Effective Altruism...or wishful thinking?

Mark Zuckerberg and his wife last week penned an open letter to their newborn daughter in which they pledged to donate 99% of their Facebook shares to charity throughout their lifetime.  That amounts to (as of now) a staggering commitment of $45 billion.

As discussed in the New York Times, Some are hailing this donation as signature example of what is known as “effective altruism.”  Advocates of this approach to giving, including economist Peter Singer from Princeton University and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs like Elon Musk, contend that if we simply set aside our emotions and thought more scientifically, that we change the way we give. Logically, it appears to make no sense to give to the Make-a-Wish Foundation or volunteer for a small local food pantry when those same resources could help countless more people in underdeveloped regions of the world.

Some even contend that rather than working for non-profits, intelligent people with big hearts should instead secure lucrative jobs that will enable them to give more money to impactful causes.

Although it is a valid philosophical argument, and one rooted in good intentions, it also is one that is riddled with fallacies:

  • Effective altruism rests on an assumption that the primary goal of givers is to change the world for as many people as possible.  This is a dubious assumption.  I suspect a lot of people give as a way of saying thank you to an organization that has done meaningful work or as a way to honor a close friend or relative.  Think of the parent of a child with cancer who donates to Make-a-Wish or the adult child who donates to the American Heart Association in memory of a parent who died of heart disease.
  • Many (if not most) charitable organizations, especially at a local level, rely on volunteer time and money for their existence.  Let’s say all of that time and money completely dried up.  And let’s say, as a result, that 50% of all charitable organizations closed their doors, which seems like a conservative estimate. What would be the unintended consequences for society?
  •  How far do you take this theory? One way that we give, if we want to interpret that term broadly, is by giving birthday gifts to our children.  Instead of buying those gifts (which benefit only one person) would the supporters of effective altruism argue that we should instead spend that money more “logically” so that it can impact more people? 
  • As pointed out in the NY Times article, people tend to give repeatedly when they see the impact of their donations.  By giving more “logically” do you surrender the chance to see that impact and reduce your likelihood of donating in the future?
  • It is sort of an ancillary point, but in the Zuckerbergs’ letter, they use words like “hope,” “moral responsibility,” and “suffering” and conclude with their desire to make the world a better place for their daughter so that she can live “a life filled with the same love, hope and joy that you have given us.”  Do these sound like people who have set their emotions aside?

A feather and bowling ball fall at the same rate when dropped inside a vacuum. Effective altruism is the feather in the vacuum.  It is a thought-provoking idea, but it also is divorced from the real world, where our minds are inevitably buffeted by multiple forces, and where our emotions and our decisions are always closely linked. What nature has joined together no economist can put asunder. 

Although there is surely room for forms of effective altruism in charitable giving, it doesn’t render all other forms of giving inefficient or senseless. The world where Spockish automatons make decisions in logical vacuums is not the world in which we reside, nor one in which we ever can reside.

"My Sistine Chapel"

Thanks to Joe Plummer for sharing this very incisive blog post about how metaphors spark innovation and sell ideas. 

There probably are no brand new ideas for any of you who are into brain science and metaphor, but it does include many thought-provoking examples, along with teasers from a new book on metaphor that I had been unfamiliar with.

The coolest story for me was that of a man named Bruce Reynolds, who pulled off the heist of $60 million in cash from a train in 1963 without using a gun.  He described his act as “my Sistine Chapel.”  Suddenly, with that metaphor, we start to think of Reynolds not as a stone-cold criminal but as an artist – a brilliant, eccentric rapscallion rather than a thug. As the post points out, lots of ideas and perceptions get implanted in our heads in this way.


Speaking through another's eyes

Matthew Feinberg (U. of Toronto) and Robb Willer (Stanford) have published an article in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin that tackles the knotty question of how to change someone’s mind.  Although the topic of their paper is politics, it requires only a small leap to see how the science applies to other forms of persuasion.

The point is rather simple.  People can be persuaded if you frame an argument to them in a way that resonates with their deepest values.  For example, the argument “Same-sex couples are proud and patriotic Americans who contribute to the American economy and society” significantly increases support for same-sex marriage among conservatives, compared to a message centered on equality.  Both messages resonate equally well with liberals.

Similarly, an argument for increased military spending on the grounds that the military helps disadvantaged youth “achieve equal standing [by providing] a reliable salary and a future apart from the challenges of poverty and inequality” is a persuasive argument for liberals, who otherwise might oppose such spending.

This echoes the strategy Olson Zaltman recommended to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, in the landmark study we conducted for them about health disparities in the U.S.  The rub is that making this kind of argument is hard, because it requires you to persuade people by using logic that you may not find intuitive yourself.  It is almost akin to speaking another language.

The Feinberg-Willer article is summarized in the New York Times.


The intersection between gender and  toys is in the news, possibly spurred by Mattel’s new ad for Barbie, “Imagine the Possibilities.”  

There has been a perception that Barbie is behind the times and plays into gender stereotypes.  Her popularity has dipped in recent years, too – Elsa has eclipsed Barbie in terms of sales. This new spot (which is on Mattel’s Barbie YouTube channel) tells a story of empowerment and, in the words of  this journalist, “is getting the stamp of approval from Barbie haters.”

This less stereotypical Barbie fits with toy industry trends. Retailers and manufacturers don’t label toys like they used to. Target and Amazon no longer have separate “boy” and “girl” toy categories. From a marketing standpoint it certainly makes sense, at least in the US, where gender identity is much less rigid than in the past.

How to make friends and influence people

It turns out that self-righteousness martyrdom is not a quality we look for in our brands.

Airbnb is apologizing for a series of billboards it put up in San Francisco, designed to fight a ballot initiative that would limit short-term rentals. The billboards are intended to be witty, but instead many people find them whiny, churlish and condescending.

The ad pictured above prompted a succulent smackdown from one local supporter of public libraries.

Airbnb is a great concept and its marketing has been extremely savvy.  But this campaign was surprisingly tone-deaf.

What brands can learn from Vin and Kim

The Wall Street Journal has some social media advice for Corporate America.  The advice: learn from celebrities.

Celebrities who use social media effectively follow five key strategies:

1—Every platform is different. Instagram and Twitter, for instance, are very different platforms that are suited for different kinds of communication. Rihanna’s photos on Instagram are much more glamorous than her videos on Snapchat, which tend to be more grainy and gritty.

2—Don’t disappear. High-profile celebrities post on Instagram three times more often than the average brand.

3—Keep tabs on your followers. Taylor Swift is well known for replying directly to followers, which has built considerable goodwill.

4—Don’t be overly promotional. Vin Diesel, who has 95 million likes, uses Facebook to talk about various aspects of his personal life. Oreo is one brand that has stood out in social media with its whimsical takes on current events.

5—Craft a narrative. Beyonce released a surprise album on Facebook in 2013. Tesla used social media to push back against news reports that its cars were unsafe.

With some notable exceptions, brands struggle to produce engaging social media content. Great fodder for inspiration here.

Redefining Under Armour

A common client problem with which we are challenged is how to make a brand relevant to a new segment of consumers.

Under Armour, traditionally known as a male sportswear brand, has attempted to reach out to female consumers – and steal share from struggling competitor Lululemon -- with its “I Will What I Want” campaign, which recently captured the Grand Prix at the 2015 Jay Chiat Awards for Strategic Excellence.

You can see examples of the creative, featuring Giselle Bundchen and Misty Copeland. The messages are very powerful – consistent with Under Armor’s brand image, but specifically geared toward women. The digital aspect of the campaign was clever, as viewers could watch the ads “live” online and see all the related social media comments occurring in real time, so each time you watched the ad, you had a new experience.

I had a great title in mind, but I forgot

My memory is terrible. I have forgotten my suitcase in the trunk of a cab. I have left glasses in the seat pocket of an airplane. I have forgotten the names of my children when discussing them with a friend.  I have spoken with our new neighbors probably a dozen times over the three months since we moved in and I still can’t remember if they are Jeff and Lisa,  Jennifer and Larry, or Paul and Pauline

My wife proposes this is because I am an inattentive dunderhead, which is probably true.  However, this commentary that Olson Zaltman's Nick Kimminau discovered suggests that perhaps my brain is just highly evolved.

The author – Tania Lombrozo, psych professor at Cal-Berkeley – describes the value of forgetting.

For one thing, people tend to remember events that cast them in a positive light – so it’s probably emotionally healthy to forget certain things.  Moreover, we would go nuts if we remembered too much.

Also, remembering can get in the way of real learning.  As she writes, you probably don’t remember the first time you learned about penguins, but you certainly know that penguins are birds, and you can access that information without sifting through the baggage of who taught you that fact, where you were when you learned it, etc.

There are market research implications here – one must be careful about asking people to accurate remember the minutiae of their lives.  How many times have you purchased laundry detergent in the last year?  That’s a common kind of market research question.  I feel somewhat blessed that I don’t know the answer.

Carrot gold

The Harvard Business Review features an instructive article from the CEO of Bolthouse Farms – the company (now part of Campbell’s) that has successfully re-positioned its brand of baby carrots.

The article discusses how packaging, communications, pricing, and distribution have combined to reverse the trend of falling carrot sales at the company. A lot of their efforts are based on the marketing techniques of big snack and soda brands. 

Bolthouse’s “Eat’ Em Like Junk Food” campaign has garnered an outsized amount of media attention. Bolthouse also has created a very successful digital campaign with Instagram as a centerpiece.

Good insights about how to make a “boring” commodity product relevant and even, dare we say, kind of cool.

On liking and disliking

This TED talk goes back a couple of years, but I heard it for the first time on NPR this weekend and was fascinated.

The speaker is Yale professor of psychology Paul Bloom. His talk is entitled “The Origins of Pleasure.”  

Our like or dislike of many different things hinges critically on our beliefs about the origins of those things.  

• The same piece of meat tastes differently depending on whether we believe it is beef or rat.

• An electric shock is more painful when we think it is being administered with malicious intent.

• Children think a carrot tastes better if we can persuade them it came from McDonald’s.

• If you think you are drinking expensive wine, it tastes better than if you think it is cheap wine.

Bloom presents a litany of intriguing stories that relate to unconscious thinking and framing.


Making strides

The latest Deep Dives focuses on the promises and shortcomings of neuromarketing.  Brain scanning is still not fully reliable. This is true not only in marketing – it is simply a reflection of where the technology is right now. (The image above, from an infamous 2009 study, shows the “brain activity” that an fMRI machine detected in a dead fish.)

This interview with Russ Poldrack, director of Stanford’s new Center for Reproducible Neuroscience, illustrates how his team is seeking to change that.

Voices in our head

Olson Zaltman's Nick Kimminau shares an article from The Guardian that describes the phenomenon of “inner speech.” 

We are talking to ourselves (in our heads) all the time. As it happens, inner speech activates some of the same mechanisms in the brain as external speech.  This blog post dives into more detail about inner speech, its various manifestations, and its possible evolutionary role.

According to one piece of research, when we see an ad we subconsciously mouth the name of the brand we are hearing about and the message that is being delivered.  So if we watch an ad while eating, it affects the ability of our mouth and brain to go through these motions, and thus the message of the ad doesn’t get through.  For example, the research suggests movie goers are less receptive to ads when they are eating popcorn.

The Foodie Generation

A thought-provoking Q&A with author Eve Turow appears in The Atlantic.  The topic is Millennials’ obsession with food.

Turow suggests that, thanks in large part to technology, food is playing a bigger role in the lives of Millennials than it did for any other generation.  Millennials like to try new foods, make new foods, and just as importantly let everyone know that they are trying and making new foods.

She believes there are significant societal and marketing ramifications associated with this trend. Consumers are beginning to have higher expectations for restaurant chains and food manufacturers (note Chipotle’s branding, which focuses on buying all-organic produce).

What do you think? Will Instagram and Facebook change the way America eats in the future?

In the Navy...

A social media campaign from the U.S. Navy called Project Architeuthis has won major social media awards this year, including the WARC Social Strategy Award and Shorty Awards for Best Multi-Platform Campaign and Best Use of Gamification.

This is a great example of microtargeting. The Navy was trying to recruit skilled cryptology candidates; however, according to the Navy, less than .0004% of the population is cut out for this work. Plus, the Navy had no media budget to try to find them.

So they created this story – basically a puzzle – that lasted for three weeks, with a new clue being revealed every day. Players created forums and used Facebook and Twitter to enlist collaborators who could help them solve the challenges. The Navy promoted the game on its website, and also on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. And it helped the Navy achieve its very difficult recruiting goal.

There is something about this that bugs me a little. You can put whatever fun face on it that you want, but the Navy is a branch of the military, and as such it exists to kill people and break things – not to play games.  I am not sure how I feel about attracting recruits in this way.

Nonetheless, however you feel about the ethical ramifications, it was a brilliant campaign and a model of how social media can deliver a bottom-line impact.


From OZ's Jessica Ames, a summary of research conducted in Japan which suggests that neurotic people tend to see faces in things.

It is evolutionary. People who are tense and anxious probably are more aggressively searching the landscape for perceived threats. Therefore, they tend to see faces (and threats) in harmless scenarios.

This has some marketing implications, right?  Are there package designs that could be perceived as faces, which in turn could cause some consumers to unconsciously reject those products out of fear?  Could there be cues in advertising that unconsciously freak people out because a random inanimate object resembles a face?

If you are into this sort of thing, follow @omghiiii on Twitter.  Some of the images posted there are just creepy.

The Starbucks of tea?

Fast Company explains how DAVIDsTEA is making tea cool.

The chain already has more than 150 stores in the US and Canada, but it went public in June and is planning a significant expansion.

The article talks a lot about how they select their unique collection of teas, but it also describes how they have built a unique brand.  As the co-founder, David Segal, says, “We didn’t want people to feel like they had to whisper in our stores.”  Unlike the stereotypical mom & pop tea shop, DAVIDsTEA stores are stylish, bright, and colorful, with a clean-looking teal and white motif.

DAVIDsTEA doesn’t advertise, opting instead to get the word out via PR and local community events like tastings, farmers’ markets, and street fairs. They also are very engaged in social media, responding directly and personally to as many customer conversations as possible.  

The Starbucks of tea?  Maybe someday.


The orchid and the dandelion

What are metaphor designers and how do they see the world?

This man shares his perspective on how to create metaphors that change people’s perceptions of the world. He talks about metaphors he has created that have worked really well (The idea of a key ring to conceptualize the activities of a municipal department of health) along with other metaphors that have not worked well.

One such “failed metaphor” that seemed promising but ultimately flopped is the that some kids are like orchids, which can thrive only in a narrow set of situations, while others are like dandelions, which can succeed in almost any kind of environment.  As it turned out, parents like orchids better than dandelions, so the whole metaphor ended up backfiring.

It is a compelling take on how language can subtly and unconsciously change people’s thinking. 

Underwear and the female body in 2015

Thanks to OZ's Vanessa Herman for sharing this article about the PR struggles of Victoria’s Secret, and the corresponding rise of a competitor brand called Aerie (a spinoff of American Eagle).

Vanessa said this discussion reminds her of the messages imparted by Dove’s “Campaign for Real Beauty.”  While Victoria’s Secret requires that its models conform to an almost impossible physical ideal, Aerie’s advertising features models of various shapes and sizes, and they have made it known that they no longer airbrush the images of their models in ads.

As a company spokesperson puts it, "We left beauty marks; we left tattoos — what you see is really what you get with our campaign.” Aerie’s sales leaped 9% last year and they reportedly enjoyed a strong first quarter in 2015 as well.

Aerie seems to have tapped into to a cultural undercurrent.  This New York Times article suggests that “granny panties” are now cool – not just with grannies, but also with Milllennials.

What do you think is happening in American culture today that is driving these trends?