The third of Arthur C. Clarke’s three laws of prediction is his most famous: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Many would argue that this describes marketing nowadays. Marketing technologies, it could be said, have become so advanced that brand marketing is now indistinguishable from magic. If true, that’s an idea – or a metaphor, really – suggestive of potentialities in modern marketing that have yet to be fully explored.
But there is a missing piece in Clarke’s third law. He doesn’t say what he means by magic. Obviously, he doesn’t mean a whiz-bang Vegas show full of pyrotechnics and spooky visitations. That’s show business not technology. So it’s helpful to begin by nailing down the notion of magic before deciding whether Clarke’s law suggests anything relevant for brand marketers.
Magicians are notoriously cagey with outsiders about their craft. But magician Alex Stone has given us an insider’s look at how magic works in his new book, Fooling Houdini: Magicians, Mentalists, Math Geeks & the Hidden Powers of the Mind. The most important thing up every magician’s sleeve is something well-known to psychologists – inattentional blindness, or the inability of the human mind to process anything that is not the specific and direct focus of attention at that moment. We know that magician’s use misdirection to fool us, but generally speaking, we fail to realize just how powerful this is. Think of the famous viral video of Daniel J. Simons’ Monkey Business Illusion, or study the research about driving while talking on a cell phone or about attempting to multitask with any attention-grabbing technology.
But magicians don’t stop there. They manipulate our expectations knowing that we will not notice something in plain view if we are not expecting it to be there. They use the power of suggestion and imagination to plant false memories and make us more gullible. They overwhelm us with sensory stimulation because they know it is impossible for us to process and perceive everything. They take advantage of the false confidence we have in our powers of observation. They get us to talk about ourselves, knowing that in doing so we will be more likely to think that psychics are accurate when they talk about us, no matter what they say. They know that small things like a simple touch on the arm will change how we feel and what we perceive. They count on audiences reacting to their performances in terms of the heuristic biases first identified by psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky.
Magicians have been experts in behavioral economics for centuries, long before psychologists and brain scientists starting cataloging these mental dynamics. Magicians and scientists both know that perceptions are conglomerates of subjective pieces and mental fragments, and that if they can control what makes up the conglomerate, they can control, or at least influence, the reality we perceive. The confluence of magic and neuroscience has even spawned a new sub-discipline known as neuromagic. Stone puts it this way in wrapping up one chapter in his book: “Consciousness may well be the greatest magic show of all.”
Which brings us back around to marketing. Brand marketers and magicians have always shared the ambition of managing expectations and controlling perceptions. Brand marketers don’t do it for show, though; they do it for business. But the effects that brand marketers and magicians want to create are similar in intention if not in execution.
Anything that boosts the power of brand marketers to manage expectations and control perceptions has the net effect of making marketing more magical. Thus, paradoxically, the more that technologies enable brand marketers to harness the insights of psychology and neuroscience, the more that marketing works like magic.
This paradox goes to the heart of a conflict at the center of the contemporary push to high-tech marketing. Many brand marketers worry that with big data technologies at the cornerstone of modern marketing, the magic that really and truly makes marketing work will be lost. But such worries misconstrue both magic and technology.
Magic is not a black art of ineffable mysteries; it is rooted in a deep understanding of how our minds work, and the ways in which expectations and perceptions shape our experiences to bring us delight and wonder.
Marketing technologies are not about bookkeeping and number-crunching; they are about giving marketers better tools for responsibly managing expectations and controlling perceptions.
By making brand marketers as good at psychology, behavioral economics and neuroscience as magicians, marketing technologies have, indeed, become sufficiently advanced to make marketing indistinguishable from magic. Not by making marketing ever more mysterious, but by making brand marketing ever more scientific in design, implementation and practice.
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