Tuesday, December 04, 2018

is it art?

A couple of New York-based Russian artists, Vitaly Komar and Alex Melamid conducted a ‘conceptual' art experiment back in the mid-1990s.

To begin, they appointed market researchers Martila & Kiley Inc to conduct surveys on aesthetic preferences and tastes in painting in over a dozen countries.

The goal was to find out what a ‘people's art' might look like. When the results of these surveys came in the dynamic duo would make the paintings to reflect the results. The resulting artworks were billed as ‘Most Wanted'. In contrast, they also produced paintings to reflect the ‘least wanted'.

Melamid described their concept for the project in this way:

In a way it was a traditional idea, because faith in numbers is fundamental to people, starting with Plato's view of a world which is based on numbers. 
In ancient Greece, when sculptors wanted to create an ideal human body, they measured the most beautiful men and women and then made an average measurement, and that's how they described the ideal of beauty and how the most beautiful sculpture was created. In a way, this is the same thing; in principle, it's nothing new.
It's interesting: we believe in numbers, and numbers never lie. Numbers are innocent. It's absolutely true data. It doesn't say anything about personalities, but it says something more about ideals, and about how this world functions. That's really the truth, as much as we can get to the truth. Truth is a number.

In just about every country, the favourite – the most wanted - was some kind of landscape featuring a few human figures going about their business, some animals in the foreground, with a big blue sky and some coastline or a path extending into the distance, and some water - a river, the sea or a lake.

(Just about every country wanted this - only the Italians deviated slightly, although the ideal was still heavily figurative.)

And almost universally rejected – the least wanted - were abstract compositions, featuring geometric or angular shapes. That's not to say non-figurative or non-narrative painting although can't still be appealing. Humans have a permanent innate taste for virtuoso displays. Spectacular giant Pollock's or the Rothko room at the Tate, for example. Rothko was influenced by Michelangelo’s Laurentian Library in Florence.

But science still has no agreed explanation for why anyone should claim to enjoy 'conceptual' art, 'installations' or participating in art-speak. Some kind of pretentious trait counter-signaling is likely.

The disappointed artists remarked ‘in looking for freedom, we found slavery.’


Of course, one of the great mysteries of art is why it even exists in the first place.

Although every culture draws and paints, dances, sings, makes music and tells stories the origins of human aesthetics are still mostly a puzzle.

But the origins of visual art might be a wee bit clearer.

As our Russian friends found out, across all cultures humans tend to prefer representations - visual experiences - depicting environments where they have; a vista - an advantage in height, there is an open terrain, diverse vegetation and a nearby body of water. Because a landscape such as this was ideal survive-and-thrive habitat for our ancestors who lived on the African Savannah.

This doesn’t sound much like modern cities, of course.

Although it does explain the price of an apartment in a block overlooking Central Park in New York or Hyde Park in London – there’s a nice one on Bayswater Road on the market today for 18.5 million.

Some problems in the modern workplace may also result from this kind of mismatch.

An evolutionary mismatch occurs when evolved traits or mechanisms that were once advantageous become maladaptive due to changes in the environment, particularly when environmental change happens fast.
Most of human evolution took place in hunter-gatherer groups of 50-150 individuals that worked together to find food and protect the village.

There was no middle-management, HR departments, unconscious bias training, or strategy away-days. There was not even any real distinction between work and life.

If you look around the typical modern office if there's virtually no greenery and it's challenging to get sunlight (windows don't count, you need to actually get outside in the sun for at least half an hour a day).

Vitamin D deficiency is a huge problem, even in countries like Australia, where I live.

Goodness knows what the situation is like in places inside the Arctic circle, like parts of Sweden and Finland where it’s basically dark for 6 months of the year.

Our psychology - and our physiology - are still primarily aligned for the Pleistocene era, but we're in an environment that's very different.

Lush green landscape and blue skies are an innate, evolved preference, present in human nature since that time, the two million or so years during which modern human beings evolved.

Apparently, Arthur Danto, a Columbia University phil­osopher and postmodern art theorist, suggested that the results of the ‘Most Wanted’ experiment were a product of the hideous worldwide 'calendar' in­dustry (reproductions, poster shops etc) – toeing the cultural relativism party line, he means our tastes (as uneducated plebs) in art are purely a product of social construction or ‘culturisation’.

But the calendar industry [sic] has not conspired to influence taste, but rather any success it has experienced is because it caters to universal, deep-rooted, prehistoric, innate human preferences. Aesthetic taste is an evolutionary trait, and is shaped by natural selection.

Something we’d do well to remember in the advertising business, from time to time.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

beware of the semi-attached figure

What can you do if you need to convince someone of something, but you don’t have proper evidence?

One simple way is to demonstrate something else to be true and then just pretend it’s the same thing.

In statistics, this trick is known as the ‘semi-attached figure’.

Simply pick a couple of things that sound kind of the same – though they aren’t (this is the important point) – and make a comparison between them to validate your conclusion.

An everyday example would be the number of reports that contrast hours spent TV viewing with hours spent on the internet, as though those activities were the same thing.

One reputable market research firm recently tried to convince an audience I was in about the popularity of a particular on-demand Aussie TV channel.

‘Who is watching?’ they asked. ‘Well, 90% of viewers are aware of the service!”.

Sounds impressive, however, awareness of the existence of something is not the same as usage of the service.

It has long been a common tactic of persuasion to cite information that initially seems to uphold an assertion, but upon closer inspection is pretty much irrelevant to the actual claim.

This means stating one thing as a proof for something else.

For example, if some report claims says ‘85% of CEOs think that Blockchain will change the way their organisations do marketing by 2020”– what does that actually prove?

This implies that CEOs are some sort of authority on the application of Blockchain technology.

Or marketing.

There’s no shortage of reports showing the decline of advertising spends on printed news.

The implication is that advertisers should spend more on whatever the alternative is that’s being sold.

Of course, a decline in advertising spend does not necessarily mean a decline in readership.

When dealing with any ‘evidence’ of this nature, ask yourself how the evidence specifically proves the claim. Could there be alternative explanations that would make the claim false?

If the evidence isn’t necessarily relevant to the conclusion then you are probably dealing with a semi-attached figure.

(Note: For more fun with statistics I always recommend 'How To Lie With Statistics' by Darrel Huff, first published in 1954.)

tinbergen's four questions

The Dutch ethologist and ornithologist, Nikolaas Tinbergen - along with colleagues Karl von Frisch and Konrad Lorenz - received the 1973 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine for their 'discoveries concerning organisation and elicitation of individual and social behaviour patterns'. Essentially kickstarting our understanding of the innate properties of animal behaviour.

Alongside this accolade, Tinbergen’s most famous contribution to science is the ‘four questions’ framework, originally posed in his 1963 article ‘On Aims and Methods of Ethology’.

This simple framework goes a long way towards explaining how and why any animal exhibits a behaviour, and was instrumental in putting the nature vs nurture debate to bed once and for all. The model shows how all behaviour (and all traits) are products of complicated interactions between genes and the environment.

Tinbergen and his colleagues argued that any analysis must address four aspects of a trait: how it works, what function it serves, how it develops, and its evolutionary history.

Although not posited as explicitly evolutionary, Tinbergen’s Four Questions - as they have since come to be known - detail the basic considerations a researcher should want to make. And they still hold.

(Ethologists tended to focus on observable behaviour and so didn't go deep into the psychological mechanisms, that came later as areas of ethology morphed into evolutionary psychology.)

The four questions are grouped under two headings.

Proximate questions.

1. What are the mechanisms? - how does the behaviour get elicited, what signals or primes are required, and which pathways within the organism are involved?

2. How does it develop? - how does the behaviour change with age, experience and environment?

Ultimate questions.
3. Why did it evolve? - how did evolution and earlier generations/species contribute to this particular behaviour?

4. Why did this behaviour help the organism/species survive/reproduce?

To illustrate how this framework can be applied, think of the last time you stuffed a Big Mac into your face. What was the decision process behind that?

Was I hungry? Perhaps it was just convenient? I had a hangover? Or it’s a treat every now and again?

These kinds of explanations for behaviour operate at the proximate level.

These causes point to relatively up-close and immediately present influences—to what you are presently feeling or thinking or a plausible story you tell yourself.

Yes, proximate reasons are important, but they tell only tell part of the story.

Proximate reasons don't address the broader question of why Big Macs are appealing in the first place.

Understanding the deeper reasons for preferences and behaviour requires an ultimate explanation.

Ultimate explanations focus not on the relatively immediate triggers of behaviour, but on its evolutionary function.

In the Big Mac scenario, humans have psychological mechanisms that respond positively to the sight, smell, and taste of foods rich in sugars and fats.

These mechanisms exist because an attraction to these kinds of foods helped our ancestors obtain calories and survive in an environment that where they were often scarce.

So whereas the proximate reasons you bought a Big Mac may be many and varied, the ultimate cause is that a desire for sugary and fatty foods helped solve the critical evolutionary challenge of survival in the ancestral environment.

McDonald's, Burger King and KFC have become some of the biggest brands in the world and wield colossal global advertising budgets. However, it's no accident that they got there selling burgers, fried chicken and milkshakes rather than salad.

Market researchers, like social scientists, have typically been concerned with the proximate influences on behaviour.

Moreover, anything masquerading as insight asserting that people generally want to experience pleasure or happiness, and to avoid pain or sadness is just banal.

However, an evolutionary perspective highlights that there is a deeper level of explanation rooted in the adaptive function of behaviour.

This is a useful lens through which to look at motivation because while there could be any amount of proximate motives for a given behaviour and many goals people pursue, there is a much smaller set of ultimate evolutionary functions that behaviour might serve.

These functions are almost certain to be connected to recurrent adaptive problems that our ancestors would have faced. And as they are rooted deep in our long evolutionary history, they can shape all stages of consumer journeys and decision-making processes.

the reverse naturalistic fallacy

The naturalistic fallacy, as outlined by Scottish philosopher David Hume, is the leap from is to ought.

The tendency to believe that what is, is good; therefore what is, is what ought to be.

The moralistic fallacy, is the opposite. It refers to making the leap from ought to is. The claim that the way things should be is the way they are.

This is sometimes called the reverse naturalistic fallacy.

For example, take some randomly selected Simon Sinek platitude like this:

‘Great companies don't hire skilled people and motivate them, they hire already motivated people and inspire them’.

Or how about:

‘The goal is not to do business with everybody who needs what you have. The goal is to do business with people who believe what you believe.’

This kind of glibness falls squarely into the reverse naturalistic bucket, which makes them great Linkedin fodder for the mass of suckers.

Nice ideas. But just because that’s the way things ought to be doesn’t mean it’s anything like the way things really are.

Outside of Simon’s world, for most people the reality of their jobs is what the anarchist philosopher David Graeber calls ‘the shift towards an immaterial economy that creates large numbers of jobs without an obvious social value that are often experienced as being purposeless and empty by their occupants.’

Sinek himself is no sucker, of course. I’d kill for one-tenth of his book sales.

Friday, October 19, 2018


Magical thinking can be simply described as the assigning of patterns and causation to events where those patterns and causation don’t actually exist. 
One of the main reasons psychologists give for why people engage in magical thinking is that it can give a sense of security – a feeling that one possesses some special knowledge about how to influence outcomes that would normally be out of one’s control.

Sometimes it’s just a bit of fun, of course.

The philosopher Daniel Dennett has this anecdote about his friend the theologian Lee Siegel.
Siegel has published a number of papers and books on Indian religion and culture including this 1991 book on Indian street magic, Net of Magic: Wonders and Deceptions in India.

Siegel explains that when he told people he was writing a book on magic, he was often asked “Is it a  book about real magic?”

By 'real magic' of course, people mean ‘miracles’ and acts involving ‘supernatural powers’.

Seigel would answer, ‘No, the book is about conjuring tricks, rope tricks, snake charming, illusions etc. Not real magic.'

So when people say ‘Real magic’, that really refers to the kind of magic that is not real.

Magic that cannot be done.

Whilst the magic that is real - the kind of magic that CAN actually be done - is not ‘real magic’.

It’s a trick.

‘Real magic’ is miraculous, a violation of the laws of nature.

Yet many people still want to believe in real magic.

A strange compulsion to believe in ‘real magic’ affects many people when the topic is advertising and brands.

This magical thinking assigns patterns and causation to events where patterns and causation do not exist.

Arthur C Clarke famously observed that 'any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic'.

But did he mean ‘real magic’? Or the kind of magic that can be done?

My good friend Mark Earls proposed, back in 2013, that we should try substituting the word 'Magic' for 'Big' in Big Data.

‘…if we only master Magic Data, it will make us all-powerful; the sword of Magic Data will banish all evils.’

Magic data is now inexorably linked to magic AI and magic machine learning.

Not to mention the enduring popularity of other ‘magical’ things like content marketing, influencers, the enduring cult of ‘Lovemarks’, and a multitude of other maladies.

(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. More on that in another post.)

Gossage's observations in 1960-odd seem prophetic, now.

‘Advertising…is constantly being lured into seemingly allied fields that have little to do with its unique talents and often interfere with them. … But there is one job it does well that no other communication form does at all: the controlled propagation of an idea with a defined objective though paid space.’

One reason that we can tend to engage in magical thinking is that it gives a small feeling of security in our professional lives. That we have special knowledge about how to influence outcomes. 

Magical thinking is really about anxiety reduction.

But there is, of course, a kind of magic that CAN be done - namely, make something creative and interesting and put it in places where people will see it - the controlled propagation of an idea with a defined objective.

Or if you prefer the 2018 version, it's what Binet and Field call the virtuous circle.

'... creating consistently great creative content over several years and promoting it heavily through massive exposure in paid advertising media... [the] paid media helps generate earned media, which then amplifies the effect of paid media, creating a virtuous circle of rising fame and increasing effectiveness.'

It might not be 'real magic' but, when it works, it’s magic nonetheless.

'Trust none of what you hear,
And less of what you see'

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

the destroyers of advertising

Brands are complex abstractions.

Advertising had made it possible for consumers to make some sense of these complex abstractions.

But because the concept of what-is-advertising has now been twisted out of recognition – principally by the emergence of highly targeted surveillance-fuelled direct response, content-factories, influencers [sic] etc etc - the NEW ‘advertising’ (ie the abandonment of any conventional ideas of originality, creativity in favour of pastiche and mediocrity - bearing a resemblance to advertising ) cannot fulfil this need.

And now, because people have started to ignore and block this kind of advertising, they don't remember, or credit, the role advertising performed in culture, when it used to BE advertising.

And more worrying is this.

As it becomes more and more accepted that this new definition of advertising IS the advertising, we are failing to distinguish between what is real advertising and what are, in fact, the products of the destroyers of advertising.

a ball and chain in the place where your mind's wings should have grown

'A philosophic system is an integrated view of existence. As a human being, you have no choice about the fact that you need a philosophy. Your only choice is whether you define your philosophy by a conscious, rational, disciplined process of thought and scrupulously logical deliberation -- or let your subconscious accumulate a junk heap of unwarranted conclusions, false generalizations, undefined contradictions, undigested slogans, unidentified wishes, doubts and fears, thrown together by chance, but integrated by your subconscious into a kind of mongrel philosophy and fused into a single, solid weight: self-doubt, like a ball and chain in the place where your mind's wings should have grown.'

Ayn Rand, Philosophy: Who Needs It? 1984

Friday, July 06, 2018

death by 6,000 nibbles

The Yellow Tang is a brightly colored fish that swims in the tropical reefs of the Indian Ocean.

When it needs cleaned, the tang looks for its pal, the Cleaner Wrasse who can be recognised by its bright electric blue colour and black stripe that runs down the length of its body.

Cleaner Wrasses hang around in 'cleaning stations'. Agencies in the reef.

The Wrasse is given access to the Tang’s gills and mouth, and then it eats any parasites and dead tissue off larger fishes' skin in a mutualistic relationship that provides food and protection for the wrasse, and considerable health benefits for the Tang. A reciprocal situation.

And so in order to gain access, the Cleaner Wrasse must first perform a secret dance – a special ‘code’ - in order to win the Tang’s trust.

This system normally works out fine, the symbiosis between two species, both partners are indispensable and the mutual advantage is obvious.

But there’s some other fish that mimic Cleaner Wrasses. For example, a species of Blenny called Aspidontus Taeniatus has evolved the same behavior.

It is almost identical in size and appearance to the Cleaner Wrasse. It even sports the same shiny stripe down its back and lurks around near the same reefs watching.

If approached by a Yellow Tang, the deceptive Blenny also knows the code.

The secret dance.

But once allowed in, instead of providing a cleaning service, the rogue Blenny uses its super sharp teeth to rip chunks of flesh from the hapless client.

Rather than ridding his client of parasites, Blenny IS the parasite. But in disguise.

The murky world of advertising technology [sic] contains many similar parasites, well adept at making themselves appear to be useful.

They look a bit like something to do with advertising, they can talk a language that’s a bit like the language of advertising. They know the code, which kinds of secret dances will get them access to the big fish.

And there’s lots of them.

This year’s chiefmartec.com adtech ‘lumascape’ graphic actually charts 6,829 marketing technology solutions from 6,242 unique marketing technology vendors.

While that represents ‘just’ 27% growth from 2017’s total (5,381) solutions, the percentage of growth the scale and velocity of this space is staggering.

In fact, the size of the 2018 landscape is equivalent to all of the marketing tech landscapes from 2011 through 2016 added together. Indeed, in 2011 they numbered just 150.

All of them having a nibble. All of them getting a chunk.

Where does all the money go?

Some of these companies are legit.

Some of the money may even find its way back into the industry, somehow.

But once you let them in, they keep biting.
And there are so many it’s hard to see how they can be kept out.
Then it's death by 6,000 nibbles.

Friday, June 29, 2018


'All over the country, we want a new direction,
I said all over this land, we need a reaction,
Well there should be a youth explosion,
Inflate creation,
But something we can command,

What's the point in saying destroy?
I want a new life for everywhere,
We want a direction, all over the country,
I said I want a reaction, all over this land,
You g-got to get up and move it, a youth explosion,
Because this is your last chance,

Can't dismiss what is gone before,
But there's foundations for us to explore,

All around the world I've been looking for a new'

The 19 year old Paul Weller intuitively knew something of adaptive leadership.

Adaptive leadership is about change that enables the capacity to thrive.

Adaptive change interventions build on the past rather than jettison it.

Organizational change happens through ex-peri-ment-ation.

Adaptive leadership values diversity of views.

New adaptations have the potential of significantly displacing, re-regulating, and rearranging old structures.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

successful adaptations are both conservative and progressive

'Successful adaptive changes build on the past rather than jettison it.

In biological adaptations, though DNA changes may radically expand the species’ capacity to thrive, the actual amount of DNA that changes is minuscule.

More than 98 percent of our current DNA is the same as that of a chimpanzee: it took less than a 2 percent change of our evolutionary predecessors’ genetic blueprint to give humans extraordinary range and ability.

A challenge for adaptive leadership, then, is to engage people in distinguishing what is essential to preserve from their organization’s heritage from what is expendable.

Successful adaptations are thus both conservative and progressive.

They make the best possible use of previous wisdom and know-how.

The most effective leadership anchors change in the values, competencies, and strategic orientations that should endure in the organization.'

Heifetz, Grashow, and Linsky | The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World | 2009 Harvard Business School Publishing

nothing cooks without some heat

In his autobiography Miles Davis tells a story about the 1970 line-up of his touring band - this was the band that featured on the live half of the Live-Evil album - the one that featured the legendary Keith Jarrett on keys and briefly included the equally legendary Gary Bartz on sax.

Bartz had been grumbling a bit in private about Jarrett over-playing 'busy shit' behind his sax solos. Eventually he approached Miles and asked him to have a word with Kieth.

Miles agreed.

Later Keith Jarrett was talking with Miles about some other bits and pieces and as he was leaving Miles calls Keith back to tell him how much Gary Bartz was loving what he was doing behind his sax solos and could he please do even more of that kind of of thing.

Cookin' with Miles.
Nothing cooks without some heat.