My 5 Favourite Quotations

Arnold Schwarzenegger: “I think gay marriage should be between a man and a woman” I’m a sucker for a good quotation. The best can make a point far more eloquently and concisely than I ever could, which is why I use them in my presentations all the time. Sometimes it may be historical figures – for example Henry Ford’s “a man who stops advertising to save money is like a man who stops a clock to save time” or Samuel Johnson’s famous quote about advertising overload (written in 1759).

Other times, it may be celebrity classics (Arnold Schwarzenegger – “I think gay marriage should be between a man and a woman”) or homespun words of wisdom (“A computer might beat you at chess, but you can always beat it at kick boxing”)

There will never be a definitive list of my favourite quotations, but from a media perspective, the following are all contenders.

1. “Humans are to independent thinking as cats are to swimming – we can do it when we have to, but we’d much prefer not to.”

This quote is from Daniel Kahneman, the first ever psychologist to win the Nobel Prize for Economics, and the founder of behavioural economics. This idea, that humans spend as much of their time as possible on auto-pilot and only employ their cognitive brain when they have to, has been advanced by numerous experts from neuroscience, cognitive psychology, economics and marketing and yet a disturbingly high proportion of marketing spend is still aimed at the cognitive, attention-based part of our brain, which (according to Rory Sutherland) is “not the Oval Office, making executive decisions, but the press office, issuing explanations for decisions we have already taken”; another favourite quotation.

Kahneman’s work helped to open our eyes to the power of emotion and the long-term, implicit mind within marketing, although there is still reluctance amongst many in the industry to embrace it. The stultifying certainties of the traditional models of communications and influence are much preferred, even though they have been proven wrong time and time again.

2. “Choice is cherished, but choosing is a chore”

This single one-liner pretty much sums up the argument behind Barry Schwarz’s ‘The Paradox of Choice’, but the book is no less important for that. It is a fact of life that we have never been offered so much choice, and never been more prepared to simplify and minimise the choosing process.

How we choose – through habit, instinct, heuristics or via trusted intermediaries – has a huge impact on the roles of marketing and media. We are less homo economicus, applying thought, logic and rational self-interest to our consumer decision-making; we are more homo whimsicalus, allowing a wide range of factors to influence our judgement, such as emotion, social pressures and context. We will generally favour brands that make choosing less of a chore and create the emotional associations that make heuristics simple and intuitive to apply.

3. “Tell me a fact, and I may remember. Tell me a truth and I may believe. But tell me a story and it will live in my heart forever”

This is generally referenced as an ancient Indian proverb, and that is highly appropriate. The power of storytelling to influence learning, memory and human development is as ancient as mankind and applies to social movements, religion (all of the great religions have storytelling at their heart), education and even brands. As the proverb says, stories live in our hearts forever – through our emotions (heart) and memories (forever). Emotions and memory – that is where brands live!

There has been a revival of interest in the role of storytelling within modern-day marketing, mainly through the concept of transmedia storytelling.  Major multinationals now employ storytelling specialists within their marketing function as a matter of course. Although I sometimes worry that the emphasis is often too much on the transmedia and not enough on the storytelling, this is a welcome development. Until brands learn what their ‘story’ is, how to best communicate and spread it, and how it influences the purchase decision, much of their media spend will be wasted.

When even the CEO of Google comments that;

“That’s the gift of advertising – to connect with people in a human way – to make the kind of emotional connections that are at the core of story telling.”

then you know it’s important.

4. “ The problem with market research is that people don’t think how they feel, they don’t say what they think, and they don’t do what they say”

This quote is usually attributed to David Ogilvy, although I have been unable to locate the source. If any David Ogilvy fans out there can help out, that would be much appreciated, otherwise I’m going to start claiming it as my own. I would love to – after all, it is pithy, witty and completely true.

Even today, most market research is based on asking people to say what they think. We now know that this is the most unreliable and limited way to get at the truth. We should spend more time and money looking at what they do and how they feel.  As the previous quotations suggest, what we think has a very small influence on our decision-making, and what we say we think is often based on biases created by phenomena such as post-rationalisation, self-representation, confabulation and memory degradation. And yet marketers still spout out awareness levels, tracking scores and brand preference indices as if they were goals in themselves.

Whenever I have had the opportunity to look inside the heads of consumers – through neuroscience, biometrics, implicit measurement techniques or ethnography – the insights are far deeper, richer and more meaningful than anything that ever came out of survey research or focus groups. Even though David Ogilvy was a keen user of market research during his own career (“advertising people who ignore research are as dangerous as generals who ignore decodes of enemy signals”) I firmly believe that he would have cottoned on to this fundamental flaw in the traditional research model if he had been with us today.


5. “The Medium is the message”

Like David Ogilvy, Marshall McLuhan has been responsible for many memorable quotes.  It was he who gave the phrase “turn on, tune in and drop out” to psychedelic guru Timothy Leary (although he claimed never to have tried LSD himself, explaining to Playboy magazine that he’d rather be an observer than a participant), as well as the insight that “we look at the present through a rear view mirror. We march backwards into the future”

The medium is the message” has become such an aphorism that I think it has lost a great deal of its meaning.  It was written at a time when media plurality was reaching unprecedented proportions and the power of context was beginning to be understood. We now know, especially through the advances made in behavioural economics, just how important the surrounding context is in terms of how a piece of communication is received, processed and acted upon. How, where, when and through what channels the communication is received are all part of that context, and it makes the media practitioner’s role more important than ever before.

So, why don’t we incorporate it into media practice far more often? As I have written in previous blogs, we are still far more interested in the exposure metrics and far less enthusiastic about engagement research as an industry, and yet that is where the real power of media lies and where the real value can be mined.

Maybe it is time to turn on, tune in and drop out – from the counting culture to the counter-culture.  Marshall would be delighted.

  • Gregory Grimmer

    Lovely column Dave, I’m with you on all sides. Never start or finish a presentation without some words written by someone better known than you, cleverer than you and more memorable than you. 
    And always remember .” There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”