In praise of average

As we toil in the creative industries, we are fixated on the exceptional. While the pursuit of the exceptional can’t be argued with, I’d like to take a break for a moment and celebrate “average.” 

Why? Well, without “ordinary” we could not have “exceptional” at all. 

This sounds obvious, but the existence of brilliance depends on a comparative dullness. And the demand for brilliance continues undimmed as businesses and brands strive to excite audiences in our hyper-connected world. 

Without norms we wouldn’t be able to function properly, either individually or collectively. Imagine driving a car today where the position of the accelerator and brake were reversed? A feature of some early motors, this would now be a terrifying prospect. 

Conversely, too much that is not normal would also be an impediment. If everything in our lives was extraordinary, where we lived like a Kardashian continuously bathed in Gucci and caviar, it would prevent us from having a meaningful life at all. 

I regularly pass by Dattner Architects’ salt shed on the west side of Manhattan. I know it’s a salt shed because I looked it up. And that’s because it's exceptional. And because I did this, I know the name of the architect, the client and that the building’s shape is based on the structure of a salt crystal. 

This is an example of wit working – it invites further engagement. 

But how does wit work? There is one leading psychological theory. It’s called “Incongruity Theory” and is the basis for most jokes. 

Dorothy Parker demonstrates the theory perfectly. Consider one of her most famous remarks: “After one more drink I’d be under the host.” The cliché of “being under the table” takes an unexpected twist when she replaces “table” with “host.” And it’s this derailment of expectation that demonstrates incongruity theory. In graphic design you can see it in logos like those of FedEx and Amazon, or in Jonathan Mak’s famous twist on the Apple logo. 

Wit is also at the core of many brands that establish and sustain a powerful counter-appeal within their category. 

For every McDonald's there’s a Shake Shack, for every British Airways there’s a Virgin, for every spin class there’s a Soul Cycle. Sometimes these counterpoint brands set out to disrupt an entire category. The essential incongruity of Uber and Airbnb in the taxi and hospitality categories are obvious.   

Why is this stance often so effective? 

Neuroscience shows that the mental derailments caused by incongruities cause a spike of dopamine in the amygdala. This triggers our pleasure receptors. It's a bit like a dog catching a Frisbee. Having made the catch, the dog runs back to its owner and gets a treat. Our brains, too, enjoy the exercise of “getting” a joke, and consequently we feel good. This is the justification for wit, and why it’s the effective way to simultaneously standout and emotionally connect with people. 

But that is only half the story. The global media industry will be worth a massive $2.1 trillion dollars by 2019. Now, much of that is devoted to understanding who should receive our lovingly crafted work, where and when. It’s not enough just to be artfully incongruous. Extreme precision is required for delivery, because without this huge exercise in contextualization, it would be like throwing a Frisbee in an empty park hoping there was a dog somewhere to catch it. 

Given the efficiencies of communicating with wit – often the fastest way to reach and engage with your audience – why isn't it embraced by more businesses and brands? Well, because it's an active choice. Not only this, it’s a brave one. Get it right, and as a marketer your career is enhanced, or even made. Get it wrong, and it could put a serious dent in your prospects. 

It’s the element of risk that explains why it is squished out of most corporations. And it’s precisely this avoidance of risk that creates the “normal” that allows others to choose the wittier path with all its benefits. It’s no accident that the two most valuable brands in the world – Google and Apple – have wit at their core. 

So to return to my opening theme; let’s hear it for vanilla. Because without it, we wouldn’t be able to not choose it in favor of the more stimulating. In short, we simply would not have the conditions necessary for productive rebellion, challenge and provocation. The very soul of creativity.

This post was originally posted on MediaPost, 5 August 2016.