Sunday, August 24, 2008

Stop what you are doing...

The great man himself. Antonio Damasio. Hero.

Those of you who read my twitter or blip stream (thanks to Iain for pointing the latter out, it's great) will know I've been on my hollybobs for a little while.

But, in addition to brushing up on my Hemingway (Moveable Feast is a great read - should really have a butchers at some more of his work; not quite sure why I haven't yet), I've done a classic plannerly thing.

Yes, that's right, not being content with the typical holiday reading, I thought I might try my hand at some of the more planner-centric texts which are doing the rounds at the moment. The first was me finally reading Nassim Nicholas Taleb's 'Black Swan'. I can understand why so many planners and people within comms are so fascinated by it; for someone (who was a former head of deratives/a very talented mathematician/philosopher - a polymath in the true sense of the word) to come out and criticise how much we think we know, and how, in his terms, 'Platonicity', is a mistake.

Essentially, through a series of case studies, Taleb dismisses the idea that the world is so straightforward, so easily quantifiable as we'd like it to be, and this blinds us from ever considering extreme random acts (the Popper inspired 'Black Swans'). It's very interesting, and I liked the bits about fractals (images which appear solid, but when looked at closely, are actually entirely different) and his belief in Benoit Mandelbrot to show the way - have a look at this:

Pretty amazing, eh? Makes you more aware of what you do, and how post-rationalisation seems to be just as bunk as, privately, people believed it is.

Anyway, I digress. On with the subject of the nice chap in the first photo. Mr Damasio, to be precise. I was alerted to him after reading Paul Feldwick's piece on 'Fifty Years Using The Wrong Model of Advertising', as he had some interesting things to say about Damasio there.

Namely, that he doesn't separate rational thought from emotional responses. The title of his book (Descartes' Error) was a bit of a giveaway, but yes, given his background in neurology, he uses a lot of examples to explain it to the average layman. It's not quite so user friendly as Taleb's book, but when he chooses to focus on some of the case studies (Phineas Gage is particularly fascinating), the book gets really interesting.

It helps to make sense of why certain patients with certain types of brain damage can seem to be just fine mentally, but in fact have their personalities change as they get older and develop. Interestingly, he raises the notion that parts of the brain work in conjunction with each other, so this can happen.

A good summary is below (it's not Damasio speaking - not sure who, but it's interesting):

And as to how this relates to the planning day job (or indeed, how both of them do). Well, bluntly, both argue for more emotional appeals to people, as their emotions (and subsequent randomness) are commonplace. Far more than all the people in all the groups in all the brands you'll ever work on. We should be producing work that stirs people into thinking with their heads and their hearts at the same time (because it's what they do).

So yes, bloody useful (if complicated) fodder for the day job. If you're in the least bit interested in what makes people tick (and can stand the self-righteousness of Taleb), read 'em both. Now...

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Pharrell and Tabula Rasa..

He is a little scamp, isn't he?

This post could have been entitled ‘Coming through my drive through’, but I thought that too many people would get a little bit overexcited. You know who you are.

Onwards. Converse have just launched an initative called 'Three artists, one song' to promote their association with all different sorts of muzak. From indie to hip hop, it appears to be all there. Have a listen:

You can download that bad boy from the Converse site as well, if you like it. The work's courtesy of Anomaly.

Tabula rasa, for those of you not bothered enough by it to use Wikipedia, is a concept which suggests that we are born with no innate memories at all – that we are uniquely a product of our experiences. Stephen Pinker disagrees with it, as it happens. Fine, all well and good, you might ask. So – what the hell does this have to do with Mr NERD?

Thinking about it further, I think it’s obvious that we are the product of our earliest days. It’s why I’m still so fond of Graceland, why I feel no shame in having read (and re-read) books like Fantastic Mr Fox or The Whitby Witches. And this, in turn, is why African music and macabre humour still plays a great role in my emotions and thoughts.

And if we accept this (that we're essentially a blank slate when we're born), it would make sense to assume that someone who has the ability to tug on a wide variety of interests, someone with this polymathic ability such as Pharrell (with a healthy dollop of just generally being a cool guy), can still really cut through.He’s not nailed to a precise genre. Being unclassifiable means that he doesn’t fall into any of the traps that the average celebrity does when they advertise a certain sort of product, or why he’s a PR man’s wet dream; simply put, he’s a swiss army knife celeb.

Now, I’m not quite so convinced that Julian Casablancas is like this – he’s a rich bugger already who, whilst cool, isn’t the polymath in the same way that someone like Pharrell is. He doesn’t really represent the brand of Converse in the ad/music video. He’s too one dimensional, as far as I can see. An indie singer with an interesting (some might say awful) voice.

So perhaps it’s fairly evident. If you are a brand which is founded on the notion of customisability, of allowing people to play, and, as a result, get emotional with your product or service, then using a 360’, deep and thoroughly multi-skilled and recombinant thinker and do-er like Pharrell makes sense.

Hell, even if the brand was comparatively mundane, he’d work much better than the average celeb, simply because he can’t be defined, and has a much greater chance of garnering an emotional response from us; making us (as Feldwick says - caution, opens a pdf), more likely to buy a product/service/thing.

Of course, it obviously matters that the song is damned fantastic, and that the content is just generally able to be used as an ad/viral/music video (some of the executions don't use the Converse signoff). Engaging emotional content (either through what it says or celebrity associations) will always have a home in any comms mix.

It’s just bloody expensive to buy up these multi-talented folk, and just as costly to use less-skilled celebs for a product which doesn’t really fit with the association. But the dartboard does get bigger the more talented the person who endorses the product is. More likely to tweak an emotional response, more likely to buy the product. Easy, eh?
Well, maybe not. What happens if you don't want to use a celebrity, and your product is either functional or just dull as ditchwater?

Certainly, no amount of celebrity endorsement or clever seeding will lead to a rise in sales. In fact, you might as well be using your product as a doorstop, for all the good it would seem to do you (and I think celebrity endorsements, if handled wrongly, can be bloody dangerous).
I think in that case, it's time for a good old fashioned form of tabula rasa; the blank sheet of paper. Use it to answer why (through focus groups/intelligent, focused media), and you can easily compete with some of the sexier brands.
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