The Viewing Report

Reliable signals in a post-truth world by Rory Sutherland

27 April 2017

The humorist HL Mencken once proposed that there should be a special type-style called “ironics” (like italics, but sloping in the opposite direction) to prevent people misunderstanding irony in print. In text, shorn of the pace, tone and timbre of spoken communication, there can be a yawning gap between what you intend to say and the emotional reaction it creates. We all know this.

Or do we? I sometimes wonder.

In the course of the US election, I was astounded to see media and communications professionals using social media to spread the kind of abuse of Trump’s supporters which was, to my mind, very likely to get him elected. As one despairing liberal blogger wrote, “If you want Trump to win, carry on calling his supporters racist.”

I am sure heaping abuse on middle-America made metropolitan, liberal media-types feel good about themselves, just as shouting abuse at an opposing team’s supporters during a football match feels good. But it’s worth remembering that a football match is rather different from an election. For one thing, you are not really attempting to change your rivals’ allegiance; moreover the result of the match is not decided by the fans.

If even advertising experts failed to spot this, what hope is there?

This tone-deaf approach to persuasion even by supposed experts matters rather a lot. Because it suggests that something about our model of communication is wrong. Once we depart from face-to-face communication, even experts can lose the plot. We fall back on a communication schema which is primarily about transmitting information, rather than as a means of generating and arousing emotions: trust, confidence, affection. “This latest statement from Trump is clearly an outrage, therefore the more people who know of it the better. I must press Share & Retweet”.

It doesn’t work like that. This is not to say that factual information plays no part in advertising. But it takes a back seat to emotional responses almost every time.

At some level, metacommunication usually matters more than the message. “What does it mean that this person is saying this?” outweighs “What is he saying?”

As proof of this, it is interesting to note that in Eastern Europe under communism, advertising often depressed demand for a product. The inference was that, in an environment where almost everything worth owning was in short supply, the only reason for the government to advertise anything was in those occasions where it had managed to produce goods of such irredeemable crappiness they weren’t worth queuing for.

“As seen on TV” conveys something which “as seen on Facebook” does not

If you have time this month, spare a quarter of an hour to read Robert Heath and Paul Feldwick’s paper “Fifty Years Using the Wrong Model of Advertising.” Or spend a little time investigating the evolutionary psychologist Dan Sperber’s ideas on communication and relevance theory. What all three point out is that our ideas on what communication is have been distorted by models of communication which are really about data transmission in telephony, rather than the kind of high-context communication skills which would have proved valuable to humans in the evolutionary environment, where they are used primarily to decide what to believe and whom to trust.

Yet the low-context “conduit model” of communication seems to dominate our thinking, even though it is better suited to a fax machine rather than a highly evolved social species.

What makes this so important is that this “wrong model” now infects almost everything about decision making in marketing communications. How creative work is briefed, researched and evaluated; and how media is bought. It reduces every communications challenge to delivering the necessary bits of information to the required eyeballs at the lowest possible cost.

What if this is diametrically wrong? In the world of nature, what matters most is not the content of a message but the extent of its trustworthiness. Many flowers produce a smell, but bumblebees have learned to prefer those particular smells which can only be produced by plants which are capable of producing nectar (because the chemicals necessary for the smell are also necessary for the production of nectar).

Peahens (according to costly signalling theory of Amot Zahavi) admire peacocks for their large tails because to produce a large tail and to survive while keeping it in first rate condition requires a remarkable genetic feat: it proves the worth of the signaller precisely because it is difficult to do. We send wedding invitations on gilt-edged cards, and not by email, precisely because the expense of doing so signals our commitment to the union.

Television advertising, it seems to me, is a trustworthy signal in a way that most online communication is not. It requires a considerable investment in scarce resources – talent, money, craft – to do it well. It is therefore a reliable signal of an advertiser’s faith in the futurity of their own product. “As seen on TV” therefore conveys something which “As seen on Facebook” does not.

But there is another feature of mass television which is often overlooked. When we get married, not only do we send expensive invitations as a signal of our confidence in our future. We do something else: we make our vows in front of a large number of people simultaneously. We do not go door to door to each of our friends in turn, telling each of them how we plan to stick together in sickness and in health. We do it in front of a crowd.

At a time when many online media are being berated for fake news, this is a distinction worth remembering. It takes a great deal more confidence to make a claim in front of a large audience. You can’t fool all of the people all of the time.

Rory Sutherland, Vice Chairman, Ogilvy UK