Day 2 at TED, the spectacle of an ad man and a 90 year old woman winning over the audience…

Another fascinating day at TED, again impossible to summarise it all and I wont try, but we heard theories about the internet and extraterrestrial life, about neighbourhoods, bio diversity and bio mimicry, and symmetry in maths and the world from Marcus de Sautoy.

The highlights for me however were the quintessential ad man Rory Sutherland winning over the audience, and the antithesis of a scientist archtype, 90 year old Welshwoman Elaine Morgan enchanting the audience. Oh and rubbing shoulders with Cameron Diaz and getting smacked in the head by Meg Ryan’s bag added to the fun too.

I will start with Elaine Morgan. An author by trade she turned to evolutionary biology 30 years ago and has spent that time developing and championing and alternative view of our ancestry – Hardy’s aquatic ape theory . There is something very appealing in the idea of a self-educated, relative outsider challenging the entire scientific community. And Elaine definitely played up to that idea, being at pains to point out that practically no one agrees with her (notable exceptions Attenborough and Dan Dennett!) but that “history is strewn with occasions where everyone has been wrong”. That didn’t stop her argument being highly compelling. Basically the debate centres around the question- if we share nearly all of our genes with chimpanzees, why are so very different from them in phenotype?

The traditional theory is that our ancestors descended from the trees of the forest and started living in the savannah and so started walking upright on two legs. But that leaves a lot of stuff unexplained. Like why do you need to walk upright on the savannah when most other animals are quite happy on four legs? Like why are we naked? Why do we have fat under our skin? Why are we the only mammal to have conscious control of our breathing that lets us, among other things, hold our breath?

Elaine’s answer is that we evolved to be able to flourish in a wet environment perhaps forced on our ancesters by flooding. So we evolved to wade on two legs through shallow water, to swim unencumbered by hair, to be warmed by a layer of fat, and to hold our breath to dive. I’ve never heard of the aquatic ape theory before and I maybe you haven’t either, but it makes all sorts of sense to me. Humans seem drawn to and calmed by water. We love to build habitats by water, love swimming and exploring the oceans right from birth. It feels right that this psychological experience has some deprooted evolutionary explanation. Of course none of this has got anything to do with marketing, and in this blog I am trying to take interesting new ideas and technological changes and see how they inform marketing, but who cares – this sort of stuff is just plain fascinating…..

Rory Sutherland’s talk, on the other hand, had everything to do with marketing. To be honest I was worried that he was going to go down like a lead balloon, an evil ad man in a room filled with social entrepreneurs and do-gooders. But he played a blinder getting off to a great start with a gag about how he had just come from TED Evil, the conference run in China with talks about how to get teens smoking again.

Rory positioned marketing and advertising as a means to create intangible value. And that creating intangible value is a way of creating economic calue and growth without needing to increase material consumption. Not to mention the fact that it is easier and more effective to change perception than reality. He used some fun examples of rebranding to demonstrate the power of perception over reality. Firstly Frederick the Great’s rebranding of the potato as a royal treasure that needed guarding in order to encourage the population to eat more of them. Secondly Kemal Ataturk’s discouragement of veil wearing by making it compulsory for prostitutes. He also talked briefly about the role of the interface through which you make a decision in infiuencing the decision you make, a theory developed by Thaler and Sunstein in their book Nudge , on which I drafted a separate post a while back so watch this space for that.

But his main point really was that this intangible value or change in perception is not as critics might want to try to convince us, hollow and meaningless. But rather a totally valid way of seeing, experiencing and enjoying the world. It chimed in many ways with Alain de Botton’s TED talk from yesterday (see my earlier post) and in fact it turns out that the campaign to celebrate giving new meaning to humble things, the, is something that Rory is involved in. He ended with a great quote from GK Chesterton. “We are perishing for want of wonder, not for want of wonders”

So another thought provoking day, and don’t forget to check out the music of Imogen Heap live music that sounds like the work of months in a sound studio……


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