Isn't it ironic?

Charles Vallance
Charles Vallance

Greater understanding of reason hasn't made us more reasonable.

We live in an age of irony. Perhaps we always have, but some ironies are more profound than others. And the irony of the moment is that, as we understand more and more about how the mind reasons, we become less and less capable of being reasonable.

The un-reason irony is heightened by the cumulative findings of cognitive science, which would suggest that, no matter how clever we think we are, our starting point for rationality is in practice remarkably low. A classic example of our innate irrationality is the distorting filter of confirmation bias. This is a universal mechanism to which we are all subject, meaning we have an innate tendency to cherry-pick those "facts" that most reinforce our own subjective world views. This is one of the primary reasons why objective reality remains so elusive for us as a species.

To compensate for this inherent processing flaw, most of us try to maintain something resembling a balanced outlook. We try to accept some level of ambiguity and, perhaps reluctantly (especially for obstinate people like me), try to acknowledge that there are frequently two sides to any argument – and that you should, metaphorically, kick yourself under the table if you find yourself too vocally on the polar extreme of either side.

The trouble, it seems, is that social media has turbocharged the more vocal ends of any debate and untethered them from their respective ambiguity moorings. Whatever the subject, let us say Corbyn or Farage, the discourse soon polarises into two irreconcilable factions. In virtually any Twitter storm, the ferocity of disagreement tends to be matched only by its hyperbole, invariably ending in seething comparisons to one or more of Hitler, Goebbels, Stalin, Mao or McCarthy.

The way that social media haters rush to make their selective judgments heaps irony upon the irony. They condemn and moralise while echoing the censorious tactics of the very egomaniacs to whom they will inevitably equate their quarry. Nuance is lost. Moderation is lost. Denouncement rules. It's like living in the McCarthy era. Oops, I've only gone and done it. Of course it isn't. Not remotely. But the direction of travel is still unedifying, taking us further away from the safety and mutual ambiguity of the middle ground.

Why does any of this matter for brands, you may wonder? Well, I wrote a while ago about the recent trend for brands to put themselves at the heart of a polarising issue. Sometimes it works. But it seldom works as well as being a unifying force, of selling hope rather than fear, amity rather than enmity. 

Like human beings, brands work best at a supra-rational level. We respond to feeling more than thought and, even without confirmation bias, our minds are notoriously difficult to change (search Leon Festinger for more details). The strongest brands, therefore, seldom get into an argument because arguments are emotional cul de sacs. Instead, they focus on what Orlando Wood at System1 defines as the three Fs: feeling, fluency and fame. 

There is a view (backed up by recent evidence from the IPA; see Peter Fields’ The Crisis in Creative Effectiveness) that, as an industry, we are beginning to neglect the first of these Fs. That there is a growing tendency to over-message and over-argue, particularly with precision-targeted sales activity. Campaigns that lack feeling soon lose the fluency that comes with emotion and then brand fame inevitably begins to falter.

The best communicators – in social media, in marketing, in politics – all understand feeling and they also understand that feel-good is feeling at its most persuasive. This is something that we forget at our peril, especially if tempted to lay into someone or something online when, to take Taylor Swift's advice, it may be better for us all to "like, just calm down". You Need to Calm Down is a timely rebuke to the excesses of online behaviour, including the memorable couplet: "Say it in the street, that's a knock-out/Say it in a tweet, that's a cop-out." Or, as Alanis would have it: "It's like a black fly in your chardonnay"…

Charles Vallance is founding partner and chairman at VCCP

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