A view from Dave Trott: Fun beats data

Photo credit: Julian Hanford
Photo credit: Julian Hanford

Many years ago, Paul Arden's son, Christian, had a restaurant on King's Road.

It was very posh: expensive gourmet cuisine.

Because Paul was a mate, I thought I’d take my children there, even though they were very young.

The posh waiter gave us menus, but my son didn’t read his.

He just said: "What sort of spinach do you have?"

The waiter proudly said: "It comes from a small farm in Kent. It’s organically grown without artificial fertiliser. We lightly blanch it then sear it in butter, so it’s al dente."

My son looked puzzled.

He said: "Is it the same as what Popeye eats?"

That interchange represents the overriding power of simple communication in the mass market.

My son didn’t know anything about methods of cooking spinach.

All he knew was that spinach made Popeye strong.

He knew this because he’d seen it in the cartoons.

But the interesting question is, why did it make Popeye strong?

Obviously, because spinach is nature’s greatest source of iron.

Generations grew up learning this. 

That’s how powerful the Popeye cartoons were.

Except it’s not true.

Spinach isn’t nature’s greatest source of iron.

In 1870, a scientist put a decimal point in the wrong place.

Erich von Wolf analysed the amount of iron in spinach.

He worked out correctly that it was 3.50mg per 100g.

About the same as steak.

But he accidentally wrote it down as 35.0mg.

Ten times as much as steak.

Which is why they used spinach in Popeye cartoons.

That mistake wasn’t corrected for more than 60 years.

Until the Popeye cartoons brought spinach to the public’s attention and put sales up by a third.

In 1937, the error was officially rectified and the real numbers released.

But the truth is worse than that.

Spinach contains the absorption-inhibiting substance oxalate.

This means the body can’t absorb the iron in spinach anyway. 

But, by that time, it was too late.

The Popeye cartoons had already established spinach in everyone’s mind.

A simple message told in a memorable way overrides a dull, rational communication. 

And, for mums, spinach will forever be a good source of iron.

I recently saw a headline in an advertising magazine: "Are computer algorithms making human insight redundant in today’s digitised industry?"

Well, let’s think about that for a second.

A computer algorithm is just a dull formula.

An algorithm can relay scientific facts and information about spinach.

An algorithm can make sure it gets those facts in front of every pair of eyeballs in the spinach target market.

But an algorithm can’t make people read it.

An algorithm can’t make anyone care about it, or remember it.

And, as we’ve seen, an algorithm can’t make them believe it.

Because an algorithm can’t come up with Popeye.

Dave Trott is the author of Creative Mischief, Predatory Thinking and One Plus One Equals Three

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