The structure of advertising revolutions

Thomas Kuhn wrote and incredible book called ‘The Structure of Scientific Revolutions’. It’s probably the one book I studied at university which I ever think of now.

In the book, Kuhn investigates what really happens in science; how the step changes in understanding really get incorporated into the overall body of knowledge.

The view you might get if you speak to a scientist about all this, or believe what you were told at school, is that the process is essentially rational and evolutionary. As more observations come to light which challenge the conventional thinking, scientists learn to re-examine their theories and come up with better ones.

Kuhn found the truth to be quite different. He created a distinction between ‘normal science’ (in which observations which can’t be fitted into prevailing theories tend to – counter-intuitively – be abandoned), and ‘revolutionary science’ where a new comer will shake the entire foundation of science, leading to a difficult period of change which eventually the entire scientific body takes on board.

Thus we see that scientists will in fact keep adding exceptions and caveats to their experiments and results in order to maintain the status quo of overall thinking. Probably the best example of all this was complex array of assumptions and exceptions (and the invention of a considerable number of planets) needed to explain why, if the earth was indeed at the centre of the solar system, why all the planets’ orbits didn’t seem to fit together. In this phase, it is the scientist’s job to house the new information in the old framework, rather than question anything (the ‘things don’t work like that around here’ school of science).

At this point, a maverick will come along and propose a counter theory which doesn’t need all of these exceptions and caveats to work, and – grudgingly and slowly – the new paradigm will be adopted. This is ‘revolutionary science’. Of course, when I say maverick, I’m referring to Galileo, Einstein and so on.

It’s Kuhn’s book which popularised the idea that science might not be all it was cracked up to be and elevated the phrase and concept of ‘paradigm shift’ to everyday English.

And thus – and I’m sure you’re way ahead of me here – we get to our world: marketing, advertising and communication.

I’m really interested at the moment about trying to pick apart and understand the different social changes that have affected our generation and previous generations. There is a truism that it’s difficult to really remove yourself from the time you’re in – can we really imagine what it was like to live through a time when presidents made promises about going to the moon, or we were engaged in a cold war with the soviets. They’re not small things, and they define their time, but can we understand them now?

The same is true of media and communication. When I was growing up, the thought of TV disappearing was incomprehensible. It would have been the end of my little A-team-obsessed world. For us, TV was part of the evolution of man and we pitied those who went before, not really understanding how they got through the long, cold evenings.

And I think we are long due of a revolution of the size of heliocentricity or relativity in how we feel about that box in the corner of the room and the corporations who pump content into it.

Here (and here if you prefer video), Clay Shirky does a great job of exposing the TV myth for what it really is. In the time before TV, he argues, people had a ‘cognitive surplus’ which TV, with its soap operas and sitcoms filled in nicely. There’s a great Kurt Vonnegut quote on this:

‘TV is … providing artificial friends and relatives to lonely people. What it is… is recurrent families. The same friends and relatives come back week after week after week and they’re wittier, and they’re better looking and they’re richer and they’re more interesting than your real friends and relatives’

Shirky tells the story of being interviewed by a TV producer about Wikipedia and in particular about the evolution of Pluto’s page when it was recently declared to no-longer be classified as a planet, and she said ‘where do people find the time ?’. His response: ‘No one in TV gets to ask that question’.

Now, he argues, people are taking that cognitive surplus back.

Are advertising and communications agencies really understanding what’s happening here? All I hear is TV thinking applied to the web: Let’s put banners here, let’s pay these people to talk to those people; let’s try to ‘do some community’. Or these hideous ideas about getting and managing crowd-sourcing or ‘operating communities of interest’.

As with Kuhn, one paradigm cannot necessarily be understood from inside the other. There’s going to have to be a lot of fresh thinking going on if companies are going to keep paying these agencies all of these dollars.

But of course, Shirky isn’t really worried about what the big dumb agencies (as George Parker calls them) don’t know. He’s more concerned with the potential upside.

Given the size of the ‘surplus’ currently being spent on TV, imagine what they could do with all the time. More LolCats? Five more wikipedia projects? 1000 more? A million?

 

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Comments

  1. Blin … really beautifully written! All this is so familiar … and truthfully!

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