incompetent because the skills you need to produce a right answer are exactly the skills you lack in order to know what a right answer is - became known as the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

In the early days of its existence the Dunning-Kruger Effect was also sometimes described as the American Idol Effect.

This was because the hapless yet strangely confident performances in TV talent show auditions were an extremely salient example of the phenomenon - a cognitive bias wherein incompetent individuals mistakenly rate their own competence much higher than is accurate.

This bias is attributed to a meta-cognitive inability of the unskilled to recognise their ineptitude

Conversely, many people who actually are skilled or talented tend to underestimate their own talent, and wrongly assume that things that are easy for them to do are also easy for others.

As Dunning and Kruger famously note, "the miscalibration of the incompetent stems from an error about the self, whereas the miscalibration of the highly competent stems from an error about others"

For the talent show hopefuls the sweet Mariah Carey tones in their own head bears no resemblance to the hideous cacophony coming out of their mouth.

Part of the problem is the fact that none of the people around our untalented protagonists - family, friends, colleagues – are prepared to tell them the truth.

Therefore the delusion becomes even more entrenched.

(These people, while well intentioned, can be reasonably described as mediocrity enablers. That's for another post.)

For more on this have a listen to Dr David Dunning himself telling the story of McArthur Wheeler and the development of his theory in this episode of the You Are Not So smart podcast.

Anyway, you now you will start to see how this is leading us into the world of advertising.

There is a point, often labeled ‘Dunning-Kruger peak’ that represents the particular surge of self-confidence one gets upon acquiring some small amount of skill in a field.

It represents the huge leap from novice to semi-skilled amateur.
However the deluded amateur, at this stage both encouraged their new found knowledge yet unable to know the vastness of what they have yet to learn in order to be an expert, begin to imagine themselves to actually be expert.

This period of delusion is common in people who are just starting out in advertising, though by no means exclusive to the young. Based on scant evidence they suddenly believe they are much more knowledgeable about advertising than they actually are.

Moreover, this delusion seems to also happen at a group level, and envelopes people with enough experience to know better, which is why I suggest that a large part of our industry appears to have hit some sort of Dunning-Kruger peak.

The commonly held ideas of those operating in Dunning-Kruger peak mode are some sort of party-mix that contains ‘advertising is dead, everything is now about content, participation and conversation’, ‘creative departments are no longer required as ideas come from anywhere’ and ‘anyone with a smartphone can be an ad agency’ amongst many others.

Dunning and Kruger discovered that people who are unskilled at something — in this case advertising — are often unable to see how bad they are.

Incompetent people will
1. Fail to recognise that they are incompetent,
2. Fail to recognise how good competent people actually are.
3. Fail to see the scale of their incompetence.

To an extent this story is my own story.
Armed with Twitter and grab bag of Seth Godin one-liners I spent a number of years parroting much of the same ‘advertising is dead’ drivel.

Until eventually reaching that moment of true insight when I realised exactly how incompetent I actually was.

This is where one falls from the Dunning-Kruger Peak into a trough* of enlightened ignorance where you begin to realise that the things you don’t know massively outnumber the things you’ve learned.



(* In photographers' lingo this is called the Jon Snow trough, after a character in Game of Thrones apparently).

On the upside, despite being in the trough, one is now actually skilled to some degree though conversely now saddled with the tendency to underestimate one’s own skill when compared to the over confident noises made by the mass of incompetents.

For the adperson to hasten his or her descent from the peak, one important insight that is best absorbed sooner rather than later comes from  realising that the consumers we have to communicate with spend precious little time thinking about brands, do next to no evaluation around most purchase decisions, and even brands that they use and like are trivial in comparison to the rest of their daily lives.

Rather than engagement, conversations or participation people’s actual buying behaviour is about reducing complexity, reducing choice and making easier, good-enough decisions.

Our job is simply about getting brands noticed, remembered at the appropriate time and then bought.

Just getting that teeny tiny bit of attention needed is hard enough, never mind all the other bollocks.

Like the fella once said, ‘Never make predictions, particularly about the future’.

Perhaps a wish, then. 

A wish that 2015 is the year when all of us in the business of marketing communications – of all flavours – fall from our Dunning-Kruger peak, and recognise that while we have some skills and influence, what we don’t know about human behaviour is so much more than what we do know, and no amount of lemon juice  flavour kool-aid can hide this.


Tuesday, November 25, 2014

presenter's toolkit














I don't normally do these 'lifehack' kind of posts, and there's no danger of this turning into any kind of self-help blog.

[On occasions when I've had to talk to students and suchlike I'm inclined to respond to career advice type questions with something along the lines of 'See what I did? Don't do that'.]

The items above are ones that I carry with me for any pitch, presentation or client meeting in which I may have to show stuff on a screen.

Exhibit A:
A mini dv mac to HDMI adaptor. 
When turning up at your meeting you may have to plug in to a massive TV and these days the regular PC in slot is starting to become less common.

Exhibit B:
A mini dv mac to PC adaptor. 
This will be pretty familiar, you usually have to plug in to some PC contraption.

[Note: I'm fond of the Guy Kawasaki 10-20-30 rule.
10 slides, and a minimum of 30pt font.
The 20 stands for 20 minutes (this is how long you should expect to talk for in a one hour pitch or meeting).
This allows you 40 minutes to answer questions etc (expect to use about 20mins).
Guy also recommends reserving the other 20mins to set your presentation up while having to navigate the Microsoft operating system.]

Exhibit C:
Your mac remote control.
Never trust the fangled space age looking PC remotes that may be provided.
A remote is essential to allow for maximum pacing up and down, pontificating and strolling menacingly round the back of your audience like Robert DeNiro in the Untouchables.

Exhibit D:
Portable bluetooth speaker. 
I've been caught out by no audio equipment too many times.
In a small boardroom type meeting you can simply whip out your speaker and place it in the middle of the table and play your videos or audio.

While there is no substitute for knowing your material inside out (this will get you through any tech problems better than any gadget) being prepared makes you at least look like you know what you are doing - a lot of the time this is half the battle.



Monday, November 24, 2014

bring the noise (or...why quiet fixing is the enemy within)












In any given week there’s no shortage of writing on ‘the new agency model’ or ‘why advertising is broken and how to fix it’.

I’ve no wish to add to this number.

What this post aims to outline is a common problem in agencies of all flavours – new model or otherwise.

And it’s nothing to do with the fragmentation of media, consumers-in-control, the collaborative economy or how content strategy will eat advertising.

Nor is it in anyway connected to marketing 3.0, purpose before profit or how branded communities of millenials are demanding marketing from the ‘the spirit’ and psychic satisfaction (© Philip Kotler - Marketing 3.0 and I am not joking)

No, the biggest problem in agencies is when people quietly, and without fuss, fix things.

The reason this is the biggest problem is because no-one notices it’s a problem.

In fact, it looks like it’s efficiency.

A problem arises, someone notices it, applies some little ‘fix’ and moves on with minimal disruption to anything else going on.

Why is this such a big deal?

Listen to ex-Toyota chairman Katsuaki Watanabe.

‘Hidden problems are the ones that become serious threats eventually.
If problems are revealed for everyone to see, I will feel reassured.

Because once problems have been visualized, even if our people didn't notice them earlier, they will rack their brains to find solutions to them.

In Toyota, if a problem is noticed, production on the line stops, the entire team comes together to identify the root cause of the problem, to ensure that it does not happen again.

This can be noisy and a little heated, but it leads to better quality and productivity in the long term.’

Quiet Fixers cause two principle problems.

1. 
If the quiet fixer solves a genuine issue then we never get the chance to know that it was a problem - therefore the root cause never gets addressed and in all likelihood that same problem will come up again in the future.

2. 
The quiet fixer ‘solves’ a problem that wasn’t a problem and therefore creates a problem. 
These type of quiet fixes normally happen further down the line of production, and usually begin with the words ‘can you just…’ followed by ‘move that button’ ‘make it red’ or ‘change that word to…’. To the fixer these can seem like trivialities, minor no-harm-done tweaks to perhaps appease a client.
To the fixer it may even feel like they are doing the right thing.
But it’s the small things that make a big difference and do serious damage to a piece of communication which only gets discovered when it’s too late.

We are reminded of one of Rory Sutherland’s early TED talks in which he famously noted this in regard to the growing influence of decision science and behavioural economics on informing how choices are presented in advertising and other brand communications:

‘Unfortunately, [the] science is probably closer to being climatology in that in many cases, very, very small changes can have disproportionately huge effects, and equally, vast areas of activity, enormous mergers, can actually accomplish absolutely bugger-all. But it's very, very uncomfortable for us to actually acknowledge that we're living in such a world.’

In such a world, for agencies of any sort, a culture of quiet fixing is the enemy within.

Bring the noise.

HT to the @psychwork blog – ‘Thinking atWork’.


correct planning











In 1968, Stanley Pollitt, along with Martin Boase and Gabe Massimi, started the agency Boase Massimi Pollitt.

The three of them had worked at Interpublic agency Pritchard Wood Partners.

(No relation, as far as I know, btw)

BMP emerged after the trio had un-successfully attempted to buy Pritchard Wood and started up their own agency instead.

It was while at BMP that Stanley Pollitt was able to fully form his idea of Account Planning.

Coincidentally Stephen King at JWT was having similar ideas at the same time, and the pair are recognized as the godfathers of the discipline.

Here’s Pollitt’s description of  the role of the account planner.

‘The account planner is that member of the agency's team who is the expert, through background, training, experience, and attitudes, at working with information and getting it used - not just marketing research but all the information available to help solve a client's advertising problems’.

For the ‘expert’ that Pollitt describes, his or her single most important task was to get the advertising ‘right’ and both Pollitt and King advocated an approach based less on gut feel and more on scientific foundation.

I mention this as Pollitt and King  came to mind while reading the following passage from evolutionary psychologist Stephen Pinker’s book ‘How The Mind Works’.

Pinker is making the argument for proper science vs 'pseudo' science.

He could just as easily be making the case for correct planning vs pseudo planning, such is the proliferation of ‘experts’ in the now expanded realm of quackery that passes for ‘strategy’ of some shape or form in agencies. 

(The principal skill of many of these strategists being the ability to 'find the data' that promotes their particular case and specialism.)

‘Experts are invaluable and are usually rewarded in esteem and wealth. But our reliance on experts puts temptation in their path. The experts can allude to a world of wonders — occult forces, angry gods, magical potions — that is inscrutable to mere mortals but reachable through their services.

Tribal shamans are flimflam artists who” supplement their considerable practical knowledge with stage magic, drug-induced trances, and other cheap tricks.

In a complex society, a dependence on experts leaves us even more vulnerable to quacks, from carnival snake-oil salesman to the mandarins who advise governments to adopt programs implemented by mandarins.

Good science is pedantic, expensive, and subversive. ‘

Dictionary.com appears to have a different view of ‘pedantic’, describing it as:

'The nitpickery of the english language that drives the less detail oriented insane...often mistaken as a tool to impress others when in fact it is annoying.'

For planning to get the advertising ‘right’ this is a necessary risk.

To round off I’ve mapped Pinker’s pedantic, expensive, and subversive trifecta onto three attributes that Stanley Pollitt believed to be essential for effective account planning.

Pedantic
This means total agency management commitment to getting the advertising content right at all costs. This means creating effective advertising instead of focusing on maximising profits or keeping the clients happy.

Expensive
The agency commits the resources to allow planners to be more than temporary role players. Account planners must be given the leeway to work with the data and research that they see fit.

Subversive
It means changing some of the basic ground rules. Once consumer response becomes the most important element in making final advertising judgments, it makes many of the more conventional means of judgment sound hollow. "Conventional means" representing the affection a Creative has over an idea or the prejudice of a client that challenges research evidence.


As an interesting footnote, while poking around for some nuggets for this piece we were naturally delighted to find that aside from Pollitt’s contribution to the advancement of the ad industry, he also made a major contribution to the punk canon as his daughter –Tessa - was bass player in The Slits.


Monday, November 17, 2014

sincerity is bullshit

‘Rather than seeking primarily to arrive at accurate representations of a common world, the individual turns toward trying to provide honest representations of himself.

It is as though he decides that since it makes no sense to try to be true to the facts, he must therefore try instead to be true to himself.

[But] there is nothing in theory, and certainly nothing in experience, to support the extraordinary judgment that it is the truth about himself that is the easiest for a person to know.

Our natures are, indeed, elusively insubstantial—notoriously less stable and less inherent than the natures of other things.

And insofar as this is the case, sincerity itself is bullshit.’

The above is a shortened version of the closing remarks from Harry G. Frankfurt’s famous philosophy essay ‘On Bullshit’, first published in 1986 and still widely regarded as the closest thing we have to unified theory of bullshit.

‘Sincerity itself is bullshit’

Those closing remarks of Frankfurt’s theory sprang to mind as we noticed an article on Salon.com this week entitled ‘Let’s all be a lot less Honest’ in which author R. Jay Magill Jr. asked if it's time to:

‘...drop our authenticity fetish and get real about the neglected art of playing social roles’.

Magill’s article begins by addressing a piece by Duke University law professor Jedediah Purdy, in The Daily Beast entitled ‘Why Your Waiter Hates You’, in which Purdy argues that modern capitalism performs:

‘...a pervasive intrusion on a key aspect of autonomy: the right to be yourself.’

Purdy means that many workers - low paid service workers e.g. waiters and waitresses - are being extorted because they have to be nice to customers (presenting a public self) in order to receive tips for insatnce, even though the act makes them betray their real feelings (their private self).

Magill, however, contests this and argues that to keep the private self and public self separate does not demean the latter just because it is not ‘real’ or ‘authentic’.

He goes on to state that ‘the public self is as real as the private self; it is our overvaluation of the latter that has thrown the long-standing importance of the former into doubt.’

It is this idea of the overvaluation of the ‘private’ or ‘authentic’ self that crosses over into some of the popular ideas in what seems to represent a significant portion of modern branding and advertising theory.

Scarcely a week goes by without the deluge of articles from marketing experts and commentators (most commonly from the digerati, curiously) demanding authenticity from brands.

That a brand should ‘provide honest and authentic representation of itself.’

And if that’s not enough, it’s claimed in some quarters that these authentic brands should not even be concerned with the grubby business of making a sale!

I’m not sure what industry some of these people think they are in.

It is widely claimed that rather than being simply social and transactional brands should instead be concerned with seeking a deep connection, engaging on a personal level with the individual.

And that advertising which attempts to put memorable campaigns in front of mass audiences with the intention of getting a brand thought of momentarily the next time the consumer wants to buy from the category, is somehow inauthentic.

The commentators who espouse this theory seem very certain that this is the way forward for brands, yet there is scant evidence that any consumers out there even want to engage with brands at all, and even thinking about brands is something that most people spend very little mental energy over.

It's worth noting - with some irony -  that many of those commentators who demand this of 'brand authenticity' are among the worst bullshit offenders.

Returning to Frankfurt's text briefly...


'Bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about.

Thus the production of bullshit is stimulated whenever person’s obligations or opportunities to speak about some topic exceed his knowledge of the facts that are relevant to that topic.


This discrepancy is common in [marketing journals], where people are frequently impelled—whether by their own propensities or by the demands of others—to speak extensively about matters of which they are to some degree ignorant.'

This clamour for authenticity from brands seems also to be connected to what Magill describes in his article as the ideology of intimacy.

‘The ideology of intimacy promotes the idea that social relationships are only real, authentic and meaningful the closer they approach the inner life and vulnerabilities of a person.

[It] encourages ever-increasing closeness - between people, nations and cultures - and decries interpersonal or intercultural distance as cold, fake, distant or aloof.

This assumption runs so deep in culture that we no longer see it, let alone question its worth.’]

But do we really need this ideology of intimacy to dominate the discourse around brands and consumer relationships?

Magill concludes ‘social culture is only “cold” or “distant” if you go in to social interactions expecting warm and fuzzy feelings from people you do not know.’

It works in both directions too.
Modern marketers have a misguided obsession with knowing the details of consumers' private lives (principally driven by that other marketer fetish; big data) - believing this will make their efforts more effective.


In a social and market context however, impersonal behaviours are far more useful, simply because they create 'a boundary between one’s real feelings and the impersonal world of transactions'.

The principal difficulty with the brand authenticity lobby is that it crosses the streams.
If you're familiar with Ghostbusters then you will understand just how problematic this is...

As Dan Ariely pointed to in Predictably irrational, we live simultaneously in two different worlds.
One where social norms prevail, and the other governed by market norms.

'Social norms are wrapped up in our social nature and our need for community. They are usually warm and fuzzy. Instant paybacks are not required: you may help move your neighbour’s couch, but this doesn’t mean he has to come right over and move yours.


The second world, the one governed by market norms, is very different. There’s nothing warm and fuzzy about it. The exchanges are sharp- edged: wages, prices, rents, interest, and costs- and- benefits. 

Such market relationships are not necessarily evil or mean-in fact, they also include self- reliance, inventiveness, and individualism-but they do imply comparable benefits and prompt payments'. 

Emotional honesty may be a nice personal quality to have, but it has nothing to do with solving anyone’s washing powder problem, and by keeping things on a ‘social relation’ level – with all it’s inherent fake-ness – is a more authentic relationship than any sincerity bullshit.


Rather than pursuing the futile quest for brand authenticity we’d all (brands and consumers) be perfectly happy with brands that are ‘impersonal, but friendly’ (a phrase coined by social historian Peter Stearns about the American smile’) and allow us to transact without crossing the streams.

Have a nice day.


Tuesday, November 11, 2014

a no-brainer for you

The brain is a physical system. 

It functions exactly the same way as a computer. 

Its circuits are designed to generate behavior that is appropriate the environmental circumstances in which it needs to function.

The above statements are part of the first principles of evolutionary psychology.

(This is our current area of study, by the way.)

This means that all of our thoughts, hopes, dreams and feelings are simply the product of chemical reactions going on in our heads.

In this sense there is no 'self'.

(While evolutionary psychologists are generally the most vocal opponents of anything that smells of religion, it's curious how much of the theory corresponds with the same ideas in buddhism, for example.

Although buddhism is not strictly a religion, of course.)

Anyway.

The circuits of the brain, firing together, are designed to generate different kinds of motion.
This is what we would call behaviour, and it happens in response to information from the environment.

Now we've got that out of the way it's interesting to note how many behaviours we share with other species.

This particular example that I found in an uncredited EP primer reminded me of some people I've encountered in the advertising agency and marketing world.

'Organisms that don't move, don't have brains. 
Trees don't have brains, bushes don't have brains, flowers don't have brains. 

In fact, there are some animals that don't move during certain stages of their lives. 

And during those stages, they don't have brains. 

The sea squirt, for example, is an aquatic animal that inhabits oceans.

During the early stage of its life cycle, the sea squirt swims around looking for a good place to attach itself permanently. 

Once it finds the right rock, and attaches itself to it, it doesn't need its brain anymore because it will never need to move again. 

So it eats (resorbs) most of its brain.'



Tuesday, November 04, 2014

beanz meanz recognition validity




















While much of the debate around heuristics and biases tends to focus on how mental shortcuts can lead to less than optimal decision making, it's worth noting that this is not always the case - indeed fast, simplified decision rules often result in better choices.

Where less knowledge is actually better than more in order to make a particular inference.

According to Gigerenzer the recognition heuristic is one such shortcut that we consumers routinely apply without thinking and derive a kind of counterintuitive less-is-more effect. 

Think of this as ‘brand fame’, in it’s simplest sense.

A 'fame' in which recognised items or brands will be chosen over unrecognised ones, regardless of any other available relevant information. 

This is important because it gives us a better clue about how brands are selected in actual real buying situations versus hypothetical ones.

For instance, when asked to name as many brands in a specific category as possible, people can rarely name more than a few.

However when read a list of brands in a category, people are usually aware of much more than just a few. When prompted they can name loads more.

The problem is that in real-life buying situations the brands that come to mind automatically are the only ones that matter. 

So, unaided salience is a slightly better predictor of the brands that may come to mind in a real buying situation, though still not perfect.

So, onto Gigerenzer's model of recognition validity.

On the right-hand side of the diagram above we see partially ignorant consumers (that's you and me); we have limited brand name recognition, limited (if any) brand knowledge, but we are in a goal-oriented situation, getting the weekly shopping in.

On the left is what we are trying to infer (a quality), in order to determine which beans to buy.

On the top, there are the 'mediators' in the environment, such as news media, advertising (Beanz Meanz Heinz) , word of mouth, stuff we've 'heard about', what we did last time and what we've observed other people do.

The 'quality' (some sort of cue or whichever attribute we need in order to pick) of a brand can be inferred by how many associations that we can make, and the quality of those associations.

Over time, we implicitly learn that heavily advertised brands are of a high quality, and because advertising causes salience of the brand name, and salience we can infer high quality from recognition alone.

For the brand itself this is extremely significant as consumers unconsciously screen out competing brands – they don’t even get noticed.

But it gets even better when we can learn by observing what other consumers do (popularity), in turn this also reinforces recognition. 

Then the more times we use a particular brand the usage itself leads to further recognition.

We still have no more brand knowledge but don't need it, less knowledge is actually better than more.

In turn, the more often a brand name is mentioned by the mediator(s) , the more likely it is that a person will have heard of the name, regardless of its actual quality. 

The recognition heuristic is a probably a very close cousin of what Byron Sharp would call ‘mental availability’.

Buyers use different cues when retrieving brands as buying options.
They may be totally unaware of the cues they are utilising.
No consumer is wedded to one attribute all the time.
The typical buyer might be thinking healthy one time, convenient next time and a treat the time after. Buyers use different attributes at different points in time. ‘

How the recognition heuristic works in short:

- Impact of quality: high-quality objects are mentioned more often than low-quality objects. 

- Impact of publicity: those that are mentioned more often are recognised more often

Recognition validity: those that are recognised more get bought more.


Monday, November 03, 2014

never trust a hippy (slight return)
















The article that follows first appeared on the Australian media and marketing website Mumbrella on October 30th. This is the slightly longer version of the published piece.

I received a number of complaints about the title of the post.
For the benefit of younger readers it is a reference to a particular Jamie Reid poster (of the same title) from punk times circa 1976 or something. Some of my best friends are hippies.

Eaon
______________________________

It was Mark Earls who coined the term ‘purpose-idea’ back in 2002 or something in his book ‘…Creative Age’.

His premise being that the word ‘brand’ had become – what he called – a ‘fat-metaphor’. A word that could be used it to mean just about anything we want it to.

Purpose-Idea was a proposed replacement for ‘brand’ – as defined as the ‘what for?’ of a business.

The Google purpose idea, for example, was 'to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful'.

A simple description of how the brand fits into people’s lives.

Not the ‘ethics and values’ place that it’s ended up (for many so-called cultural or conscious capitalism examples).

And, if anything, ‘purpose’ now feels even more esoteric than the b-word was in the first place.


However, there’s no shortage of reporting that claims a cause-and-effect relationship between a brand’s ability to serve a higher purpose and its financial performance.

But is this really proof that the most successful brands are built on an ideal of improving lives?

Or is brand purpose simply a positional response that resolves a particular cognitive dissonance and puts a do-gooder spin on normal consumption habits for old (and new) hippies?

And another example of the delusion of the wrong end of the stick. Getting causes the wrong way round.

The standard rhetoric of the ‘brand with purpose’ goes something along these lines.

It’s much harder to run a mission-driven company than it is to run one that is simply devoted to making a profit.

This is possibly why there was a sense of disappointment from Benjamin Harrison in his article in Mumbrella (to which this article was a response) , in which he lamented the inability of many companies who adopt a purpose-driven position to actually deliver on that promise.

But should we really expect the purpose driven brand to be authentic in this way? It’s pretty hard after all.

In their book ‘The Rebel Sell’ Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter note that "…whenever you look at the list of consumer goods that [according to critics of capitalism] people don't really need, what you invariably see is a list of consumer goods that middle-aged intellectuals don't need ... Hollywood movies bad, performance art good; Chryslers bad, Volvos good; hamburgers bad, risotto good."

It could even be that the much-deified new generation of ‘millennials’ – the bullshit proof authenticity-seeking information generation defined both by their strongly held values and their strong intention to live by them – is another invention of these same middle-aged intellectuals, are now looking to temper the disappointment they feel over their own generations counter-culture failure.

The list of usual suspect purpose driven brands, as indicated by the Stengel 50, seems to play out to that point.
Starbucks, Apple, Google, Innocent, to name but a few.
And, of course, Chipotle.

There is no small irony in how Chipotle appear to expect farmers to produce food for the world using technologies from the early 1900s, yet seem very comfortable using every trick and tech from the 2014 marketing book to promote that point of view.

Of course, every new pseudo anti-establishment approach business that declares itself as some sort of alternative to the mainstream - more artisanal, authentic or purpose-driven – is simply a response to demand from the mass market looking for things to consume that signal their alternative status to others.

My favourite description of anti-consumerism is the one that calls it as ‘the criticism of what other people buy’. 

But the truth is that the market is just as good at meeting consumer demand for anti-consumer products as it is for straight up consumer products.

Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference, to be honest.

Take the sharing economy poster child Uber, for example.

A shining example of a new social era built on transparency, connectedness and stakeholder empowerment.

Driven by both a social mission and social values: advocacy, connection, and collaboration. Harnessing technology to create social marketplaces that facilitate trust, dual accountability and social capital between and amongst its stakeholders, employees, customers, and partners.

A brand with a purpose beyond profit.

The Uber Drivers Networks of New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and London who went on the latest of several strikes and held protest demonstrations against the company’s somewhat unethical driver squeezing practices outside Uber HQ’s last week might contest this.

Or let’s ask the drivers working for 3rd Party fleet partners operating as mini-Uber bases, which, for all intents and purposes are operating under the exact same economic and operational principles of the yellow cab or black car bases that Uber was supposed to replace.

We should also give (dis)honourable mention to Uber in la France with their recent promotion offering riders the option ‘hot chick’ model drivers.
To be fair, it was France, but to describe the promo as “acceptable” misogyny feels like a bit of a stretch.

Uber is an easy target, admittedly.

In Jean Baudrillard’s 1970 book, The Consumer Society he describes consumption itself as some sort of ‘magical thinking’. This is why advertising works so well.

Goods conveying properties beyond their intended use.
Anti-consumption is probably more so.

You see, the post social media analysts (now sharing economy experts) like to think that organisations like Uber are somehow subversive.

But they are not. The system is simply incorporating a new market segment.
And it is the same old competitive consumption, that drives this same consumer spending.

It’s positional and pure marketing.
But the label helps resolve that particular cognitive dissonance.

Now you can feel like a do-gooder and still consume.


We always seek to gain status for ourselves with what we buy (or rent), and everybody does it too.

The seemingly purpose-driven brands of the sharing economy and suchlike might be the new cool, but the status-oriented nature of the activity remains the same for the consumers.

Consumerism is something we do to each other, and if anything, straight up conspicuous consumption is more authentic than conscious consumption because at least the status-driven nature of it is not disguised.

[Note: Reid/McLarens 'never trust a hippy' was a thinly veiled jibe directed at Richard Branson, who's current space tourism product is just about the ultimate positional good, this week's 'setback' notwithstanding.]