Our debt to Dawkins

Richard Dawkins seems to be the hit of the moment in the plannersphere.

In particular Wistlethroughyourcomb has an excellent post on the Selfish Gene (Dawkins’s legendary first book) and its lessons for viral marketing.

Meanwhile I am gleefully enjoying his latest book – The God Delusion.


Basically it is a call to arms to aetheists to stand up and be counted for the moral majority we certainly are in the UK, if not sadly elsewhere.
The first half of the book essentially questions the existence of a God while the second attempts to figure out what it is that has led humanity to believe in a God. After all as an evolutionary biologist he must explain while religious behaviour has survived if it superfluous to our existence – otherwise natural selection would have favoured the irreligious and religion would have died out long ago.
I owe Dawkins a great debt. Firstly in helping me realise my agnosticism was spineless and secondly for the meme idea and the thinking that he inspired about memetics.
Many people have taking this idea far further than Dawkins and in particular I find Dr Susan Blackmore by far the most inspiring. One of the most wonderful ideas she has is that our minds are constantly rehursing our memes – and that she uses meditation as a way to silence the little buggers, if only momentarily. As a rather mediocre addition to the debate I wrote a paper a decade ago called ‘here come the meme doctors’ that argued for the marketing community to replace the word brand with the concept of memes and you can download it here.
However, you can’t separate our understanding of the way ideas (and here I am using the terms ideas and memes interchangably) are created, built upon, absorbed, remembered and passed on without acknowledging that Dawkins is the daddy.
And specifically it was his essay about religion called ‘viruses of the mind’ that created this understanding.
In using religion as the uber meme he demonstated the characterisitcs that great ideas require if they are to be successful. And thus he forged the analogy between successful ideas and viruses that is now ubiquitous in the marketing community.
All great ideas or memes are viral and behave virally, infiltrating the host, replicating and infecting others, not just the silly little films which Clients and agencies call virals.
Here are a couple of pointers that reading all of this stuff has reminded me about creating powerful ideas.
Great ideas need to serve a purpose
We tend to forget that ideas need to be useful to people, not just the products or brands they are associated with. Most controversially it maybe that they help resolve fundamental contraditions between the reality of our lives and our expectations. I have argued elsewhere that the Apple meme helps us deal with the way that the new economy is only accessible to a select few and the majority of people still have to struggle on in McJobs as oposed to Mac jobs. Apple helps resolve this by selling us a slice of new economy identity.
So it may be that an idea resolves a contradiction like this or it may be that it’s appeal is not to us so much as our memeplex – helping reinforce and extend it. A memeplex that gives as well as takes.
Great ideas work best when they are part of a supportive memeplex.
In other words memes are reinforced by other ideas that surround them. I think this is how ‘dirt is good’ is working. Alone that idea is interesting but inherently contestable, however the reality is that it operates as part of a memeplex that currently includes ‘kids spend too much time watching TV’, ‘kids are increasingly obese’, ‘childhood is too short these days’, ‘we have become over protective of our children’, ‘litigation culture is damaging our childrens’ childhoods’ and the like. It draws currency and strength from cooperative memes. Hence the popularity of cultural ideas in the planning world – a brand’s position rather than its positioning – that locate the brand in an area people already care about.
Great ideas need to have copying fidelity – in other words they are capable of being passed on accurately and without deterioration.
One of the issues Dawkins addresses in the God Delusion is the idea that the way some memes are constructed with self correcting mechanisms – so that we kind of know if there has been a mistake in replication. I rather think that this is why the aphoristic form is so powerful in communications, and why I am supporting the renaissance of the slogan. The rhythm, rhyme, alliteration or assonance of a great slogan not only help memorability but also provide a self correcting mechanism. Compare the latest Argos line ‘don’t just shop it, Argos it’ and the line it is based on – ‘Don’t just book it, Thomas Cook it’. Both are saying the same thing but the form of the latter helps you remember it, communicate it accurately and the rhyme has a self correcting mechanism that makes you realise if it has been communicated inaccurately.
If we can build ideas that serve a purpose over and above the performance of the product, ideas that play to, are imbedded in and extend a memeplex, and ideas that have copying fidelity we have all have a fighting chance.
And I reckon we will have Dawkins to thank.

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32 Replies to “Our debt to Dawkins”

  1. Having Mr. Garrison shit in his hand and throw it at him in South Park was surely Dawkins finest achievement.
    (It’s interesting the lack of fidelity in the ‘meme’ meme.)

  2. I think the point about the meme meme having a lack of fidelity or copying accuracy is well made and rather interesting. Doesn’t invalidate the observation about the necessity of copying fidelity in ideas though.

  3. To play devil’s advocate for a moment – couldn’t one argue the meme theory is possibly Dawkins least useful contribution.
    It’s not a theory that adds anything beyond what we already know, it merely phrases the problem slightly differently; and in a way that could be seen as simplistic and vague – ‘like a virus’.

  4. Oh come come Colman.
    Yes the concept is inprecise, but it is only 30 years old and the study it memetics is in its infancy.
    In truth Dawkins has let his idea go for others to work on – he is far more concerned with evolutionary biology and in unpicking the religious mess we are in. So maybe it is his least useful contribution, but only because the rest of his work is so important.
    Personally, I find the idea of the basic building block of the mind being memes as the basic bulding block of our bodies are genes, devastatingly good. More than that it think the idea that our minds serve our memes as our bodies serve our genes fascinating.
    I for one am a ghastly manifestation of my memes and a particulalry bizare memeplex – that is unfortunately too often on show in this blog.
    In fact maybe that explains why we blog – it is not us but our rampant memes desperately trying to ‘infect’ others.
    Discuss

  5. When it comes to God I can’t resist going back to Freud who said that God is a fantasy structure from which a man must be set free if he is to grow to maturity…
    Jon Ronson (Guardian) had an interesting take on Dawkins’ book: http://www.guardian.co.uk/weekend/story/0,,1937479,00.html
    [Saw you in the park on Sun with your better half and monkeys but funnily enough was too shy to come and say hi….]

  6. Sorry Beeker but what a load of old twaddle from Eagleton. Anyway I am not evangelising atheism here I am doffing my professional cap to Dawkins.

  7. Asi,I was indeed monkey wrangling on the heath this weekend – next time I will look up from the inanities and dribble.

  8. I know. I get that’s it’s more about memes. And that Dawkins is a geezer. Of course. I also don’t agree with everything Eagleton says. But I do think Dawkins’ critique of religion is bullying in parts, and capable of appealing only to converted atheists. So what’s the point? To make us feel better?
    Anyway, quite enough on religion.

  9. Come on yourself!
    Your point merely begs the question ‘what is the mind?’
    The other problem with memes is that they can explain almost anything, yet predict very little.
    I think The God Delusion is a tour de force. It shouldn’t appeal to just atheists, but anyone who takes reason over faith.

  10. ‘Anyone who takes reason over faith’ – that’s a definition of atheists isn’t it? Which is my point. Dawknis uses reason in a way that appeals to fans of reason, not fans of religion.
    It’s all very well us rationalists (I count myself as one most of the time) patting ourselves on the back when we read Dawkins on religion, but I presumed he was trying to change minds. Not congratulate those who’ve changed already/were atheists in the first place.
    Besides all of which if absolutely everything is reduced to the rational, life becomes a sorry thing. (Not the same as saying I’m a fan of religion.)
    So I’m definitely off the meme point. I’m going to say ‘come on’ to myself and zip it properly this time.

  11. we can never rationalise or truly understand religion…..Equally, we never really understand why an audience opts for one brand over another.
    In both cases it is a leap of faith. The fabric of our existence, part of our survival.
    Sometimes planners need to spend less time observing and more time experiencing.

  12. But Beeker there are lots of people in between. Who aren’t quite sure, who think there might be something ‘bigger’ out there, who haven’t thought rationally about it, who haven’t heard all the arguments against God. Who slowly let religion seep into more and more aspects of politics and religion, and who do nothing about it.
    I think they are worth making the argument to. Don’t you?
    Also, why is a rational life a ‘sorry thing’?

  13. Ok, I’ll give you The Waverers. But have you heard anyone praise it who wasn’t utterly decided before they began reading?
    The rational life thing is a pet topic that I roll around in my head a lot. I’ve got so much to say on it that I’ll post something so as not to clog up Richard’s space.
    (Personally I think your Um Bongo stance is much more of a problem.)

  14. a rational life is devoid of anything meaningful.
    Surely if we all lived rational lives, brand’s would carry very little status…

  15. Why does everyone ignore the fact that rational stuff makes you feel something? Sometimes something very profound. Seeing as we’re supposed to be talking about Dawkins, have you read ‘Unweaving the Rainbow’?

  16. Agree that brands are to an extent irrational, or at least they encourage people to make irrational decisions – to pay more for a parity product for example.
    However, it is increasingly clear that brands without substance, where the image is inflated incomparison to the delivery of the product are incredibly vulnerable.
    Innocent do make great smoothies, Apple do make great MP3 players, Dyson do make great vcuum cleaners.
    In everycase people are paying for the brand but if the product was without substance they would soon reject the whole edifice – Hoover for example.
    I have no wish to talk about religion here (this is an ad blog) but maybe persistent over promising in the face of a clear lack of product delivery or of any substance is starting to trouble humanity.

  17. I have nothing against rational thinking since it reflects my own personality, but most exercises in rational thinking conlude with a logical viewpoint or peace of mind that you can control. What happens when it can’t be controlled? Where does logical reasoning and rationalisation take us?
    Brands like religion are deeply irrational because they promise to enrich our lives..at a premium or an another ‘unreasonable trade off’.
    Or, a sacrifice which may well be worth it??
    Apple make great iPods, but technically they are no superior to other MP3 players. Innocent produce a healthy great tasing range of smoothies;no different to PJ’s or retail own brands. Dyson on the other hand, provides a tangible benefit -something we can rationalise – it does a better job.
    But like religion, there is a paradox – it’s not the brand that is the problem, but the manner in which it is enforced, delivered and rammed down peoples throats. And then to add insult, fails to deliver.
    And judging by the state of the nation, brands, like religion will have a lot to answer for…

  18. Memes are still interesting. I always find it useful to remind myself that the succesful ones are self spreading – so memes like, say, religion, have their own propogation built into them – in religion it’s proselytising – so part of the idea is the need to spread the idea.
    Which is not a bad thing to attempt to build into communication ideas.
    Although that’s not the same thing as having a ‘send to a friend’ button ;-p

  19. Isn’t it our job to make people believe that one parity product is better than another? And aren’t people are adliterate enough to know what our job is? They also like to shop so its not as if we are manipulating them in any evil way.
    And if I decide to buy an iPod because I believe that it is the coolest mp3 player in the world is that not a rational decision given that I place some value on being cool?
    And when the value of a company’s brand is calculated into the market value of the company, is that not a rational action since the company is indeed worth that amount in the the market?
    Frankly, I’ve never really the point of the reason/religion debate. We are an intelligent species that nevertheless needs to believe in something.
    Karl Popper posited (I love this blog because I get to use words like posited) that scientists, the arch rationalists that they are, tend to become irrationally attached to theories even when refutations start piling up in their pigeon-holes.
    The communists built a whole world without God but found that it was a bit easier to control if they made Stalin a God substitute.
    People want to believe that they are leading special and unique lives. Some brands help them do that. Those brands are part faith and part science.

  20. What role does community play, then? One of the most appealing aspects of religion is the access to community that it provides.
    Brands also provide a sense of community – the folks with apple logos plastered on the backs of their cars as asserting their membership as much as those with the little Jesus fish on the bumper.
    Meditation on the nature of brands and the often esoteric analysis of thought and ideas and culture that the community around this blog and others like it exchange is also not unlike the way religious scholars or adherents discuss their theology.
    I stay interested in advertising because of that, the way passion, community, humanity and seeking creep in and change things.

  21. where is the rationality in being cool?
    A rationalist, could simply deduct being attached to a brand for personal esteem is decidedly uncool.
    Consumers buy brands because they have hope, not faith. That’s why we spend so much time reassuring them post purchase.

  22. I suspect Dawkins would think ‘cool’ is not rational but adaptive; helping you succeed in attracting more/better sexual partners?
    I spent several fruitless years researching memes, there are lots of academic books and papers on the subject. As Paul C says there is lots of explanation, very little prediction. Mny have said it is a perspective rather than an actually theory.
    You could live with that if was a ‘subtle-iser’ like semiotics, deconstruction or phenomenology. But many ‘insights’ from the world of memetics tend towards the unsubtle; eg ‘Mormonism is growing fast as a religion because it tells its followers to have as many offspring as possible’. ‘The Y2K bug succeeded because it was urgent’. I think the acid test might be that having known about it for many years, written about it, thought about it, I have never found it any actual use, as least in what we do.
    Ultimately it derives from a mechanistic view of nature. One in which complex patterns have simple causes, objectives or directions. I much prefer the ’emergent/adjacent possible/systemic/ecological’ view of evolution, let alone human culture.
    If I recall correctly MEME was a throwaway comment by Dawkins originally; a suggestion that style of pottery, dance steps and hair styles might conform to similar patterns of selection and propagation to genes.
    As for his book on religion… I am also looking forward to Deepak Chopra’s next pronouncments on quantum physics ;J

  23. It sounds like memes suffer from the same handicap as semiotics – a neat way of explaining what has already happened but useless for creating anything new.
    But I don’t know, I’m a waverer and I’ve never read Dawkins just in case there is a God and I make him angry.

  24. That was only because of potential legal/copyright issues around using the original and in many ways superior “Saint Elsewhere” (“a hospital for sick brands”). Other than that we were mostly a bunch of pagan idolaters with a thriving cult of “goats”.
    nb it’s another thread but I think semiotics is helpful though. Certainly injected the requisite amount of wierdness into Pepperami and Tango briefs…? Maybe it is that semioticians and similarly inclined planners are helpful I suppose.

  25. I did a little on semiotics around the judith williamson book.
    Tango was ruled by a semoitic rod of iron in the good old days – thanks to David O’Hanlon.
    I am less obsessive about it, but I still think it is a fantastic discipline for understanding how ads create meaning and in ensuring that you police the body language of your advertising.

  26. If I remember right, there was an alternative to St Elsewhere: St Jude’s – patron saint of lost causes. I liked that but for some reason people thought it might put clients off.
    I can see how semiotics can help decode what is happening within an existing campaign and so provide pointers on how to take it forward.
    In saying all that, Mary Douglas’s Thought Styles has a chapter called All Shopping is Protest which argues that people make shopping decisions based upon rejecting everything that they wouldn’t be seen dead in. To me that’s punk rock semiotics: the creative process of destruction.

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