We can debate the philosophical nuances of whether perception is truly reality or not, but I’m sure we could agree that our ability to shape public perception is a sure way to impact behavior.
How we shape perception is a different question altogether. This is a practice that can be applied for good or evil, depending on the intentions and skill of the practitioner, but it holds an important insight for all of us in the business of influencing perceptions – marketers, business owners, politicians and virtually anyone else who needs people to do something for them to be successful.
Look at two examples of this, both as a thinking tool to help us craft our own messaging as well as from the standpoint of a cautionary tale to help us avoid creating self-destructing landmines of our own.
Setting yourself up for failure: the 10:10 Campaign
If you truly believe “the debate is over” on global warming, you’re probably reading only one side of the story. Regardless of your stance on this issue, understand this much: those who are skeptical that man-made climate change is a material threat perceive global warming activists as alarmists who are incapable of presenting their arguments without descending into shrieks of verbal abuse and personal attacks.
The astute marketer might seize upon this perception and counter it with credible, dispassionate and non-politicized discussion. Reinforcing this negative stereotype would be the last thing on your mind, wouldn’t it?
So why would a global non-profit dedicated to the reduction of carbon emissions by 10% per year starting in 2010 throw a carbon-based accelerant onto an already burning perceptual fire?
When you fully reinforce the most damning perception of yourself and your cause on purpose, you have only yourself to blame. The corporate sponsors backing this venture are abandoning ship as a result.
Creating the Empress Has No Clothes Moment: the Hillary 1984 Spot
Again, regardless of your political proclivities, this now ancient spot provides an interesting counterpoint to the above self-immolation by showing how perception is taken one more step to the illogical extreme.
In the Democratic run up to the 2008 election, the below spot was a brief internet sensation not because it sampled heavily (an understatement, as you’ll see) from the Apple 1984 Super Bowl spot, but because it mirrored what many thought. Hillary Clinton, to her detractors – particularly in the Obama camp, was in fact a symbol of all that 1984 stood for: Orwellian, Apple versus IBM, and Big Brother (or Sister, in this case).
It worked, in other words, because it was just close enough to believe.
When we talk about Eigen Values – “This Sentence Has Five Words” and the creation of a self-defining truism – we are developing unarguable statements and vehicles for our brand. When you develop an output, be it a slogan, a website, a video or a sandwich board by the side of the road, you’re creating a mental image that defines the brand. This is more than mere consistency – it’s a self-definition. And when that self-definition mirrors what’s worst in your character, it’s more than sticky. It’s unshakable.
Creating unshakable imagery is often an exercise in what psychologists would call a “Just Noticeable Difference.” If we show an image that is too far from our psychological anchor point, we dismiss it. But when it is close enough to compare to our own mental benchmark, we can accurately contrast them. They become believable because they’re just different enough to be noticed. Knowing how far to push the contrast is the whole game here, and the 1984 spoof played this accurately.
I said it earlier and I’ll say it one more time – creating images like these can be used for both good and evil, the difference being entirely subjective and dependent on which side of the argument you’re on.
At very least, we should be aware of how our competitors characterize us and avoid shooting ourselves in the foot, as the 10:10 Campaign so inelegantly did.