Dumbing Down / Smartening Up

Wow, so that breathe-y/breath-y thing was pretty open-and-shut, huh? Sorry about that.


Here's a better question: Is the average person smart or stupid?

Now, I know the glib answer is to just say, "Well, he's *average*, Stupid." But play along, please -- I'm asking your opinion here.

In advertising (as in most professions, I suspect) there's a discussion that comes up every so often regarding the intelligence level of Joe Normal.

"Now, come on, let's all remember who we're dealing with, everybody. This is the general public we're talking about. We need to make this message as basic as possible."

I disagree. Maybe I'm just näive, and I guess maybe I've wasted a few dollars of my clients' money over the years, but I can't help it -- I just don't think people are stupid. I think people are smart. I think people like to learn new things. And I think it's better to err on the side of generosity... give folks the benefit of the doubt.

s'ti namuh erutan
ot yrt ot erugif
sgniht tuo.

That's one of my favorite t-shirts.

I love getting challenged a little bit. I love little puzzles that reward further investigation by clicking together to reveal something startling and ingenious. Those are my favorite. And -- come on, now -- I'm know I'm not that weird.

Besides, if you see an ad -- let's just keep this to ads for now, since that's all I know well -- that you don't quite understand, how do you feel?


Do you throw down the paper in disgust?

Do you write letters to the company and boycott their products?

I don't. I just figure I must have missed something, or been in too much of a hurry to decode that particular message that day, and I go about my business. There is, in my case at least, no negative reaction whatsoever. At worst it just sails over my head.

Now consider what happens when something you see -- an ad again, for the sake of comparison -- is too dumb. When they've cut up what they're trying to say into tiny little bite-sized pieces for you. Do you appreciate their consideration for your stupidity?

'Course not.

In my opinion, tailoring what you're saying to "Joe Six-Pack" isn't about effective communication at all. I think it's about a shallow sense of superiority. I think it's about your contempt for the audience. And I think it reflects a whole worldview -- seeing the faces outside your office window, your car window, your house window, through this presumptuous and unflattering lens -- that makes for a nasty, snotty, sad way to go through life.

Seriously, if you work in a place where people assume the worst about everyone else's intelligence -- particularly if this assumption applies to the people your business serves -- please be mindful of the damage it can do.

This thinking benefits no one. It insults -- or worse, confirms the insecurities of -- decent, reasonable human beings. It solidifies a false sense of separateness between "us" and "them." It pollutes the world with asinine nonsense. It's just no good, in my opinion.

People aren't stupid. In fact, they're often a good deal smarter than the ones patronizing them. Remember that.

And if you're an advertiser who has spent millions trying to drill a message into people's heads with no success, and now are left standing in your conference room snarling that "they just don't get it," take a step back. Maybe they don't get it because they're not trying to get it. Maybe it's not them at all. Maybe it's you, and your message, which is so stupid that they simply aren't interested.


I'm getting preachy now. And I know I'm taking the easy side in this argument -- the up-with-people, celebrate-the-common-man high ground. And I know there are plenty of True Stupid Idiot news stories in your inbox you could easily forward to me. And I know it wasn't fair of me to ask your opinion only to then hammer you with my own.

I point this out by way of apology, because I figure you already kind of noticed it. I didn't notice it, because I was too wrapped up in telling you what I think, but you did. You noticed this, or are at least noticing it now, because you weren't just processing my words -- you were thinking about why I was saying them. And what I might say next. And what you might have for dinner tonight. You were thinking about all these things, and more, simultaneously. Easily.

Because you're smart.

At least, *I* think you are.

I do. I truly believe that. And I'm telling everyone who will listen.


Anonymous said...

I think your advertising people are wrong by using the average. By average, you think mean or median, whereas the biggest audience will be your mode. Which is an average. Or a hybrid of mean and mode... Anyways I spent about 5 minutes decoding human nature. Good post! -Tom

penelope said...

I think people are smart too. I hate the whole "value, quality" thing that everyone says thinking it means something to the "dumb folk". People are smart.

Anonymous said...

when I read this I thought of you and your adverising, and how you have been trying to see how smart people really are! this is from Lady Hawk
JdJ Dec 16, 06: Marketing 101 From: Irene A. Mystery ** Welcome to Joke du Jour! **
"Marketing 101"

An interoffice softball game was held every year between the marketing and support staff
of one company. The support staff whipped the marketing department soundly.

To show just "how" the marketing department earns their keep, they posted this memo on the
bulletin board after the game:

"The Marketing Department is pleased to announce that for the 2006 Softball Season, we came in
2nd place, having lost but one game all year.

The Support Department, however, had a rather dismal season, as they won only one game."

lorna said...

I think people are smart, but they are also LAZY. SO many people I speak to take the easy route rather than the challenging route. That in itself probably makes them extra smart if the outcome was the same, but what if they are missing out on a whole load of stuff because they don't realise that the hard route is BETTER and gives you more from your minutes and hours and heartbeats.

Erm, I think I've gone off the point now, but you spent all that time telling me what you think so I thought a little time telling you what I think can't hurt.

Pip pip