Essays > Psychology Featured — 15 September 2013

Kaiyum’s essay on challenging conventional wisdom in marketing and in our private lives.

Throughout the ages countless individuals – sometimes at the cost of their lives – have expressed their doubts about the norms and values of the societies in which they lived. It was the world-famous economist, John Kenneth Galbraith (1908-2006), who for the first time described these norms as ‘conventional wisdom’ (from now on in this text: CW). He set his new observation in a fresh framework, namely the development of economic systems. He was particularly intrigued by how CW – sometimes beneficial, but so often irrational and destructive – influenced societies and their growth.

Our beloved Osho did the same, in his own wonderful way, challenging CW all along the line, and in doing so made himself decidedly controversial (!).

At its core, CW describes all the so-called truths that are generally accepted and that constitute a basis for societal norms. A well-known example from the UK is the 1959 slogan “Drinka Pinta Milka Day” used to promote the sales of milk. Although the slogan is now outdated, the CW that “you need to drink milk as a source of calcium to protect your bones and teeth and prevent osteoporosis” is still alive and prospering despite growing awareness that the contrary is actually true and that milk and other dairy products in excess can actually be detrimental to one’s health. It is a fact that every CW is open to criticism and a contradictory point of view that is generally called ‘challenging conventional wisdom’ (CCW).

As in most of my work, I like to challenge the existing way of doing things, to move beyond the ordinary and accepted into a realm of originality, authenticity and creativity that comes with ‘awareness in the moment’.

Source of manipulation?

Roughly speaking, the world of marketing and sales uses and misuses CW to promote and sell goods and services. The marketer who has set his goals and is aware of current norms and values and of the CWs active in his target group, has just part of his potential arsenal. That’s why we need to discuss an additional concept.

Core beliefs

In 1925 Henry Ford stated: “If you think you can, or think you can’t, you’ll always be right.” This statement reaches the heart of ‘belief systems’, or ‘core beliefs’, or ‘key values’. Another approach would be: “If you want to change your reality, first change what you believe.”

Let’s take the example of choosing between using your car or public transport. My neighbour, Joan, is quite clear where she stands: “No way I’m going by train!” Joan travels regularly a distance that would take about 2 hours if there were no other traffic on the roads; but the route involves several major bottlenecks. Then there’s Frank who is equally clear: “I check out where I need to be and decide then what’s the best way of getting there. Sometimes it’s by car – especially if I know I can avoid peak periods – but I’ll frequently use public transport, particularly when I need to be in the city centre and want to catch up on my work on the way.”

It should be equally clear that any campaigns to encourage environmentally friendly use of public transport will fall on Joan’s deaf ears, while Frank will probably feel validated and encouraged in his approach.

Simply put: core beliefs are a crucial filter for the effectiveness of any promotional campaign.

You may be thinking that this is all so obvious so let’s look at yet another angle.

Convenience

CW is easy, safe and familiar. Other people have determined how the world should look, you don’t have to trouble yourself thinking about such matters. All well and good, but the result is unconscious action and unaware behaviour. On the other hand, it’s a truism that the world is constantly changing. Take for instance the internet that provides virtually instant access to inexhaustible sources of information. We’re living in an age where knowledge is a key factor, so whereas a degree of stagnation is inherent to CW we’re constantly bombarded by the effects of change which in the end ensure a certain shift in CWs.

One fact remains unchanged: confrontation with the fallacy of CW and attempting to change it is uncomfortable, challenging, leads to resistance and unrest… until ‘everyone’ has become accustomed to the paradigm of a new CW.

camels_doctorMore doctors smoke Camels

This example of changed awareness about smoking should provide the necessary illustration. It’s taken about 80 years to shift from a belief that smoking (“recommended by doctors”!) was for tough guys, was elegant, relaxing and a source of pleasure to the current CW (at least in many Western countries) that smoking is for weaklings, and that it’s dirty, bad manners and a danger to health.

Back to basics

Market research is the source of the required analyses and data about target groups. But to what extent does the marketer get the correct insights into the core beliefs – and the CWs – of his specific target group? An important question here is: how much insight do the analysts and marketers get into their own core beliefs? With advanced insights into the strange world of quantum physics, it’s become abundantly evident how the observer influences the observed. And in this case, it’s about the filters that influence a marketing campaign.

The remarkable book, Freakonomics, about the work of economist Steven D. Levitt, is unequivocal in the value of taking such considerations into account.

More examples

CW: The old woman falls and breaks her hip.
CCW: The old woman’s hip breaks and she falls.

CW: Cancer is a terrible disease that needs to be fought with all the means modern medicine has available.
CCW: Cancer is a sign of imbalance in the body and weakness in the immune system; support the body’s own self-regenerating mechanisms.

CW: If you feel cold and sneeze, you’ve caught a cold. You’ve been affected by a cold virus and will now be sick for about a week.
CCW: Although it may be dusty, you generally sneeze because something’s out of balance that needs to be supported. You’ll be fine within a couple of hours.

CW: To ensure he leaves nothing out and forgets nothing, the speaker provides a thorough handout and projects everything on the screen.
CCW: The speaker makes occasional use of a visual aid to support and confirm the essence of his presentation. The handout – available on request – contains other, additional information with more details than in the spoken presentation. The speaker is comfortable in his awareness that he’s the only one who knows what he omits.

CW: The speaker uses clichés, tells jokes, talks about himself, has little or no contact with his audience and displays limited body language (most of the time his hands are linked across his belly).
CCW: The speaker creates interaction with his listeners, uses ‘you’ most of the time, is clearly master of his word choice and independent of all the detailed facts and figures, and displays functional, lively body language.

CW: It’s their fault, they’re responsible …
CCW: It’s my fault, I am responsible …

Different folks

Of course you’ve noticed how different we all are! Sometimes it’s handy, sometimes a nuisance. The Nielsens and Myers-Briggs of the business world have capitalised on these differences (as well as on commonalities within sub-groups). Let’s just take a look at some simple, less obvious but nevertheless interesting examples:

1. The toilet paper hangs with the paper against the wall.
2. The toilet paper hangs the other way round so that the next sheets are easily available, away from the wall.

(A salient observation: manufacturers print the side that’s easily visible in 2 but mostly hidden in 1.)

1. “A kilo of apples, please.”
2. “6 apples, please.”

1. “200 gr of mature Cheddar, please.”
2. “A piece of mature Cheddar, please … bit more … yes, that’s fine!”

1. “I always use a recipe when I cook. I buy what I need for that meal.”
2. “I enjoy browsing through cookery books, getting ideas. But I can’t follow recipes. I look at what I’ve got and what I fancy, then throw something together.”

1. “I always clear up directly after the meal.”
2. “I just leave everything until I feel like doing it … it may take days …”

1. “When I answer an e-mail, I insert my own ‘Subject’ and delete all but what is relevant for my answer.”
2. “I click on ‘Reply’, write what I need to and just send it off.”

If you recognise these simple examples then you already know a lot about yourself in relation to your partner, friends and colleagues. Some of the examples appear to reflect core beliefs, but they are definitely different from the transport situation of Joan and Frank. These examples touch on deeper levels where change almost never happens and where no discussion, however logical it may be, will ever be effective.

Programming

When we were very young, we learned from our parents and other ‘authority figures’, sometimes adults, sometimes peers or older children we admired or feared. For instance, children don’t stand naturally with their hands in their pockets – they learn this behaviour by example.

In the same way we learn our core beliefs about religion and the church, money, work, love, sex, relationships, marriage, politics… We listen to our parents and carers and initially we absorb their opinions – until at a later stage we may be able to discover our own opinion, our own truth on a particular matter. If we get to this stage, and that is a matter of personal development and growing awareness.

Are awareness and conscious decision-making advantageous also to marketers? Is ‘unconscious manipulation’ an ethical matter or a pragmatic consideration? It won’t be the last time this topic comes up!

Begin at the beginning

Consider these examples and comparisons as but the start of a process that is already taking place as you read this article: your awareness of the validity of CW and CCW. One thing is certain: when you start taking the process of challenging conventional wisdom seriously, a whole new world of possibilities opens up!

 

Article by Kaiyum (David Bloch)

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