Using Science for Selling: Sometimes Yes, Sometimes No

A recent study out of Ohio State University seems like one of those that the world really didn’t need. The researchers were exploring whether introducing science into the marketing would help sell chocolate chip cookies.

And to us who make a living in marketing, this is one of those things that might make us say “Duh, you needed research to tell us that? Of course you don’t use science to sell chocolate chip cookies!”

But bear with me, because if we keep asking why enough, we can come up with some answers that might surprise us.

So, what did the researchers learn? I quote,

“Specifically, since hedonic attributes are associated with warmth, the coldness associated with science is conceptually disfluent with the anticipated warmth of hedonic products and attributes, reducing product valuation.”

Ohio State Study

In other words – much simpler and fewer in number – science doesn’t help sell cookies. And it’s because our brains think differently about some things than other.

For example, a study published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior (Casado-Aranda, Sanchez-Fernandez and Garcia) found that when we’re exposed to “hedonic” ads – ads that appeal to pleasurable sensations – the parts of our brain that retrieve memories kicks in. This isn’t true when we see utilitarian ads. Predictably, we approach those ads as a problem to be solved and engage the parts of our brain that control working memory and the ability to focus our attention.

Essentially, these two advertising approaches take two different paths in our awareness, one takes the “thinking” path and one takes the “feeling” path. Or, as Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman would say, one takes the “thinking slow” path and one takes the “thinking fast” path.

Yet another study begins to show why this may be so. Let’s go back to chocolate chip cookies for a moment. When you smell a fresh baked cookie, it’s not just the sensory appeal “in the moment” that makes the cookie irresistible. It’s also the memories it brings back for you. We know that how things smell is a particularly effective way to trigger this connection with the past. Certain smells – like that of cookies just out of the oven – can be the shortest path between today and some childhood memory. These are called associative memories. And they’re a big part of “feeling” something rather than just “thinking” about it.

At the University of California – Irvine – Neuroscientists discovered a very specific type of neuron in our memory centers that oversee the creation of new associative memories. They’re called “fan cells” and it seems that these neurons are responsible for creating the link between new input and those emotion-inducing memories that we may have tucked away from our past. And – critically – it seems that dopamine is the key to linking the two. When our brains “smell” a potential reward, it kicks these fan cells into gear and our brain is bathed in the “warm fuzzies.” Lead research Kei Igarashi, said,

“We never expected that dopamine is involved in the memory circuit. However, when the evidence accumulated, it gradually became clear that dopamine is involved. These experiments were like a detective story for us, and we are excited about the results.”

Kei Igarashi – University of California – Irvine

Not surprisingly – as our first study found – introducing science into this whole process can be a bit of a buzz kill. It would be like inviting Bill Nye the Science Guy to teach you about quantum physics during your Saturday morning cuddle time.

All of this probably seems overwhelmingly academic to you. Selling something like chocolate chip cookies isn’t something that should take three different scientific studies and strapping several people inside a fMRI machine to explain. We should be able to rely on our guts, and our guts know that science has no place in a campaign built on an emotional appeal.

But there is a point to all this. Different marketing approaches are handled by different parts of the brain, and knowing that allows us to reinforce our marketing intuition with a better understanding of why we humans do the things we do.

Utilitarian appeals activate the parts of the brain that are front and center, the data crunching, evaluating and rational parts of our cognitive machinery.

Hedonic appeals probe the subterranean depths of our brains, unpacking memories and prodding emotions below the thresholds of us being conscious of the process. We respond viscerally – which literally means “from our guts”.

If we’re talking about selling chocolate chip cookies, we have moved about as far towards the hedonic end of the scale as we can. At the other end we would find something like motor oil – where scientific messaging such as “advanced formulation” or “proven engine protection” would be more persuasive. But almost all other products fall somewhere in between. They are a mix of hedonic and utilitarian factors. And we haven’t even factored in the most significant of all consumer considerations – risk and how to avoid it. Think how complex things would get in our brains if we were buying a new car!

Buying chocolate chip cookies might seem like a no brainer – because – well – it almost is. Beyond dosing our neural pathways with dopamine, our brains barely kick in when considering whether to grab a bag of Chips Ahoy on our next trip to the store. In fact, the last thing you want your brain to do when you’re craving chewy chocolate is to kick in. Then you would start considering things like caloric intake and how you should be cutting down on processed sugar. Chocolate chip cookies might be a no-brainer, but almost nothing else in the consumer world is that simple.

Marketing is relying more and more on data. But data is typically restricted to answering “who”, “what”, “when” and “where” questions. It’s studies like the ones I shared here that start to pick apart the “why” of marketing.

And when things get complex, asking “why” is exactly what we need to do.

Sensationalizing Scam Culture

We seem to be fascinated by bad behavior. Our popular culture is all agog with grifters and assholes. As TV Blog’s Adam Buckman wrote in March: “Two brand-new limited series premiering this week appear to be part of a growing trend in which some of recent history’s most notorious innovators and disruptors are getting the scripted-TV treatment.”

The two series Buckman was talking about were “Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber,” about Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, and “The Dropout,” about Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes.

But those are just two examples from a bumper crop of shows about bad behavior. My streaming services are stuffed with stories of scammers. In addition to the two series Buckman mentioned, I just finished Shonda Rhimes’ Netflix series “Inventing Anna,” about Anna Sorokin, who posed as an heiress named Anna Delvey.

All these treatments tread a tight wire of moral judgement, where the examples are presented as antisocial, but in a wink-and-a-nod kind of way, where we not so secretly admire these behaviors. Much as the actions are harmful to well-being of the collective “we,” they do appeal to the selfishness and ambition of “me.”

Most of the examples given are rags to riches to retribution stores (Holmes was an exception with her upper-middle-class background). The sky-high ambitions of Kalanick Holmes and Sorokin were all eventually brought back down to earth. Sorokin and Holmes both ended up in prison, and Kalanick was ousted from the company he founded.

But with the subtlest of twists, they didn’t have to end this way. They could have been the story of almost any corporate America hustler who triumphed. With a little more substance and a little less scam, you could swap Elizabeth Holmes for Steve Jobs. They even dressed the same.

Obviously, scamming seems to sell. These people fascinate us. Part of the appeal is no doubt due a class conflict narrative: the scrappy hustler climbing the social ranks by whatever means possible. We love to watch “one of us” pull the wool over the eyes of the social elite.

In the case of Anna Sorokin, Laura Craik dissects our fascination in a piece published in the UK’s Evening Standard:

“The reason people are so obsessed with Sorokin is simple: she had the balls to pull off on a grand scale what so many people try and fail to pull off on a small one. To use a phrase popular on social media, Sorokin succeeded in living her best life — right down to the clothes she wore in court, chosen by a stylist. Like Jay Gatsby, she was a deeply flawed embodiment of The American Dream: a person from humble beginnings who rose to achieve wealth and social status. Only her wealth was borrowed and her social status was conferred via a chimera of untruths.”

Laura Craik – UK Evening Standard

This type of behavior is nothing new. It’s always been a part of us. In 1513, a Florentine bureaucrat named Niccolo Machiavelli gave it a name — actually, his name. In writing “The Prince,” he condoned bad behavior as long as the end goal was to elevate oneself. In a Machiavellian world, it’s always open season on suckers: “One who deceives will always find those who allow themselves to be deceived.”

For the past five centuries, Machiavellianism was always synonymous with evil. It was a recognized character flaw, described as “a personality trait that denotes cunningness, the ability to be manipulative, and a drive to use whatever means necessary to gain power. Machiavellianism is one of the traits that forms the Dark Triad, along with narcissism and psychopathy.”

Now, however, that stigma seems to be disappearing. In a culture obsessed with success, Machiavellianism becomes a justifiable means to an end, so much so that we’ve given this culture its own hashtag: #scamculture: “A scam culture is one in which scamming has not only lost its stigma but is also valorized. We rebrand scamming as ‘hustle,’ or the willingness to commodify all social ties, and this is because the ‘legitimate’ economy and the political system simply do not work for millions of Americans.”

It’s a culture that’s very much at home in Silicon Valley. The tech world is steeped in Machiavellianism. Its tenets are accepted — even encouraged — business practices in the Valley. “Fake it til you make it” is tech’s modus operandi. The example of Niccolo Machiavelli has gone from being a cautionary tale to a how-to manual.

But these predatory practices come at a price. Doing business this way destroys trust. And trust is still, by far, the best strategy for our mutual benefit. In behavioral economics, there’s something called “tit for tat,” which according to Wikipedia “posits that a person is more successful if they cooperate with another person. Implementing a tit-for-tat strategy occurs when one agent cooperates with another agent in the very first interaction and then mimics their subsequent moves. This strategy is based on the concepts of retaliation and altruism.”

In countless game theory simulations, tit for tat has proven to be the most successful strategy for long-term success. It assumes a default position of trust, only moving to retaliation if required.

Our society needs trust to function properly. In a New York Times op-ed entitled “Why We Need to Address Scam Culture,” Tressie McMillan Cottom writes,  

“Scams weaken our trust in social institutions, but their going mainstream — divorced from empathy for the victims or stigma for the perpetrators — means that we have accepted scams as institutions themselves.”

Tressie McMillan Cottom – NY Times

The reason that trust is more effective than scamming is that predatory practices are self-limiting. You can only be a predator if you have enough prey. In a purely Machiavellian world, trust disappears — and there are no easy marks to prey upon.

Making Time for Quadrant Two

Several years ago, I read Stephen Covey’s “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.” It had a lasting impact on me. Through my life, I have found myself relearning those lessons over and over again.

One of them was the four quadrants of time management. How we spend our time in these quadrants determines how effective we are.

 Imagine a box split into four quarters. On the upper left box, we’ll put a label: “Important and Urgent.” Next to it, in the upper right, we’ll put a label saying “Important But Not Urgent.” The label for the lower left is “Urgent but Not Important.” And the last quadrant — in the lower right — is labeled “Not Important nor Urgent.”

The upper left quadrant — “Important and Urgent” — is our firefighting quadrant. It’s the stuff that is critical and can’t be put off, the emergencies in our life.

We’ll skip over quadrant two — “Important But Not Urgent” — for a moment and come back to it.

In quadrant three — “Urgent But Not Important” — are the interruptions that other people brings to us. These are the times we should say, “That sounds like a you problem, not a me problem.”

Quadrant four is where we unwind and relax, occupying our minds with nothing at all in order to give our brains and body a chance to recharge. Bingeing Netflix, scrolling through Facebook or playing a game on our phones all fall into this quadrant.

And finally, let’s go back to quadrant two: “Important But Not Urgent.” This is the key quadrant. It’s here where long-term planning and strategy live. This is where we can see the big picture.

The secret of effective time management is finding ways to shift time spent from all the other quadrants into quadrant two. It’s managing and delegating emergencies from quadrant one, so we spend less time fire-fighting. It’s prioritizing our time above the emergencies of others, so we minimize interruptions in quadrant three. And it’s keeping just enough time in quadrant four to minimize stress and keep from being overwhelmed.

The lesson of the four quadrants came back to me when I was listening to an interview with Dr. Sandro Galea, epidemiologist and author of “The Contagion Next Time.” Dr. Galea was talking about how our health care system responded to the COVID pandemic. The entire system was suddenly forced into quadrant one. It was in crisis mode, trying desperately to keep from crashing. Galea reminded us that we were forced into this mode, despite there being hundreds of lengthy reports from previous pandemics — notably the SARS crisis–– containing thousands of suggestions that could have helped to partially mitigate the impact of COVID.

Few of those suggestions were ever implemented. Our health care system, Galea noted, tends to continually lurch back and forth within quadrant one, veering from crisis to crisis. When a crisis is over, rather than go to quadrant two and make the changes necessary to avoid similar catastrophes in the future, we put the inevitable reports on a shelf where they’re ignored until it is — once again — too late.

For me, that paralleled a theme I have talked about often in the past — how we tend to avoid grappling with complexity. Quadrant two stuff is, inevitably, complex in nature. The quadrant is jammed with what we call wicked problems. In a previous column, I described these as, “complex, dynamic problems that defy black-and-white solutions. These are questions that can’t be answered by yes or no — the answer always seems to be maybe.  There is no linear path to solve them. You just keep going in loops, hopefully getting closer to an answer but never quite arriving at one. Usually, the optimal solution to a wicked problem is ‘good enough — for now.’”

That’s quadrant two in a nutshell. Quadrant-one problems must be triaged into a sort of false clarity. You have to deal with the critical stuff first. The nuances and complexity are, by necessity, ignored. That all gets pushed to quadrant two, where we say we will deal with it “someday.”

Of course, someday never comes. We either stay in quadrant one, are hijacked into quadrant three, or collapse through sheer burn-out into quadrant four. The stuff that waits for us in quadrant two is just too daunting to even consider tackling.

This has direct implications for technology and every aspect of the online world. Our industry, because of its hyper-compressed timelines and the huge dollars at stake, seems firmly lodged in the urgency of quadrant one. Everything on our to-do list tends to be a fire we have to put out. And that’s true even if we only consider the things we intentionally plan for. When we factor in the unplanned emergencies, quadrant one is a time-sucking vortex that leaves nothing for any of the other quadrants.

But there is a seemingly infinite number of quadrant two things we should be thinking about. Take social media and privacy, for example. When an online platform has a massive data breach, that is a classic quadrant one catastrophe. It’s all hands on deck to deal with the crisis. But all the complex questions around what our privacy might look like in a data-inundated world falls into quadrant two. As such, they are things we don’t think much about. It’s important, but it’s not urgent.

Quadrant two thinking is systemic thinking, long-term and far-reaching. It allows us to build the foundations that helps to mitigate crisis and minimize unintended consequences.

In a world that seems to rush from fire to fire, it is this type of thinking that could save our asses.

The News Cycle, Our Attention Span and that Oscar Slap

If your social media feed is like mine, it was burning up this Monday with the slap heard around the world. Was Will Smith displaying toxic masculinity? Was “it was a joke” sufficient defence for Chris Rock’s staggering lack of ability to read the room? Was Smith’s acceptance speech legendary or just really, really lame?

More than a few people just sighed and chalked it up as another scandal up for the beleaguered awards show. This was one post I saw from a friend on Facebook, “People smiling and applauding as if an assault never happened is probably Hollywood in a nutshell.”

Whatever your opinion, the world was fascinated by what happened. The slap trended number one on Twitter through Sunday night and Monday morning. On CNN, the top trending stories on Monday morning were all about the “slap.” You would have thought that there was nothing happening in the world that was more important than one person slapping another. Not the world teetering on the edge of a potential world war. Not a global economy that can’t seem to get itself in gear. Not a worldwide pandemic that just won’t go away and has just pushed Shanghai – a city of 30 million – back into a total lock down.

And the spectre of an onrushing climactic disaster? Nary a peep in Monday’s news cycle.

We commonly acknowledge – when we do take the time to stop and think about it – that our news cycles have about the same attention span as a 4-year-old on Christmas morning. No matter what we have in our hands, there’s always something brighter and shinier waiting for us under the tree. We typically attribute this to the declining state of journalism. But we – the consumers of news – are the ones that continually ignore the stories that matter in favour of gossipy tidbits.

This is just the latest example of that. It is nothing more than human nature. But there is a troubling trend here that is being accelerated by the impact of social media. This is definitely something we should pay attention to.

The Confounding Nature of Complexity

Just last week, I talked about something psychologists call a locus of control. Essentially it is defined by the amount of control you feel you have over your life. In times of stress, unpredictability or upheaval, our own perceived span of control tends to narrow to the things we have confidence we can manage. Our ability to cope draws inward, essentially circling the wagons around the last vestiges of our capability to direct our own circumstances. 

I believe the same is true with our ability to focus attention. The more complex the world gets, the more we tend to focus on things that we can easily wrap our minds around. It has been shown repeatedly that anxiety impacts the ability of our brain to focus on things. A study from Finland’s Abo Akademi University showed that anxiety reduces the ability of the brain to focus on tasks. It eats away at our working memory, leaving us with a reduced capacity to integrate concepts and work things out. Complex, unpredictable situations natural raise our level of anxiety, leading us to retreat to things we don’t have to work too hard to understand.

The irony here is the more we are aware of complex and threatening news stories, the more we go right past them to things like the Smith-Rock story. It’s like catnip to a brain that’s trying to retreat from the real news because we can’t cope with it.

This isn’t necessarily the fault of journalism, it’s more a limitation of our own brains. On Monday morning, CNN offered plenty of coverage dealing with the new airstrikes in Ukraine, Biden’s inflammatory remarks about Putin, Trump’s attempts to block Congress from counting votes and the restriction of LGBTQ awareness in the classrooms of Florida. But none of those stories were trending. What was trending were three stories about Rock and Smith, one about the Oscar winners and another about a 1600-pound shark. That’s what we were collectively reading.

False Familiarity

It’s not just that the news is too complex for us to handle that made the Rock/Smith story so compelling. Our built-in social instincts also made it irresistible.

Evolution has equipped us with a highly attuned social antennae. Humans are herders and when you travel in a herd, your ability to survive is highly dependent on picking up signals from your fellow herders. We have highly evolved instincts to help us determine who we can trust and who we should protect ourselves from. We are quick to judge others, and even quicker to gossip about behavior that steps over those invisible boundaries we call social norms.

For generations, these instincts were essential when we had keep tabs on the people closest to us. But with the rise of celebrity culture in the last century, we now apply those same instincts to people we think we know. We pass judgement on the faces we see on TV and in social media. We have a voracious appetite for gossip about the super-rich and the super famous.

Those foibles may be ours and ours alone, but they not helped by the fact that certain celebrities – namely one Mr. Smith – feels compelled to share way too much about himself with the public at large. Witness his long and tear-laden acceptance speech. Even though I have only a passing interest in the comings and goings of Will and Jada, I know more about their sex lives than that of my closest friends. The social norm that restricts bedroom talk amongst our friends and family is not there with the celebrities we follow. We salivate over salacious details.

No Foul, No Harm?

That’s the one-two punch (sorry, I had to go there) that made the little Oscar ruckus such a hot news item. But what’s the harm? It’s just a momentary distraction for the never-ending shit-storm that defines our daily existence, right?

Not quite.

The more we continually take the path of least resistance in our pursuit of information, the harder it becomes for us to process the complex concepts that make up our reality. When that happens, we tend to attribute too much importance and meaning to these easily digestible nuggets of gossip. As we try to understand complex situations (which covers pretty much everything of importance in our world today) we start relying too much on cognitive short cuts like availability bias and representative bias. In the first case, we apply whatever information we have at hand to every situation and in the second we resort to substituting stereotypes and easy labels in place of trying to understand the reality of an individual or group.

Ironically, it’s exactly this tendency towards cognitive laziness that was skewered in one of Sunday night’s nominated features, Adam McKay’s Don’t Look Up.

Of course, it was ignored. As Will Smith said, sometimes, “art imitates life.”

The Canary in the Casino

It may not seem like it if you’ve watched the news lately, but there are signs we’re balanced on the edge of a gigantic party. We’re all ready to treat ourselves with a little hedonistic indulging.

As I mentioned in a previous column (rerun last week), physician, epidemiologist and sociologist Nicholas Christakis predicted this behavior, but not for a few years yet. Christakis predicted a sort of global “letting loose” starting some time in 2024:

“What typically happens is people get less religious. They will relentlessly seek out social interactions in nightclubs and restaurants and sporting events and political rallies. There’ll be some sexual licentiousness. People will start spending their money after having saved it. They’ll be joie de vivre and a kind of risk-taking, a kind of efflorescence of the arts, I think.”

So, there is light at the end of the pandemic tunnel — but, according to a report just out from the American Gaming Association, some of us can’t wait a couple of years. First out of the gate were gamblers. Well before we started emerging from the pandemic, they were already rolling the dice and starting the party.

According to the report from the AGA, U.S. commercial gaming revenue hit a record $53 billion in 2021. That was more than 21% higher than the previous record, set in 2019, and a huge rebound of 77% from 2020 numbers, when COVID forced casinos to shut down for months at a time.

You might think online gaming accounts for the jump, but you’d be wrong. In-casino gambling underpins this huge spike, accounting for $45.6 billion of the $53 billion total. People were saying to hell with health mandates and streaming into casinos across the country, with most of the top markets seeing significant gains from pre-COVID 2019.

While some of us might not be ready to ditch the masks and belly up to the bar, I suspect these gamblers are an early indicator of things to come. Call them a canary in a coal mine, if you will.

Because I can’t resist interesting historical tidbits, I thought I’d share the story behind this saying about how canaries ended up in coal mines in the first place. Early in the last century, canaries were used as an early warning system for poison gas in England. John Scott Haldane, who was researching the effects of carbon monoxide on humans, suggested using canaries as a “sentinel species,” an animal more sensitive to the impact of poisonous gases. They were kept in cages throughout the mines — and if a canary died, the miners were warned to evacuate the mine.

But why canaries?

Canaries, like most birds, need tremendous amounts of oxygen to fly and to avoid altitude sickness. They actually take in oxygen twice on each breath, once while inhaling and again when exhaling. This, combined with their relatively small size, make them hyper-sensitive to the impact of a poisonous gas. Also, canaries were easy to come by in England and convenient to transport. So, they were recruited to help keep humans alive.

This makes them analogous to gamblers in the following way: Gamblers, by their nature, are built to be more willing to take some risk in search of a reward. You could say they are hyper-sensitive to the rush that comes from rewarding themselves. As such, they are the early adopters in the onrushing desire to put bad news behind them and let loose with a little hedonistic hell-raising. They are not atypical; they’re just ahead of the curve in this one respect.

Sooner or later, the rest of us will follow. Look for similar huge rebounds in the travel and hospitality sectors, entertainment, events and other industries focused on providing pleasure. The world will become one giant spring break party.

Which is perhaps only fitting, coming after a two-year-long winter of our discontent.

Don’t Be Too Quick To Dismiss The Metaverse

According to my fellow Media Insider Maarten Albarda, the metaverse is just another in a long line of bright shiny objects that — while promising to change the world of marketing — will probably end up on the giant waste heap of overhyped technologies.

And if we restrict Maarten’s caution to specifically the metaverse and its impact on marketing, perhaps he’s right. But I think this might be a case of not seeing the forest for the trees.

Maarten lists a number of other things that were supposed to revolutionize our lives: Clubhouse, AI, virtual reality, Second Life. All seemed to amount to much ado about nothing.

But as I said almost 10 years ago, when I first started talking about one of those overhyped examples, Google Glass — and what would eventually become the “metaverse” (in rereading this, perhaps I’m better at predictions than I thought)  — the overall direction of these technologies do mark a fundamental shift:

“Along the way, we build a “meta” profile of ourselves, which acts as both a filter and a key to the accumulated potential of the ‘cloud.’ It retrieves relevant information based on our current context and a deep understanding of our needs, it unlocks required functionality, and it archives our extended network of connections.”

As Wired founder and former executive editor Kevin Kelly has told us, technology knows what it wants. Eventually, it gets it. Sooner or later, all these things are bumping up against a threshold that will mark a fundamental shift in how we live.

You may call this the long awaited “singularity” or not. Regardless, it does represent a shift from technology being a tool we use consciously to enhance our experiences, to technology being so seamlessly entwined with our reality that it alters our experiences without us even being aware of it. We’re well down this path now, but the next decade will move us substantially further, beyond the point of no return.

And that will impact everything, including marketing.

What is interesting is the layer technology is building over the real world, hence the term “meta.” It’s a layer of data and artificial intelligence that will fundamentally alter our interactions with that world. It’s technology that we may not use intentionally — or, beyond the thin layer of whatever interface we use, may not even be aware of.

This is what makes it so different from what has come before. I can think of no technical advance in the past that is so consequential to us personally yet functions beyond the range of our conscious awareness or deliberate usage. The eventual game-changer might not be the metaverse. But a change is coming, and the metaverse is a signal of that.

Technology advancing is like the tide coming in. If you watch the individual waves coming in, they don’t seem to amount to much. One stretches a little higher than the last, followed by another that fizzles out at the shoreline. But cumulatively, they change the landscape — forever. This tide is shifting humankind’s relationship with technology. And there will be no going back.

Maybe Maarten is right. Maybe the metaverse will turn out to be a big nothingburger. But perhaps, just perhaps, the metaverse might be the Antonio Meucci  of our time: an example where the technology was inevitable, but the timing wasn’t quite right.

Meucci was an Italian immigrant who started working on the design of a workable telephone in 1849, a full two decades before Alexander Graham Bell even started experimenting with the concept.  Meucci filed a patent caveat in 1871, five years before Bell’s patent application was filed, but was destitute and didn’t have the money to renew it.  His wave of technological disruption may have hit the shore a little too early, but that didn’t diminish the significance of the telephone, which today is generally considered one of the most important inventions  of all time in terms of its impact on humanity.

Whatever is coming, and whether or not the metaverse represents the sea change catalyst that alters everything, I fully expect at some point in the very near future to pinpoint this time as the dawn of the technological shift that made the introduction of the telephone seem trivial in comparison.

Why Outré is En Vogue

Last week, I talked about the planeload of social media influencers that managed to ruffle the half-frozen feathers of we normally phlegmatic Canadians. But that example got me thinking. Outrage – or, as the French say, “outre” – sells. The more outrageous it is, the better it seems to work. James William Awad  – the man behind the Plane of Shame – knew this. And we all just obligingly fell into his trap.

This all depends on how understanding how social networks work. Let’s begin by admitting that humans love to gossip. Information gives us status. The more interesting the information, the higher it’s value and, accordingly, the higher our social status. The currency of social networks is curiosity, having something that people will pay attention to.

But there is also the element of tribal identification. We signal who we are by the information we share. To use Canadian sociologist Ervin Goffman’s analogy, we are all actors and what we share is part of the role we have built for ourselves.

But these roles are not permanent. They shift depending on what stage we’re on and who the audience is. In today’s world social media has given us a massive stage.  And I suspect this might overload our normal social mechanisms. On this stage, we know that things that spread on social media tend to be in outlier territory, far from the boring middle ground of the everyday; they could be things we love or things that shock and outrage. Whether we love or hate the things we share depends on which tribe we identify with at the time.

Think of us humans as having a sharing thermostat where the trigger point is set depending on how strongly our emotions are triggered. If a post with new information doesn’t hit the threshold, it doesn’t get shared. Once that threshold is passed, the likelihood to share increases with the intensity of our emotions. It’s true for us, and because we’re human, it’s also true for everyone else that sees our post. The benefits of sharing juicy information is immediately reinforced through the dopamine releasing mechanism of getting likes and shares. The higher the number, the bigger the natural high.

But even when they lie well out in outlier territory, good news and bad news are not created equal. In evolutionary terms, we are hardwired to pay more attention to bad news. Good news might make us temporarily feel better, but bad news might kill us. If we want to survive long enough to pass on our genes, we better pay attention to the things that threaten us. That’s why traditional broadcasters know, “if it bleeds, it leads.”

Harvard Business School professor Amit Goldenberg found the same is true for social networks. “Although people produce much more positive content on social media in general, negative content is much more likely to spread,” says Goldenberg.

This creates an interesting – and potentially dangerous – arena for social and influencer marketing to play out in. The example I used in my last post is a perfect example. If you can outrage people, you win. It will spread virally through social networks, creating so much noise that eventually, traditional media will pick it up. This then connects the story to a broader social media audience. You get an amplification feedback loop that keeps reaching more and more people. Yes, the majority of the people will be outraged, but your target market will be delighted. Again, it all depends on which tribe you identify with.

It’s this appeal to the basest of human instincts that is troubling about this new spin on “earned” media. Savvy marketers have learned to game the system by pushing our hot buttons, leaving us in a perpetual state of pissed-off-edness.

The most frustrating thing is – it works.

It’s the Buzz That Will Kill You

If you choose to play in the social arena, you have to accept that the typical peaks and valleys of business success can suddenly become impossibly steep.

In social media networks, your brand message is whatever meme happens to emerge from the collective activity of this connected market. Marketers have little control — and sometimes, they have no control. At best, all they can do is react by throwing another carefully crafted meme into the social-sphere and hope it picks up some juice and is amplified through the network.

That’s exactly what happened to Peloton in the past week and a half.

On Dec. 9, the HBO Max sequel to “Sex and the City” killed off a major character — Chris Noth’s Mr. Big — by giving him a heart attack after his one thousandth Peloton ride. Apparently, HBO Max gave Peloton no advance warning of this branding back hand.

On Dec. 10, according to Axios,  there was a dramatic spike in social interactions talking about Mr. Big’s last ride, peaking near 80 thousand. As you can imagine, the buzz was not good for Peloton’s business.

On Dec. 12, Peloton struck back with its own ad, apparently produced in just 24 hours by Ryan Reynold’s Maximum Effort agency. This turned the tide of the social buzz. Again, according to data from Newswhip and Axios, social media mentions peaked. This time, they were much more positive toward the Peloton brand.

It should be all good — right? Not so fast. On Dec 16, two sexual assault allegations were made against Chris Noth, chronicled in The Hollywood Reporter. Peloton rapidly scrubbed its ad campaign. Again, the social sphere lit up and Peloton was forced back into defensive mode.

Now, you might call all this marketing froth, but that’s  the way it is in our hyper-connected world. You just have to dance the dance — be nimble and respond.

But my point is not about the marketing side of this of this brouhaha – which has been covered to death, at least at MediaPost (sorry, pardon the pun.) I’m more interested  in what happens to the people who have some real skin in this particular game, whose lives depend on the fortunes of the Peloton brand. Because all this froth does have some very IRL consequences.

Take Peloton’s share price, for one.

The day before the HBO show aired, Peloton’s shares were trading at $45.91. The next day, they tumbled 16%. to $38.51.

And that’s just one chapter in the ongoing story of Peloton’s stock performance, which has been a hyper-compressed roller coaster ride, with the pandemic and a huge amount of social media buzz keeping the foot firmly on the accelerator of stock performance through 2020, but then subsequently dropping like a rock for most of 2021. After peaking as high as $162 a share exactly a year ago, the share price is back down to spitting distance of its pre-pandemic levels.

Obviously, Peloton’s share price is not just dependent on the latest social media meme. There are business fundamentals to consider as well.

Still, you have to accept that a more connected meme-market is going to naturally accelerate the speed of business upticks and declines. Peloton signed up for this dance — and  when you do that, you have to accept all that comes with it.

In terms of the real-world consequences of betting on the buzz, there are three “insider” groups (not including customers) that will be affected: the management, the shareholders and the employees. The first of these supposedly went into this with their eyes open. The second of these also made a choice. If they did their due diligence before buying the stock, they should have known what to expect. But it’s the last of these — the employees — that I really feel for.

With ultra-compressed business cycles like Peloton has experienced, it’s tough for employees to keep up. On the way up the peak, the company is running ragged trying to scale for hyper-growth. If you check employee review sites like Glassdoor.com, there are tales of creaky recruitment processes not being able to keep up. But at least the ride up is exciting. The ride down is something quite different.

In psychological terms, there is something called the locus of control. These are the things you feel you have at least some degree of control over. And there is an ever-increasing body of evidence that shows that locus of control and employee job satisfaction are strongly correlated. No one likes to be the one constantly waiting for someone else to drop the other shoe. It just ramps up your job stress. Granted, job stress that comes with big promotions and generous options on a rocket ship stock can perhaps be justified. But stress that’s packaged with panicked downsizing and imminent layoffs is not a fun employment package for anyone.

That’s the current case at Peloton. On Nov. 5 it announced an immediate hiring freeze. And while there’s been no official announcement of layoffs that I could find, there have been rumors of such posted to the site thelayoff.com.  This is not a fun environment for anyone to function in. Here’s what one post said: “I left Peloton a year ago when I realized it was morphing into the type of company I had no intention of working for.”

We have built a business environment that is highly vulnerable to buzz. And as Peloton has learned, what the buzz giveth, the buzz can also taketh away.

When Social Media Becomes the Message

On Nov. 23, U.K. cosmetics firm Lush said it was deactivating its Instagram, Facebook, TikTok and Snapchat accounts until the social media environment “is a little safer.” And by a “safer” environment, the company didn’t mean for advertisers, but for consumers. Jack Constantine, chief digital officer and product inventor at Lush, explains in an interview with the BBC:

“[Social media channels] do need to start listening to the reality of how they’re impacting people’s mental health and the damage that they’re causing through their craving for the algorithm to be able to constantly generate content regardless of whether it’s good for the users or not.”

This was not an easy decision for Lush. It came with the possibility of a substantial cost to its business, “We already know that there is potential damage of £10m in sales and we need to be able to gain that back,” said Constantine. “We’ve got a year to try to get that back, and let’s hope we can do that.”

In effect, Lush is rolling the dice on a bet based on the unpredictable network effects of social media. Would the potential loss to its bottom line be offset by the brand uptick it would receive by being true to its core values? In talking about Lush’s move on the Wharton Business Daily podcast, marketing lecturer Annie Wilson pointed out the issues in play here:

“There could be positive effects on short-term loyalty and brand engagement, but it will be interesting to see the long-term effect on acquiring new consumers in the future.”

I’m not trying to minimize Lush’s decision here by categorizing it as a marketing ploy. The company has been very transparent about how hard it’s been to drop — even temporarily — Facebook and its other properties from the Lush marketing mix. The brand had previously closed several of its UK social media accounts, but eventually found itself “back on the channels, despite the best intentions.”

You can’t overstate how fundamental a decision this is for a profit-driven business. But I’m afraid Lush is probably an outlier. The brand is built on making healthy choices. Lush eventually decided it had to stay true to that mission even if it hurts the bottom line.

Other businesses are far from wearing their hearts on their sleeves to the same extent as Lush. For every Lush that’s out there, there are thousands that continue to feed their budgets to Facebook and its properties, even though they fundamentally disagree with the tactics of the channel.

There has been pushback against these tactics before. In July of 2020, 1000 advertisers joined the #StopHateForProfit Boycott against Facebook. That sounds impressive – until you realize that Facebook has 9 million clients. The boycotters represented just over .01% of all advertisers. Even with the support of other advertisers who didn’t join the boycott but still scaled back their ad spend, it only had a fleeting effect on Facebook’s bottom line. Almost all the advertisers eventually returned after the boycott.

As The New York Times reported at the time, the damage wasn’t so much to Facebook’s pocketbook as to its reputation. Stephen Hahn-Griffiths, the executive vice president of the public opinion analysis company RepTrak, wrote in a follow-up post,

“What could really hurt Facebook is the long-term effect of its perceived reputation and the association with being viewed as a publisher of ‘hate speech’ and other inappropriate content.”

Of course, that was all before the emergence of a certain Facebook data engineer by the name of Frances Haugen. The whistleblower released thousands of internal documents to the Wall Street Journal this past fall. It went public in September of this year in a series called “The Facebook Files.” If we had any doubt about the culpability of Zuckerberg et al, this pretty much laid that to rest.

Predictably, after the story broke, Facebook made some halfhearted attempts to clean up its act by introducing new parental controls on Instagram and Facebook. This follows the typical Facebook handbook for dealing with emerging shit storms: do the least amount possible, while talking about it as much as possible. It’s a tactic known as “purpose-washing.”

The question is, if this is all you do after a mountain of evidence points to you being truly awful, how sincere are you about doing the right thing? This puts Facebook in the same category as Big Tobacco, and that’s pretty crappy company to be in.

Lush’s decision to quit Facebook also pinpoints an interesting dilemma for advertisers: What happens when an advertising platform that has been effective in attracting new customers becomes so toxic that it damages your brand just by being on it? What happens when, as Marshall McLuhan famously said, the medium becomes the message?

Facebook is not alone with this issue. With the systematic dismantling of objective journalism, almost every news medium now carries its own message. This is certainly true for channels like Fox News. By supporting these platforms with advertising, advertisers are putting a stamp of approval on those respective editorial biases and — in Fox’s case — the deliberate spreading of misinformation that has been shown to have a negative social cost.

All this points to a toxic cycle becoming more commonplace in ad-supported media: The drive to attract and effectively target an audience leads a medium to embrace questionable ethical practices. These practices then taint the platform itself, leading to it potentially becoming brand-toxic. The advertisers then must choose between reaching an available audience that can expand its business, or avoiding the toxicity of the platform. The challenge for the brand then becomes a contest to see how long it can hold its nose while it continues to maximize sales and profits.

For Lush, the scent of Facebook’s bullshit finally grew too much to bear — at least for now.

Why Are Podcasts so Popular?

Everybody I know is listening to podcasts. According to eMarketer, the number of monthly U.S. podcast listeners will increase by over 10% this year, to a total of 117.8 million. And this growth is ruled by younger consumers. Apparently, more than 60% of U.S. adults ages 18 to 34 will listen to podcasts.

That squares with my anecdotal evidence. Both my daughters are podcast fans. But the popularity of podcasts declines with age. Again, according to eMarketer, less than one-fifth of adults in the U.S. over 65 listen to podcasts.

I must admit, I’m not a regular podcast listener. Nor are most of my friends. I’m not sure why. You’d think we’d be the ideal target. Many of us listen to public radio, so the format of a podcast should be a logical extension of that. But maybe it’s because we’ve already made our choice, and we’re fine with listening to old-fashioned radio.

In theory, I should love podcasts. At the beginning of my career, I was a radio copywriter. I even wrote a few radio plays in my 20s. As a creator, I am very intrigued by the format of a podcast. I’m even considering experimenting in this medium for my own content. I just don’t listen to them that often.

What’s also perplexing about the recent popularity of podcasts is that they’re nothing new. Podcasts have been around forever, at least in Internet terms.

A Brief History of Podcasting

The idea of bite-sized broadcasts goes back to the 1980s and ‘90s, but the advent of the Internet in 2000 opened up the concept of the digital delivery of an audio file to the average listener. This content found a new home in 2001 when Apple introduced the iPod. For the next 10 plus years, podcasts were generally just another delivery option for existing content.

But in 2014, “This American Life” launched season one of its true-crime “Serial” podcast. Suddenly, something gelled in the medium, and the audiences started to grow. The true crime bandwagon gathered speed. Both producers and audiences found their groove; the content became more compelling, and more people started listening.

In 2013, just over 10% of the U.S. population listened to podcasts monthly. This year, podcasting will become a $1 billion industry and over 50% of Americans listen regularly.

So why did podcasting, a medium with relatively few technical bells and whistles, suddenly become so hot?

A Story Well Told

The first clue to the popularity of podcasts is that many of them (certainly the most popular ones) focus on storytelling. And we are innately connected to the power of a good story.

The one genre of podcast that has been the most popular are the true crime series. Humans have a need to resolve mysteries. These podcasts have become very good at creating a curiosity gap that itches to be closed. They hit many of our hard-wired hot buttons.

Still, there are many, many ways to tell a murder mystery. So, beyond a compelling story, what else is it about podcasts that make them so addictive?

The Beauty of Brain Bonding

When you think of how our brain interprets messages, an audio-based one seems to thread the needle between the effort of imagination and the joy of focused relaxation. It opens the door to our theater of the mind, allowing us to fill in the sensory gaps needed to bring the story alive.

As I mentioned in last week’s post, the brain works by retrieving and synthesizing memories and experiences when prompted by a stimulus. It’s a process that makes the stories a little more personal for us, a little more intimate; these are stories self-tailored for us by our own experiences and beliefs.

But there are other audio-only formats available. This clue gets us closer to understanding the popularity of podcasts, but still leaves us a bit short. For the final answer, we have to explore one more aspect of them.

An Intimate Invitation

When you google “why are podcasts popular?” you’ll often see that their appeal lies in their convenience. You can listen to them at your own pace, in your own place and on your own timeline. They are not as restrictive as a radio broadcast.

You could take that at face value, but I think there’s more that meets the ear here. There is something about the portability and convenience of a podcast that sets them up for possibly being the most intimate of media.

When we listen to a podcast, we do so in an environment of our own choosing. Perhaps it’s in our vehicle during our daily commute. Maybe it’s just sitting in our favorite recliner by a fireplace.

Whatever the surroundings, we can make sure it’s a safe space that allows us to connect with the content at a very intimate level. We generally listen to them with our earbuds in, so the juicy details don’t leak out to the world at large.

And the best podcast producers have realized this. This is not a broadcast, it’s a one-sided conversation with your smartest friend talking about the most interesting thing they know.

Whatever lies behind their popularity, it’s a safe bet that half the people you know listen to podcasts on a regular basis.

I’ll have to give them another try.