Charlatan or Guru

A friend asked my opinion about Clotaire Rapaille, whose firm Archetype Discoveries Worldwide promises to “discover the hidden cultural forces that pre-organize the way people behave toward a product, service or concept.” In particular, my friend asked to what extent would I guess this is the work of a charlatan or a guru. You can see a 60 Minutes interview with him, which references the oven and PT Cruiser. The other video sent along was a speech about UP. I found the latter hard to watch, honestly.

In the end, I went with charlatan. Well, charaltin-ish. Insights in marketing and advertising is a booming and real business, and there have always been two distinct strands of the species – insights-as-analysis and insights-as-magic. The analysis group is where modern-day tech firms have found themselves: ruthlessly devoted to data (often but not always quantitative data), skeptical about the ability to see beneath the surface, so to speak. If there is magic here, it is the magic of patterns.

The insights-as-magic is more about delving into the interior of the individual (psychologists got there first, really. But anthropologists might suggest similar directions, substituting ‘culture’ for ‘individual’). There is a long history of this kind of work in advertising. For example, Rapaille seems very much like a modern-day Ernest Dichter. He coined the term ‘focus group’! Rapaille is in this same mold. His claim is that there are highly personal, deep, opaque wants/needs that are governed by images, smells, feelings that evoke them.

It is Freudian, insofar as these ‘codes’ are linked to sex, protection, survival, mother. This is what makes it kind of magical – the hooks are set quite deep into the individuals’ psyche, so if you find ways to access these hooks, you are likely going to get at least some results. But left as Freudian analysis, the insights Rapaille could offer are limited. You would need to really talk deeply to lots of people in order to find some code that overlaps more than a handful at a time.

And so he reaches instead for Carl Jung, insofar as these ‘codes’ are universally-held (otherwise, what works for me would be different than what works for you, and instead of an ad campaign you would need 30M different codes). Jung argued that there are culturally-universal archetypes (the Self, the Shadow, the Anima, etc.) that tap into these deep structures of the brain. This is the difference between the personal unconscious and the collective unconscious. If this is true, there are a small number of codes that work for large numbers of people!

So yes, there is psychological theory and evidence to back up Rapaille’s arguments. But I think the relationship between his campaign codes and outcomes is as murky as…well, almost all claims about the relationship between ad campaigns and outcomes. In the 60 minutes segment, for example, he talks about Boeing’s planes, and the Turbo Chef oven, and the PT Cruiser. Turbo Chef does seem to have implemented a hearth-like design (they even call the ovens ‘cavities.’ Sweet hearthy mother! But still, have you ever even seen a Turbo Chef oven in anyone’s house, ever?

And the PT Cruiser, well, success and then catastrophe. If the cultural code for the PT Cruiser was so hard-wired into the lizard brain (in 2000), why was it such a failure in 2009? Rapaille himself blames Chrysler, but honestly, what else is he going to say?

So, the underlying question, is there value in understanding both what people do (behavioral) as well as what they say (cognitive)? Of course. And insights are important to move beyond what is, and to get at the sometimes quite-nuanced ways that people, groups, networks mobilize meaning. So I do think there is something more than relentless and singular attention to measurement. But is there a singular or small number of ‘codes’ that can overpower or sneak past the cognitive decision-making brain and get people to buy stuff? Maybe! Can that be done in isolation of other things like what a product actually does, broader economic conditions, competing meanings (by competitors in yours or adjacent fields, for example)? No.

No magic bullets.

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