In Defense of Disruption

Why You Need “Disturbances in the Field”
Not many Universal Truths can be found around these parts.

Credible Universal Truths are scarce. Sensible people (you and me, say) tend to be deeply suspicious of edicts with “always” or “never” in them.

We even get a little nervous about seemingly safe maxims: “Don’t send the skinny guy for snacks.” “Buy low, sell high.” “Never let a Texan order the wine.”

On the other glove, there are people (we’ve met platoons of them) who know the rules. Art directors who know absolutely how to do any layout, even on autopilot. Account people who are certain about can’t-fail marketing strategies. Copywriters who know all the tricks of the trade.

Man’s best friend is his dogma.disruption

There is, indeed, a Universal Truth to be found in marketing communications. It’s True, because it’s demonstrably effective, and Universal, because it stems from the way our heads work:

Every persuasive communication involves an element of disruption.

That is Killian’s Law #3, followed by the practical corollary:

A communication with no disruption is doomed.

Blame the way the neurons in our brains are wired. Consider your trip to work this morning. Your eye took in dozens of buildings, absorbing information about their size, shape, color, location, and a million other details. Your brain was chucking this sensory-data-stuff overboard with equal speed because it offered nothing you hadn’t seen yesterday, last Thursday, or in August of 1994. We call this avalanche of “normal” processed-and-discarded data the Information Field.

Suppose, then, tomorrow’s commute leads you past a building that has changed. Changed color, added a flagpole, disappeared, shrunk. You’d notice. The bigger the deviation from the expected norm (began to dance the hootchie kootchie, for example) the more strongly you’d notice.

The brain constantly sifts through a river of sensory input, letting the ordinary and expected flow through, while searching for discontinuity, for visual anomalies, for the smell-that-doesn’t-belong-in-the-kitchen, for pigs that fly, for the siren under the traffic noise, for the dissonance of the unexpected.

For Disturbances in the Field.

There’s nothing earth-shatteringly new here, of course, but it’s astonishing how often the far-reaching implications of this simple truth are ignored. Ignored especially often by marketers trying to persuade, trying to differentiate, but failing to escape from the familiar and predictable. No disruption, no glory.

Recall, for example, those awful retail tv ads for, say, furniture or rugs you see in the off hours on the off channels.

The overall impression is bland smiling people, a zillion watts of soap opera video lighting, happy happy suburban families cheerfully and witlessly exchanging copy points. Well-scrubbed shoppers gushing in delight in perfectly groomed stores. Announcer. Item. Price. Item. Price. Amnesia. Flush more money down the toilet.

Or consider a brand that tries to convince you of “everyday low pricing.” Dozens have tried, in every retail category, and their bones lie scattered on the Alpine mountains cold. Even if we buy into the concept at first, the repetition of the claim makes it recede into the Field. We simply stop noticing. Those few retailers who have actually succeeded in nurturing a reputation for low prices (e.g., Walmart, Ikea) have much more going for them than just a K-Mart-style “everyday low prices” claim. They have a brand personality, too.

There is a story, probably apocryphal, about a printer who inscribed on the top of his letterhead “Quality. Service. Price. Choose two.” Most retail advertisers chop off those last two words … perhaps to avoid candor, credibility and charm? (Many retailers eat their young….)

Change of scene: now consider the disruption of ads that surprise and delight you, persuading you by their humanity or wit or insight or empathy or visual style or music or … well, choose your own emotion. But “surprise” is predictably the bigger half of “surprise and delight.”

Hey, it doesn’t have to be an ad. Examine anything that brings you joy: Puccini, parakeets, Pixar, pickled peppers … you’ll find elements of the unexpected in anything extraordinary.

Moral of the Story time: don’t let a single communication out the door that doesn’t contain a disruptive left turn in the content (and/or medium and/or production values) to prevent audience brain zone-out.

Lob a grenade over the ramparts. Make your audience cry, laugh, vote, buy, sell, squirm, punch you in the nose, or just get out of their chairs to call, since operators are standing by. Do anything … except the ordinary.

Of course, there’s one way to get disruptive messaging that surprises, delights, engages, and persuades. We suggest hiring Killian Branding. (Duh!) 

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