Lemon juice and smart marketing


Bet you couldn’t tell it was me.

ONE DAY IN 1995, McArthur Wheeler took it upon himself to rob two Pittsburg banks. When policed arrested him a few hours later, he was astonished to learn that they had identified him from surveillance videos.

You see, he taken the precaution of painting his face with lemon juice.

Doubtless the science behind Wheeler’s reasoning has already burst upon you. Since lemon juice can serve as invisible ink, Wheeler figured that a lemon-juice covered face would be invisible to video cameras. He tested the idea by smearing his face with lemon juice and taking a selfie with a Polaroid camera. Buoyed with confidence when his face didn’t appear on the photo—we are left to wonder why it didn’t—he set off to make some “withdrawals.”

Inspired in part by Wheeler’s ill-placed confidence, David Dunning and Justin Kruger of Cornell University’s Department of Psychology decided to conduct a series of tests. In what would in time be creatively dubbed the Dunning-Kruger Effect, they established that the incompetent often overrate their competence, while the highly competent often underrate theirs.

In an article he wrote last year, Dunning added an important observation:

I’ve become convinced of one key, overarching fact about the ignorant mind. One should not think of it as uninformed. Rather, one should think of it as misinformed.

An ignorant mind is precisely not a spotless, empty vessel, but one that’s filled with the clutter of irrelevant or misleading life experiences, theories, facts, intuitions, strategies, algorithms, heuristics, metaphors, and hunches that regrettably have the look and feel of useful and accurate knowledge.

Wheeler’s error was not in overestimating his smarts. It was in overestimating the value a smidgeon of information or, in his case, of misinformation.

It’s important for us marketers to recognize that we are not immune. Trouble is, there’s a Catch 22 when it comes to evaluating the information we rely on. Dunning also wrote:

… even the broad outlines of what we don’t know are all too often completely invisible. To a great degree, we fail to recognize the frequency and scope of our ignorance.

Now lest hackles rise, let me be clear: I am not calling anyone ignorant. What I am suggesting is that regular input from the outside can provide a needful reality check as to the reliability of information on which we base marketing decisions. Who knows? Had Wheeler subjected his information to the scrutiny of an outside expert, he might have settled on working for his money as the wiser course.

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