Prejudice has acquired somewhat of a bad reputation. Sexism, racism, and all manner of other anti-social and downright unpleasant -isms have come to be lumped until its title. Prejudice makes us feel uncomfortable. It’s hostile in its judgements. It’s a sign of arrogance and ignorance.
Remembering however, that the origins of the word are from the Latin prae meaning prior and judicium meaning judgement, I believe it’s time to resuscitate and reclaim prejudice. As a virtue. Prejudice isn’t hostility, but simply about making early judgments.
The wonderful thing about prejudice is that speeds things up. It get us to potential scenarios and solutions swiftly. Writing back in 1979 in the libertarian journal Free Life, Bernard Adamczewski, wrote about the virtue of prejudice:
“For any collection of prejudices relieves their owner of the boring task of having to reconcile that potpourri of opinions which inevitably accumulates in the attics of the mind in the course of time.”
I can’t tell whether Adamczewski has his tongue firmly placed in his cheek or not. Whatever the case, he has a point. If we were to sift, analyze, and weigh every single data point available to us, human decision-making would move at the pace of glaciers.
When one thinks about it, it’s evident that prejudice – prior judgement – is crucial to consumer decision-making. Were a shopper say, to do a cost-benefit analysis of every breakfast cereal SKU in the average US supermarket, for example, the chances are they would take days not seconds to make their purchases. Branding seen from this perspective, equips our minds and memories with prejudices – that we then test out post-purchase.
The other fabulous thing about prejudice is that it’s compact. It distills and reduces possibilities. Which is why for Adamczewski it travels so well – and has a shelf life:
“Prejudices are after all to ideas what convenience foods are to the chore of cooking. Like convenience foods they come hygienically packaged in handy sizes and in a variety of eye-catching wrapper colours. Once encapsulated in a good coating of prejudice any impression or concept can be conveniently stored for practically unlimited periods without any danger of suddenly turning sour or developing some horrible fungus. Some as yet not fully understood – even by the most enterprising researchers – system of psychic palletisation allows for the greatest utility of storage and handling. These benefits that prejudice adds to ideas in their raw, unprocessed state, also contribute significantly to their marketability. In fact it can be said that nowadays ideas are virtually unsaleable without this vital ingredient.”
If they’re still alive at the end of it, no-one recalls but a fraction of an exhaustive one hundred page Powerpoint presentation. But a well-formed prejudice – like say, ‘the wisdom of crowds’ – can stay in the mind. Better yet, it can be passed on to others. The dust-jackets of non-fiction books are a great source of prejudices.
Science vs prejudice?
Is this instinct of prejudice to compress, explain and simplify the opposite of science’s detachment and objectivity? It’s worth asking since a good many those involved in the creation of brands believe that what they do approximates in large part to science.
The general assumption is that science is characterised by deductive reasoning, working step by step from empirical data, observations and facts to building theories, models and laws. And for a great many, this is a seductive scenario. It’s ordered, reassuringly grown up, rational, and logical. It promises predicability and control. As Charles Eisenstein comments in The Ascent of Humanity: “We think that the Scientific Method ensures objectivity. Ours is more than a mere religion, we think, because unlike all before it, it rests on verifiable, objective truth. Science is not just another alternative; it encompasses and supersedes all other approaches to knowledge.”
Except that this is not necessarily how scientists work.
The famed English astronomer Sir Fred Hoyle for example, noted that:
“Writers on scientific method usually tell us that scientific discoveries are made ‘inferentially,’ that is to say, from putting together many facts. But this is far from being correct. The facts by themselves are never sufficient to lead unequivocally to the really profound discoveries. Facts are always analyzed in terms of the prejudices of the investigator.”
Science needs prejudice if it’s not wander blindly through the morass of data. Often competing or incomplete data. Without prejudice, scientists would have nowhere to begin, no way of focusing their investigations. Without that point of view there is no way of structuring the data, no way of prioritizing inquiries, no way of filling in the gaps that data cannot fill.
So much for the ‘scientific approach’ of science.
Planning and prejudice
I have always been a fan of the thinking and contribution of Stephen King, the father of account planning. And he has much to teach us on the subject of prejudice. King’s writings are now over twenty years old. From a time when nobody tweeted. Or changed their status profiles. When haptic interfaces weren’t even a dream. When there was no Like button, and TV was Very Much Alive. And yet there isn’t a planner amongst us who wouldn’t benefit from – and be emboldened by – even the most cursory readings of his work.
In his paper Advertising: Art and Science (1975) King cautions against what he called the old school of science – that had been championed by Francis Bacon – that held one had to work in linear fashion from observations to data to laws, reminding us that observations are rarely reliable or complete.
In contrast to this approach, he advocates the work of Karl Popper – one of the greatest philosophers of science – for whom science was an adventure that required vision, imagination and creativity.
Crucially for our purposes, King notes Popper’s argument that science doesn’t start with observations but with what he called a trial solution. Or as King put it: “you can’t make any sense of the facts until you’ve had an idea.”
In other words until you’ve made some kind of prior judgement. Until you’ve exercised some form of prejudice.
King goes on to identify three important implications for account planning that many of us would do well to remember – and many more to discover for the first time. The first relates to the origins of ideas:
“I think, first of all, it makes it clear that ideas simply cannot come from facts. You can’t bludgeon creative people into ideas by giving them ever-tighter and more logical briefs. And if creative people, at times, seem irresponsible an anarchic, maybe that’s because they’re more scientific than you are.”
Facts untransformed by imagination and judgement do nothing. Research cannot give us the answers. We need to live with the fact that data will always incomplete. And with the fact that data – whatever form it takes – will never be impartial. Our currency is ideas. Planners work with research but in advertising. And we should beware of people who can only talk about ‘insights.’
King’s second implication relates to the necessity of getting to solutions early:
“You have to start with the solution – you have to start with the idea, and then be bold and meticulous in trying it out, especially in the market place. I think we shouldn’t try to deceive ourselves into thinking that so-called pre-testing and may of these intermediate measures can actually help us very much. The important thing is to be experimental and to hope to learn from our attempts to disprove.”
We must start at the end, start with solutions. Begin everything with a prior judgement and get to ideas that we can explore and try out as fast as possible. Finally, we should never kid yourself that pre-testing methodologies are going to be very helpful. Wherever possible we should seek to test our prejudices in the real world.
King’s final observation – and caution – is in many ways the most significant. And easily overlooked:
“And the third point, of course, is that the whole process of advertising is not a safe, cautious, step-by-step build-up, because that would inevitably lead to me-too advertising for me-too brands…”
Our industry is full of those who would promise that they can offer a smoother, more logical, and predictable path. And who seek to bend the ‘process’ to that view. But the inescapable fact – as the father of account planning himself recognized and was at pains to point out – is that it will always be a messy, bumpy ride.
So hurrah for prejudice.
Prejudice of course in dumb hands is the norm in poor quality dictatorships.
And I can’t help but feel that at the end of the day prejudice is the privilege of the insightful, the knowledgeable, and the genuinely talented… not a right.
Bernard Adamczewski, ‘In Praise of Prejudice’, in Free Life, The Journal of the Libertarian Alliance Vol. 1 : No.1 Winter 1979
Charles Eisenstein, The Ascent of Humanity, 2007
Sir Fred Hoyle, Highlights in Astronomy, 1975
Stephen King, Advertising: Art and Science, 1975