Serious Joke,Seriously "Help!"

John McCreery (jlm@TWICS.COM)
Thu, 24 Oct 1996 23:25:18 +0900

Anthropologists know that we're getting somewhere when, during the course
of fieldwork, we begin to understand the jokes of the tribe whose culture
we are trying to comprehend. It's been nearly two years ago that I heard
this one, told by a member of the tribe of academics, a group in which I
myself, anthropologist and adman, philosopher and marketer, occupy a
marginal position. The story goes like this.

The scene is a conference of professors of marketing. The keynote speaker
is an eminent economist. The chairman, who sees himself as a bit of a wag,

"I would like to introduce my eminent colleague and friend. He's an
economist, one of those people who turn random numbers into mathematical

The economist, not to be outdone, replies,

"My friend, here, is a marketer. They reverse the process."

A joke is a joke. We know, however, that jokes often turn on serious
matters. Here, in the economist, we have a representative example of the
positivist social scientist whose goal is to understand human behavior in
light of universal laws. His basic assumption is that human beings decide
what to do through a process of rational choice. His models (at least the
simple ones taught in introductory economics courses) further assume that
in making their choices the human beings in question have access to perfect
information, they know the price of whatever decision they make and are
confident that it represents the current balance of supply and demand in
the market, which is taken to be an objective fact.

The joke is, of course, that in the everyday world of business, these
assumptions are constantly violated. Decisions are made in situations where
information is highly imperfect, and prices are bargaining chips in
negotiations where a forceful personality or a good story may count for
more than rational calculations. Our problem is that, as D. McCloskey
points out in _The Rhetoric of Economics_ and _If You're So Smart_, we know
how to teach our students about facts and logic. Our methods for evaluating
stories, for deciding which stories are better or worse, which metaphors
are more or less fruitful, are, to put it bluntly, muddled.

In the advertising business, where I have worked for over a decade, the
usual situation is one in which agency people make presentations to
clients, and the bottom line is inevitably, "Trust us. We know what we are
doing." The client is someone who occupies an insanely stressful position,
with "Yes, you will be fired if you screw up" responsibility for profit and
loss, in a situation over which he or she has, in fact, little control.
Feelings run high, tempers flare, ulcers are endemic. The predictable
result is high susceptibility to what can, indeed, be described as magical
thinking. (See Note 1)

The most effective presenters are, it seems to me, those who have a
therapist's knack of teasing out what the client wants to do anyway, then
adding value by framing the decision in a tale which is at once familiar
and also slightly twisted to freshen it up a bit. Clients balk at spending
large sums of money on stories too similar to those they've heard before.
They are also afraid to spend large sums on stories that seem too
different. The presenter's knack is finding a story just different enough
to seem original but not so different as to seem too risky. Having seen the
same sort of process at work in interactions between Daoist healers and
their clients in Taiwan, I suspect that it's universal, or at least common,
in all sorts of what we might call "consulting" relationships.

Is there anyone here who knows of studies, data, or anecdotes that bear on
these observations and might help to deepen the analysis?

Is there anything about academic teaching that makes it essentially
different from what presenters in business situations (or scientific
meetings) do?

1 McCreery, John "Malinowski, Magic, and Advertising: On Choosing
Metaphors." In John Sherry, ed., Contemporary Marketing and Consumer
Behavior: An Anthropological Sourcebook. Thousand Oaks: Sage.

John McCreery
3-206 Mitsusawa HT, 25-2 Miyagaya, Nishi-ku
Yokohama 220, JAPAN

"And the Lord said unto Cyrus, 'Shall the clay say to him who moldest it,
what makest thou? Let the potsherd of the earth speak to the potsherd of
the earth." --An anthropologist's credo