Reasons to Believe: Fluoride, Brexit and the Nicene Creed

A clear brand positioning requires a compelling “reason to believe”. Problematically, as Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber have now so convincingly demonstrated in The Enigma of Reason: A New Theory of Human Understanding, human beings will find reasons to justify their behaviour, their beliefs and their brand choices only after the fact, and then only if pressed to produce them. More worryingly, the reasons we invent to post-rationalise our choices will be tailored to the meet the expectations of the social group that has pressed us to explain ourselves.

Their research has profound implications for the way we shape and articulate brand communications. The persuasiveness of any given “reason to believe” is time and place dependent. Yesterday’s good reason is tomorrow’s lame excuse; a perfectly acceptable explanation to a friend is a embarrassing gaffe to a group of strangers.

As Faisal and I argue in Skip Ad in 5, the single-mindedness of a brand positioning was useful and sustainable only as long as the one-to-many paradigm of the mass media was all-powerful. Single-mindedness in the many-to-many media ecology has become a singular weakness, not only out of step with the ways we create and consume content today, but also glaringly inappropriate now that the psychology of human reasoning has been exposed as the flighty, fickle and fluctuating thing it really is — and always has been.

Reasons to believe are not sexy.

The advertising idea is a mannequin wearing a red polka dot frock and a panama hat in the shop window. Reasons to believe are the grist to advertising’s slowly grinding mill.

To agency outsiders they will appear too trivial or too arcane to justify an interest. But so central are they to the strategic thrust of every advertising campaign that they long ago earned an acronym of their own: reasons to believe are RTBs.

There is an appropriately bureaucratic ring to this. They sound like MOTs or NDAs, or any or all of those other acronyms that suggest the approval of officialdom, often obscure and inscrutable: the fine print on page 86 of Addendum B; the third sub-clause to codicil nine; the Northern Ireland Backstop.

Every faith needs one or more reasons to believe. Sometimes they come in the form of enticements, sometimes in the threat of awful punishments, and sometimes in both. The faiths with the best reasons to believe will tend, unsurprisingly, to attract the most believers, which is why different faiths are constantly adjusting, refining or tweaking their doctrines and tenets to accord with changing tastes and changing times.

In the case of Christianity, for example, the ink on the last page of the Gospel of St John was not yet dry when the first Synod of Antioch was assembled to decide whether the Father and the Son were made of the same substance. It may seem to like a moot point, but it went on through the centuries to consume a lot of the time and attention of the church’s major stakeholders.

Arianism, which disputes the notion of the Trinity, is to Christianity what Euroscepticism is to the Conservative Party.

Brands are no different. Since every advertising idea requires the faith of all parties before it is implemented in practice, reasons to believe take up a disproportionate amount of time and attention in the delicate process of nurturing a campaign from conception to fruition. The agency must believe that the proposed RTB will be believed by the customer. The brand owner must be persuaded to believe that the customer will believe in the RTB proposed by the agency. The result will depend on how much faith the brand owner has in the faith of the agency. In the event of doubt, or more often as the option of first resort, the case will be referred to the customer.

Researchers are the soothsayers of today’s marketing synods. The best ones will know exactly where to put their faith, and it usually won’t be on the sunny side of the road. Pessimism may not be the natural inclination of all market researchers but it sure makes a helluva business model. Advertising research is the only gig in the world where the client will congratulate you you for being right and for being wrong.

Despite their notorious unreliability as indicators of in-market performance, the default methodology for pre-testing brand claims and propositions is the focus group. Now A/B testing has not only made it possible to assess and adjust the effectiveness of advertising messaging in real time, it has demonstrated the truth of Mercier’s and Sperber’s assertion that human beings discover justifications for their actions by social trial and social error.

This will come as no surprise to anyone who has spent more than a few hours eating curly sandwiches behind one-way mirrors. We knew the punters were making it up as they went along. The clients knew the punters were making it up as they went along. But we clutched with the desperation of starving sailors adrift at sea at the crumbs of comfort that fell our way in the form of approving nods or occasional hints of words that could be construed as praise. And the clients stroked their chins between thumbs and fingers like sages interpreting the Oracle of Delphi, politely hesitant to judge, but with the words “I told you so” written like runes in the wise wrinkles of their brows. The oncologist’s waiting room aside, there are no social spaces more fraught and anxious than those narrow, crowded, dimly-lit lobbies where dreams go to die.

In the end it was never about the idea. It was a ritual for the conjuring up of faith, an ouija session hoping with held breaths for the holy ghost of the RTB to make its presence manifest in the gloom of our collective forebodings.

With the advent of brand planning, reasons to believe were negotiated in advance of the brief behind closed doors in unknown locations far away from prying creative eyes, partly because it gave the client a measure of rational control over the irrational creative process that lay ahead, but mostly because both clients and agency planners knew that reasons to believe had a dispiriting effect on the creative appetite. But those were the days before The Apprentice, which proved for all the world to see that any bright young thing given sufficient extrinsic motivation, an iPad and a quattro stagioni pizza can come up with a devastatingly brilliant advertising campaign in the time it takes most advertising agencies to get out of bed.

When agreement was reached on their precise phrasing and order of persuasiveness, the reasons to believe were tacked onto the end of the brief in the certain knowledge that the art director would never read that far.

Before brand planning brought some logical rigour into the development of the advertising brief, the task of inventing RTBs fell to the copywriter. Several decades ago that was me.

The first thing I learned at Grey Advertising & Marketing was that there is no compulsion in human psychology greater than the urge to fiddle with someone else’s copy. The second thing I learned was that this urge was even more pronounced in advertising than it had been in my first job as a trainee reporter.

Copywriting is the worst of all possible career choices for someone who likes writing. The second worst is journalism.

Journalism has the advantage of allowing the writer to turn facts into fiction. Copywriting requires the writer to turn fiction into facts.

Copywriting makes bricks of nouns and mortar of verbs. Prepositions become trowels; pronouns become plumb-lines. The result is the kind of architecture that gets approved by municipal sub-committees. It’s only after the thing is built that someone notices the absence of windows.

There is, of course, a distinction to be made between the copywriter engaged in the drudgery of writing the body copy and the copywriter paired in a creative team with an art director to come up with the advertising idea. It’s the difference between Clark Kent and Superman, or Sue Storm and the Invisible Woman; the difference between the sublunary and the sublime.

Here the atmosphere is suffused with thaumaturgy and the working of miracles. It is a divine and numinous space, the sanctum sanctorum of the mysterious alchemy that can transubstantiate a washing powder into a covenant or pot noodles into a sacrament. Confirmation comes in the blessing of the Creative Director; transcendence comes in the approval of The Client.

After that it was all downhill, at least for the copywriter. The art director would spend the next few days or weeks chatting to promising young illustrators, brilliant designers or famous photographers. The copywriter would be stuck in five hour meetings about RTBs which ended with the account supervisors, the account managers, the account directors and the serried ranks of brand managers, marketing managers and marketing directors turning to her with the words, “Well, Sue, it’s over to you.”

It’s a shocking confession to have to make this late in my career, but the truth is that I began to question the existence of RTBs when I was still a young copywriter with the opening paragraph of a novel in my bottom drawer. It started as a mild agnosticism, a suspicion gnawing at the back of my mind that RTBs didn’t warrant the sort of reverence they appeared to command. I needed convincing that they were fixed in significance and substance; tangible realities of fact, not fictions of wishful thinking that required the undiluted faith of the believer to support and sustain them. My agnosticism edged to the brink of atheism one fine summer’s day on Maydon Wharf.

It was the remarkable Derek Dixon, Marketing Director of Unilever in Durban, who sat me down like a slow learner while the rest of the class were shrieking in the playground outside, to tell me that all explanations, no matter how scientific, were ultimately rooted in magic. The art of constructing the most effective RTB was in finding the level of magic one rung higher than the rung that would oblige your audience to accept the truth of your proposition on faith alone.

“What!?”

I have the greatest respect for all the other multinationals I have had the pleasure to work with over the years, but among them only Unilever appeared in my experience to attract the kind of people who were prepared to spend expensive executive time thinking about these kinds of things, in this kind of depth, and least of all with their agency representatives present in the room.

If it hadn’t been confirmed to me by Rob Goffee of the London Business School and the research that went in his book The Character Of A Corporation, co-authored by Gareth Jones, I might have thought twice about making the sweeping generalisation that American multinationals tend, on the whole, to operate in the style loosely termed “command-and-control”, while European and other non-US corporates tend to operate as collegiate “networks” where decision-making is devolved, to a greater or lesser extent, to their local market managers. So companies such as P&G, Pfizer and Kellogg’s would only very reluctantly allow local markets leeway to make a strategic decision as important as defining a brand’s RTBs. They would invariably be determined in Cincinnati, New York or Battle Creek and sent out to the local markets carved in tablets of stone.

Ford tried but failed to work along the same lines, frustrated largely by the discretionary marketing spend allocated to their local dealerships around the world who believed that the price tag on the windscreen was the only incontrovertible catechism of the new Ford Fiesta. Nestlé was more chaotic than collegiate. The transfer of best practice from local markets to global implementation was generally well managed; less so the development of new product and brand strategies for which answers could not be found in precedent. We could digress across a spectrum of global corporates that extends from AstraZeneca to Walmart, but that’s for another blog at another time.

“Take the humble magnet,” said Derek.

The lesson he gave me stayed with me for a lifetime. It led me eventually into brand planning, not by inspiring me to a sudden and morbid interest in the biodegradability of the constituent molecules of surface cleaners, but because it explained so simply and so elegantly how very clever people can find reasons to believe very stupid things.

It went something like this:

Ask a child to explain why magnets attract iron and the child will say, “Because that’s what magnets do.”

Now press the child to explain why magnets do what they do and the child will say, “Because they’re magnets” with absolute confidence in the logical consistency of his argument.

Ask a physicist to explain why magnets attract iron and she will give you this equation:

Now press the physicist to explain why magnets work according to this formula and the physicist will say, “Because it’s the proven scientific equation for magnetism” with absolute confidence in the logical consistency of her argument.

Both explanations are true. The difference between them is only in how far, for any given audience, you can descend the epistemological ladder before you get to the point at which the answer to the question “Why?” becomes an appeal to faith, which then amounts to the same thing as asking someone to believe in magic.

The story of fluoride is a good example of how the world climbed the ladder from paranoid conspiracy theory all the way up the rungs of disbelief, scepticism and reluctant acceptance until we arrived at the current consensus of scientific approval. But these are journeys, not revelations. Each rung on the ladder represents a small but significant epiphany, a subtle shift in understanding that opens to view to the rung above.

To be effective, RTBs must be fluid, not fixed. To be persuasive or meaningful they must evolve alongside our evolving knowledge and experience, where “our” stands for a collection of disparate individuals at different points on the bell-curve of understanding.

Which is not to say that all adherents of fixed religious beliefs or political opinions are eager to climb up the ladder of reason towards universal consensus. Indeed, proselytisers who can persuade non-believers to anchor their faith in magic will invariably gain more loyal converts than those who base their arguments in facts, reason or common sense.

Facts are refutable; magic isn’t. So Trump’s “fake news” rhetoric, for example, has the effect removing the rungs of the ladder immediately above the rung of MAGA magic his followers are currently attached to. The strategy is as old as the Nicene Creed, which in 325 AD set the Christian liturgy in stone by anathematizing the fake news of Arianism, but it’s a proven and powerful technique for creating and maintaining a consensus of hypnotised compliance.

The logical consequences of Brexit are not in dispute. The advantage its proponents have on their side is that their RTBs are rooted in the voodoo of imperial fantasies and the flag.

It is also, quite simply, easier to believe than it is to question, easier to hold on than it is to climb, and easier to demur than it is to challenge. A belief in magic is the default of intellectual laziness. It is primitive and immovable — inured to logic, reason and the inconsiderate intrusion of facts.

For these very reasons, brands that can root their appeal in magic rather than relying on the unpredictable credibility of their RTBs have shown themselves to be far more resilient to the digital bonfire of advertising’s vanities. It’s easier to do with a Burberry than with a barbecue sauce, but we’ve met very few FMCG marketers who have given up trying.

In Skip Ad in 5 we refer to these exceptions as limerent brands. They defy both logic and the fundamentals of market economics by appealing over the trivial claims of efficacy, performance and value to the inarticulate wishes and fantasies of other worlds and other lives. Not all brands can ascend to these giddy heights. Their ingredients are a mysterious mix of legacy, provenance and luck.

For brands that don’t have or can’t find the secret recipe of limerence, our advice is to take a hard look at your RTBs. They need to be mobile, dynamic and flexible, adapting themselves to the social contexts they find themselves in just as we do, as individuals, as we go about the daily struggle of trying to explain ourselves to others.

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