The thoughts behind this post have been inspired by reading the comments and reactions to Damien Mulley‘s blog post about the Pat the Baker Bebo campaign. Most of the intial reaction to Damien’s post seems to all be based on a logical flaw, (and one that I notice frequently in arguments), that when a certain “means to an end” becomes quite successful or popular, we tend to glorify or pursue the means as if it were the end. We forget that it’s value lies in what it delivers and not what it is.
In economics, we used the term derived demand to explain this concept of means and ends. The demand I have for a brick is a derived demand. I don’t want a brick; I don’t get satisfaction or happiness from having it. But I do want a wall, or a house, or a new BBQ in my back garden. These are things I value; they provide me with satisfaction (economic utility). With the rare exception of Fr. Jack, I don’t think anyone would want a brick just to have, and would only go out and by one (or many) if they had some building to do.
Free Market Capitalism
I read a brilliant blog post in a similar vein to this by Alonzo Fyfe over at Atheist Ethicist, but can’t for the life of me find it to link to. He argued that many Republicans in America make a similar logical flaw in their adoration of “The Free Market“. Capitalism has created more wealth and lifted more people from poverty than any other economic system in human history. However, Mr. Fyfe is quick to remind us that we should be supporters of the free market because of the value it creates and not because of the system itself. Although it is the best system we have come up with it so far, the value it produces, it’s “ends” are far from perfect.
Without getting too deep into this topic here, in many regards I would see free market capitalism as almost perfect. It is immensely efficient and is flawed, in my opinion, only because humans are not always rational, we are an emotional animal. The caveat here is that I’m praising the means as a beautiful system, and not the ends that it produces. In fact, it is so effective at encouraging survial of the fittest, innovation and wealth creation through economic incentive, that it will almost certainly always create a huge wealth gap between the rich and the poor. When we idolise the means, raise “the free market” on a pedestal, and treat is as something of worth rather than the tool it is….. well I guess one look at any of today’s newspaper headlines will show you the result of that loss of perspective.
Evolution by Natural Selection
Although evolution doesn’t fit this template 100%, I feel it’s still worth a mention in this context. That humans are “the most evolved” animal is a statement that I often hear, and one which is borne out of misunderstanding. We, like all life that exists today, are the best adapted to our current environments. We come from descendants who were each the best adapted to their environments at the time. We are not something that evolution tried to make, evolution doesn’t have forethought. For the most part, we have been fine tuned by evolution and are better off as a result. But there are many ways in which natural selection works against us, fine tuning viruses that infect us, other humans that can take advantage of us, or animals that can kill us. Evolution by natural selection and the free market are wonderful and elegant systems, but neither are working entirely “for” us. Richard Dawkins explains this to us wonderfully in The Extended Phenotype, and we must always remember to be aware that our love of them should be a derived demand. Just as all things natural are not always the best for us (and so we get vaccines, use contraceptives etc.) , so too the free market must be regulated to ensure it’s in the best interest of all people (e.g. regulating the banks!)
And so, after a bit of a meander, we return to the original point. To paraphrase the question I took from Damien’s post “What is the NPV/ROI of the Bebo campaign to Pat the Baker?” The NPV, the profit, the extra customer, the revenue, the extra loafs of bread sold. These are all the ends in this equation. And Damien is right to point out that this is the value, this is the deliverable any company should be seeking. But the responses are all classic examples of “means worship“:
Philip MaCartney from Bebo wrote:
200 poems written about Pat The Baker in two weeks. That is brilliant engagement in any ones book. I have quoted these figures to a number of marketing professionals and all have been impressed so I fail to see how these figures should be considered a failure?
If the brand thinks it is a success and the Bebo audience obviously love it, how can it be a failure??
Another commenter said
Having all those people singing your theme tune [……], writing poems, wearing the tee-shitrs [….] is bound to be worth a lot in subliminal or secondary advertising too.
All in all, while the success of the campaign is still being debated, I felt that some of the responses, especially from the Bebo representative, are good examples of means worshiping, and I think it’s something that all of us, especially people who work in marketing (like me!) , need to be aware of. A brick can be as cool, or as shiny or as engaging as you want, but if it can’t be used to build a wall it’s not worth a damn to me. As I commented myself in response to Mr. MaCartney: Poems don’t put bread on the table!
So next time I hear a civil servant explain the purpose of a terrible process as “because that’s the way it’s done”, or when the success of a product is measured/presented only in customer engagement, all I’m going to hear is….
“I love my brick!”