You may be familiar with the case of one McArthur Wheeler.
Wheeler was a man who, in 1995, proceeded to rob two banks in Pittsburg, in broad daylight, using no other method to avoid detection other than covering his face with lemon juice.
As lemon juice is usable as invisible ink, Wheeler was certain that it would render his own face invisible, and therefore prevent his face from being recorded by the surveillance cameras.
Wheeler was supremely confident as he had tested his hypothesis by taking a proto-selfie with a polaroid camera and the result had give him an image of only wall, with no face apparent.
Unfortunately he had simply aimed his shot badly.
'But I wore the juice' he cried incredulously as he was arrested later the same day as police later showed him the surveillance tapes, with his own face fully visible.
The story inspired a series of experiments by David Dunning and Justin Kruger of the Department of Psychology, Cornell University.
The results were published in 1999 and henceforth the phenomenon – 'If you're incompetent, you can't know you're incompetent because the skills you need to produce a right answer are exactly the skills you lack in order to know what a right answer is' – became known as the Dunning-Kruger Effect.
In the early days of its existence the Dunning-Kruger Effect was also sometimes described as the American Idol Effect .
This was because the hapless yet strangely confident performances in TV talent show auditions were an extremely salient example of the phenomenon – a cognitive bias wherein incompetent individuals mistakenly rate their own competence much higher than is accurate.
This bias is attributed to a meta-cognitive inability of the unskilled to recognise their ineptitude.
Conversely, many people who actually are skilled or talented tend to underestimate their own talent, and wrongly assume that things that are easy for them to do are also easy for others.
As Dunning and Kruger famously note, "the miscalibration of the incompetent stems from an error about the self, whereas the miscalibration of the highly competent stems from an error about others".
For the talent show hopefuls the sweet Mariah Carey tones in their own head bears no resemblance to the hideous cacophony coming out of their mouth.
Part of the problem is the fact that none of the people around our untalented protagonists – family, friends, colleagues – are prepared to tell them the truth.
Therefore the delusion becomes even more entrenched.
Anyway, you now you will start to see how this is leading us into the world of advertising.
There is a point, often labeled 'Dunning-Kruger peak' that represents the particular surge of self-confidence one gets upon acquiring some small amount of skill in a field.
It represents the huge leap from novice to semi-skilled amateur. However, the deluded amateur, at this stage both encouraged by their new found knowledge yet unable to know the vastness of what they have yet to learn in order to be an expert, begin to imagine themselves to actually be expert.
This period of delusion is common in people who are just starting out in advertising, though by no means exclusive to the young. Based on scant evidence they suddenly believe they are much more knowledgeable about advertising than they actually are.
Moreover, this delusion seems to also happen at a group level, and envelopes people with enough experience to know better, which is why I suggest that a large part of our industry appears to have hit some sort of Dunning-Kruger peak.
The commonly held ideas of those operating in Dunning-Kruger peak mode are some sort of party-mix that contains 'advertising is dead, everything is now about content, participation and conversation', 'creative departments are no longer required as ideas come from anywhere' and 'anyone with a smartphone can be an ad agency' amongst many others.
Dunning and Kruger discovered that people who are unskilled at something – in this case advertising – are often unable to see how bad they are.
Incompetent people will
- Fail to recognise that they are incompetent,
- Fail to recognise how good competent people actually are,
- Fail to see the scale of their incompetence.
To an extent this story is my own story.
Armed with Twitter and grab bag of Seth Godin one-liners I spent a number of years parroting much of the same 'advertising is dead' drivel.
Until eventually reaching that moment of true insight when I realised exactly how incompetent I actually was.
This is where one falls from the Dunning-Kruger Peak into a trough* of enlightened ignorance where you begin to realise that the things you don't know massively outnumber the things you've learned.
(* In photographers' lingo this is called the Jon Snow trough, after a character in Game of Thrones, apparently).
On the upside, despite being in the trough, one is now actually skilled to some degree though conversely now saddled with the tendency to underestimate one's own skill when compared to the over confident noises made by the mass of incompetents.
For the adperson to hasten his or her descent from the peak, one important insight that is best absorbed sooner rather than later comes from realising that the consumers we have to communicate with spend precious little time thinking about brands, do next to no evaluation around most purchase decisions, and even brands that they use and like are trivial in comparison to the rest of their daily lives.
Rather than engagement, conversations or participation, people's actual buying behaviour is about reducing complexity, reducing choice and making easier, good-enough decisions.
Our job is simply about getting brands noticed, remembered at the appropriate time and then bought.
Just getting that teeny tiny bit of attention needed is hard enough, never mind all the other bollocks.
Like the fella once said, 'Never make predictions, particularly about the future'.
Perhaps a wish, then.
A wish that, as we continue boldly into 2015, all of us in the business of marketing communications – of all flavours – fall from our Dunning-Kruger peak, and recognise that while we have some skills and influence, what we don't know about human behaviour is so much more than what we do know, and no amount of lemon juice flavour kool-aid can disguise this.