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.

This brings us to the much discussed Burger King/Warhol spot; probably the most interesting and important in this year’s #BrandBowl [sic].

Not because I think it was the best (I don’t) but because it is the most curious from a philosophy of advertising standpoint.

Not least in the way it spectacularly snatches defeat from the jaws of victory, as we shall see.

Warhol/BK is in effect a ‘readymade’.

Readymade was a term coined around the time of Marcel Duchamp’s notorious 1917 ‘sculpture’, Fountain.

Designed to shift the focus of art from physical craft to intellectual interpretation [sic], Fountain was a standard urinal purchased from Fifth Avenue hardware store and submitted into the first exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists at The Grand Central Palace in New York.

Often described as ‘the most influential modern work of art ever’, the original urinal was lost sometime in 1917 and is only known from one single blurry photograph.

To see it today, several ‘replicas’ - authorized by Duchamp Inc - can be found all around the world, including the Centre Pompidou of Paris, the Tate Modern in London and the San Francisco MoMA.

The film of Warhol eating a burger is essentially a readymade.

An existing non-advertising object, ‘found’ by Burger King’s agency and recontextualised as advertising.


This piece of film 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 is called a dialetheia.

Or a 'true contradiction'.

(In philosophy this is the opposite of objectivism, in where contradictions cannot be true – check your premises!)

So Burger King’s spot is an ad that isn’t really an ad and a found object that is not just a found object, yet it is also both.

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.

Using that logic, then, what are potentially true contradictions in media? Or advertising?

Burger King and their agency came oh-so-close to pulling off a great dialetheia.

Or a ‘true contradiction’.

What is media insofar as it is not media?

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

However, BK snatched defeat from the jaws of victory by adding the superfluous #eatlikeandy hashtag.

Because 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 a masterstroke of postmodern meta-advertising and signaling.

What could be more of an all-American trilogy!

Andy, Burger King and the SuperBowl.

The balls to do that!

But they lost their confidence at the last second. They worried that we wouldn’t know who Andy was.

By the inclusion of self-conscious, self-contradictory and self-undermining element (the #hashtag), what could have been a piece of supremely confident branding on the big stage instead becomes more like slightly hesitant parody.

Parody is, of course, distinct from pastiche.

Unlike pastiche which celebrates the work it imitates, parody simply mocks (eg citing a convention only to ridicule it).

Compromise is often around when ideas have things taken OUT but sometimes the most dangerous compromises are the things you put IN.

It can be the difference between a great(ish) SuperBowl spot and THE greatest SuperBowl spot of all time.

Thursday, January 31, 2019

i can't see much of a future unless we find out what's to blame, what a shame.

The journalist Paul Morley said 'Buzzcocks came from the better side of punk, the bands who were aware of things like Faust and Can.'

He wasn't wrong.

By early 1976, and after building his own oscillator from scratch, Bolton Institute of Technology engineering student Pete Shelley had already completed a whole 'album' of experimental synth music, inspired by his love of Kraftwerk and other krautrock bands.

It was there that he first met Howard Devoto who was looking for someone to soundtrack an art movie he’d made. Howard was studying philosophy down the road.

Both Pete and Howard were avid NME readers and after reading a small review of relatively unknown London band, Sex Pistols, and inspired by a quote in the piece attributed to Pistols guitarist Steve Jones ('we're not into music, we're into chaos'), the new friends booked a small room at Manchester Free Trade Hall and invited the Pistols to play. This event June 1976 has gone down in history as 'the gig that changed the world' (among the 30 or 40 misfits in the audience were future members of Joy Division/New Order, The Smiths and The Fall.)

The day after the show the pair immediately formed Buzzcocks and booked the Pistols to play again six weeks later with their own combo as support. At the second gig the hall was full to its 150 capacity.

The rest is history, of course.

Billy Bragg once remarked that if everyone who claimed to have seen the Pistols in '76 really had they would have sold out a month at Wembley Stadium rather than a few one-nighters at assorted Soho strip clubs. Correspondingly, if everyone who claimed to be at one of the Manchester shows had attended it would have been a week of sell-outs at the G-Mex.

(If every ad planner and marketer who claim in-depth knowledge of Ehrenberg-Bass principles had bought 'How Brands Grow' then I reckon Byron and co would be kicking back on a private island next to the ones occupied by Richard Branson and assorted retired Bond villains rather than still pursuing their academic careers.)

Paul Morley is also on record as claiming ‘I remember delightedly screaming, “This is like...Ornette Coleman!” when I went to see the early Buzzcocks play.'

(But he was now just being a bit silly, albeit setting the tone for much of his subsequent writing.)

Shelley’s iconic deliberately inane minimal two-note guitar solo in Boredom (from Buzzcocks debut EP Spiral Scratch) was pretty conceptual. 

The solo consisted of just two notes repeated 66 times, ending with a single modulated seventh. One suspects that it was this last flourish that Morley interpreted as the free-jazz component.

Pete played a Starway, a cheap Japanese brand of guitars sold in department stores. 
A rudimentary instrument, the Starway featured just one pickup and two control dials for volume and tone.

Shelley is said to have bought his in a Manchester branch of Woolworths. 
(While the guitars were sold there, Pete actually acquired his one - second-hand - in a charity shop.)

To be more exact, the four tracks on '...Scratch' were recorded using just TWO-THIRDS of a Starway.

Pete had accidentally smashed his axe into two pieces during a rehearsal.

The top part of the body snapped off but the guitar was still totally playable, and so continued to be his main tool until the band had a few hits and he could afford to upgrade to the (only marginally more sophisticated) Gibson Marauder.

If inspiring the DIY punk revolution with only two-thirds of a guitar was not minimal enough for you, Shelley's engineering chops learned back at Bolton Tech came in handy.

It's often been said that creativity can be propelled by constraints - even if the limits are artificial.

He rewired the insides of the Starway to bypass the volume and tone dials, sending the pickup direct to the jack - it was now two-thirds of a guitar with only ONE sound. It was a pretty good sound, though.

The economist Ernst Friedrich "Fritz" Schumacher once coined the term appropriate technology. Meaning the 'simplest level of technology that can achieve the intended purpose'.

Simplicity has never been a bad idea.

In a world of applied appropriate advertising technology, most of the links in our complicated and bloated demand/supply chain - SSPs, DSPs, exchanges, third-party verification systems and various proprietary reporting mechanisms - wouldn’t even have a business. They wouldn't exist.

So-called 'safety' tech vendors have even more mysterious incentives given that they DEPEND on the continued existence of botnets, domain-spoofers and malware fraudsters for their own business model.

But when every step in a web ad 'value' chain is deliberately opaque, they all do to some extent.
A cynic would call it a cynical exercise in deliberate obfuscation.

The funny thing is that we think we know how this advertising technology demand/supply chain works, and the more available information we have, the more our confidence grows.

This is the Illusion of Explanatory Depth (or IOED) - the persistent illusion people have that we know more about more than we actually do. IOED was coined in 2002 by cognitive scientists Rozenblit and Keil.

Rozenblit and Keil asked people to rate their knowledge of how mundane mechanisms worked – things like zippers, refrigerators and toilets.

Respondents rated their comprehension highly, but when pressed to explain their understanding, they tended to fail miserably.
Or the technological sophistication inherent to the adtech paradigm offers a veneer of profundity.
An illusion of explanatory depth.

As the old adage goes; where there's a mystery, there's a margin.

Fritz Schumacher also famously said; 'Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius—and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction.'

But as the number of businesses between advertisers and publisher the advertiser grows - all claiming to do something - and 70 cents in every dollar gets eaten up by whatever that something is, we've never been further from sending the pickup direct to the jack.

But, you know the scene - very humdrum.

Wednesday, January 09, 2019

come on myelin, too-rye-ay

These people 'round here,
Were beat down, eyes sunk in smoke dried faces,
They're resigned to what their fate is,
But not us, no never - no not us, no never,

We are far too young(ish) and clever...

You're probably au fait with the ‘10,000 hours’ theory popularised by Malcolm Gladwell.

In one example from his bestselling book Outliers, Gladwell asserts that getting in 10,000 plus hours of practice in the relative obscurity of Hamburg strip joints between 1960 and '62 helped the Beatles to propel - fully formed and honed - to the toppermost of the poppermost in 1963.

Dexy’s too, I don't know if they are known to Malcy although he is on record as being a bit of an Anglophile and a fan of Billy Bragg and Elvis Costello.

Dexys Midnight Runners were formed in 1978 in by fellow Brummies Kevin Rowland and Kevin Archer from the remnants of punk band the Killjoys. Their first single hit the UK top 40 in '79 representing a transformation from one chord wonders to sophisticated soulsters in less than 12 months.

The band's name was derived from Dexedrine, a brand of dextroamphetamine. 'Speed' pills popular with dancers at Northern Soul all-nighters. Presumably, strategic usage would have been useful in enabling Dexy’s to get their 10,000 hours in a bit quicker.

This is entirely plausible. Steve Jones from the Sex Pistols claimed to have learned guitar this way. Going from scratch to developing his unique power-chord style and recording the first Pistols demos in about 3 months by playing along - in marathon amphetamine assisted all day sessions - to the first New York Dolls album and the Stooges Raw Power.

Gladwell’s piece was based on the research of K. Anders Ericsson, a Swedish psychologist and professor at Florida State University.

Ericsonn specialises in the science of peak performance and, while probably grateful for the exposure Gladwell gave his work, is careful to add that not just any old practice counts towards the 10,000-hour rule.

It has to be deliberate, dedicated time spent focusing on improvement.

For Ericsonn, deliberate practice means getting outside of your ‘comfort zone’ and pushing yourself to improve beyond your current abilities.

This is important because just being able to competently reproduce skills you’ve already mastered might feel good, but it’s not enough to make you get better.

But what happens physically, as we learn?

As it processes information, your brain makes connections growing and strengthening the synapses that connect neurons. Making new connections and breaking old ones.

But once a circuit is made, it needs to be used if it is going to stick around.

This physical process is myelination - the process whereby a circuit that is stimulated enough times grows a covering of membrane called myelin.

The wrapping of myelin increases conduction speed, making the circuit work more efficiently. The more the circuit gets exercised, the more it wraps and the stronger the connection becomes.

What, then, is the best way to learn things and retain them?

Deliberate practice, focused attention and actively recalling the learning causes your brain to strengthen the new connections as does linking new bits of information to what you already know.

There’s a great myth – mostly perpetuated by youngsters - that we stop learning as we age. There’s no physiological reason why this should happen.

It’s more likely that many people just spend less time learning new stuff as they get older, and even when we do, we maybe don't do it with the same enthusiasm as we did when we were younger, so the neural connections don’t get made, the myelin doesn’t wrap. Too-rye-ay.

Ageing can also bring about the loss of some brain tissue, but this may have more to do with lack of exercise. Regular physical exercise has been shown to increase the size of the hippocampus area of the brain - crucial for learning and memory – in people of all ages, improving connectivity and making it easier for new things to stick.

Keeping that in mind, it makes sense of the new look adopted by Dexy’s mk2 of 1981-82, a move away from the young soul rebel ‘street cleaner/docker’ chic to the Rocky garb that included hooded tops, boxing boots and a corresponding strict fitness regime.

Kevin had the band working out together and running to the recording studio for 8am starts.
The band would also do group exercise sessions before shows and needless to say, alchohol and recreational pharmaceuticals were also strictly verboten.

Whilst not exactly textbook rock’n’roll behaviour the now ripped mk2 band shortly went on to produce - via another costume change, this time to an Okie farmhand/Irish gypsy hybrid - the gazillion-selling Too-Rye-Ay album and global number one hit Come On Eileen, at the same time pushing their sound into a new genre-defying combination of horns and fiddles driven blue-eyed-soul and celtic-folk crossover.

As far as science knows, no brain has ever run out of hard-drive space.

But some neuroscientists do agree on another reason cognitive skills may often slow down with age, not because the brain deteriorates, or fills up, but because it does need the occasional defrag.

So probably just as important as continuing to push yourself and your learning to develop new skills, is having a clear out of the crap you don’t need.

Come on myelin.

In this business that's probably never a bad idea. Even better, start young.

Keep quoting Cabaret, Berlin, Burroughs, J.G. Ballard, Duchamp, Beauvoir
Kerouac, Kierkegaard, Michael Rennie,
And I don't believe you really like Frank Sinatra...

Monday, December 24, 2018

when those blue snowflakes start falling

Merry Christmas from Never Get Out Of The Boat.

Extra special thanks to everyone who bought my book this year.

Watch out for the new one coming in early 2019.

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'