OPINION16 May 2022

The fallacy of models

Innovations Opinion People Trends

Models are used throughout society and within the marketing industry to simplify complex processes and ideas. But Sam Salama considers whether models cause more problems than they solve.

Ordered wooden blocks and jumbled blocks

We tend to think Google Maps is an accurate representation of Earth. Without hesitation, we rely on it to understand the size of countries and the distances between them. 

What most of us don’t consider is that Google Maps shows the Mercator projection – a visualisation that preserves angles and shapes but massively distorts the size of land masses. Africa appears to be the same size as Greenland, when in fact it is 14 times larger. Antarctica seems to be the biggest continent, but it’s actually the third smallest and dwarfed by both the Americas.

Google Maps illustrates the tradeoffs models make between accuracy and simplicity. More importantly, it shows how easily we confuse models with reality. All too often, we don’t realise the abstraction presented by the model is not the thing itself. In the words of linguist Alfred Korzybski, we forget “the map is not the territory”.

When so much of our basic understanding comes from these models, how else do they warp our perception of the world? Given models play an especially important role in shaping marketing thinking, what are the dangers of marketers mistaking them for reality?

Making sense with models
Humans have an innate desire to categorise – it’s a mechanism that helps us structure the disorderly world into simple and logical terms. We categorise films by genre and companies by industry, even though these exist more as a spectrum than distinct measures. 

It’s no surprise we promote the use of models, which perform a similar type of categorisation. They help us neatly organise complex information; allowing us to share it with other people and take action accordingly.

The comfort we find in models has led us to adopt them in almost every area of study. Gross domestic product (GDP) is a model for a country’s wealth and prosperity. Maslow’s hierarchy represents the ranking of universal human needs. The London Underground map replicates the city’s geography. Although these models exist in different domains and formats, they all serve to represent reality in simplified form.

The dangers of oversimplifying  
While models are appealingly simple, they are also deceptively inaccurate. By reducing the world to an orderly framework, they inevitably hide some aspects of reality and prioritise others; never revealing the complete truth. It’s worth considering the challenges this presents.

Firstly, the inherent simplicity of models means they are forced to leave out important information. GDP has always excluded parent childcare, volunteering and other unpaid work from its calculation. More recently, it has failed to properly account for much of the digital economy. As a free service, Facebook is only counted by its advertising revenue ($40 per user per year). But our willingness to pay for the service is much higher – $600 a year according to a recent paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research. In other words, GDP captures about 5% of Facebook’s real value. These and other omissions explain why GDP, to quote John F Kennedy, “measures everything except that which makes life worthwhile”. 

Secondly, models imply that events happen in a linear process; ignoring the fact that there aren’t set stages in the path from A to B, and we don’t need to pass them all to reach our destination. To take Maslow’s hierarchy as an example; the model suggests we must satisfy psychological needs before social needs – safety before friendships. In reality there is no strict order. Even when we are hungry, we can be happy with our friends.

Thirdly, the very existence of models paints them as the best tool for solving a problem, when it’s often more useful to explore a different approach entirely. The London Underground Map says the quickest route from Lancaster Gate to Paddington is to travel two stops, change lines, and travel two more. As anyone familiar with the area knows, it’s much quicker to ditch the Tube and walk – the 500 metre journey between the stations takes five minutes.

Misleading marketing models
Although models emerge in every industry, they are particularly prevalent in marketing. After all, marketing is about understanding people’s needs and serving them better. The enormous scope of this challenge requires models to make it manageable.

But marketers also choose to impose models on themselves. They want marketing to move away from art towards science. They emphasise the seriousness of their work as a force of social change. With growing scepticism of marketing’s value, they feel increasingly obliged to justify the effectiveness of their work. All this has led marketers to cling to the necessity of their models, leaving little room to question their validity.

So how do these models affect marketing thinking and practice? 

A good place to start is brand archetypes: a model showing universal character types that all brands represent. For instance, Nike is the Hero, while IKEA is the Everyman. In theory, this model makes it easier for brands to find their personality and tone of voice. But in practice it leads to generic and uninspiring messaging. 

By reducing thousands of brands to a handful of archetypes, the model overlooks a brand’s unique history and traits – its source of genuine differentiation. Given the essence of branding is distinguishing yourself from competitors, this universal approach is impractical. Marketers would be better off looking beyond the model to find a new perspective. 

Models are equally alluring when it comes to advertising, which marketers have traditionally explained using a salesmanship model: I am drawn to an ad, I give it my full attention, I am persuaded by its message and benefits, I purchase the product there and then, and the process is complete.

This model would make sense if advertising’s primary job was to sell. But as advertising giant Stephen King recognised decades ago, “advertising exists not to create sales so much as to create sale-ability”; it builds emotional associations to make the brand more attractive, which in turn increases consumers’ openness to buying it in future. 

This explains why, in the real world, adverts don’t require full attention to be effective, they rarely persuade consumers with features and benefits and they are most potent months or years down the line, long after the initial ‘sale’. Just like GDP, the salesmanship model has glaring omissions. The more we recognise this, the more likely we are to create and measure advertising in ways that capture its full potential.

Finally, it is fitting to finish the discussion with perhaps the most famous marketing model – the AIDA sales funnel. As the acronym states, consumers are supposed to follow a linear path to purchase which goes through attention, interest, desire and action. 

The lesson from Maslow is particularly relevant here: no such linearity exists. Consumers often become aware of a brand and then proceed to buy it, without any expressed evaluation or research. What’s more, the stages suggest brand buying is a highly considered and logical process. This may be true occasionally, but most of the time it’s a process as habitual and instinctive as they come. 

Learning to live with models
It would be naive to think we can get rid of these models entirely. Although riddled with inaccuracies and omissions, they satisfy our enduring need for order in a chaotic world. 

So our approach shouldn’t be to dismiss them, but to change our relationship with them. We should treat them as a helpful guide; a starting point for us to discover the richness of reality. All the while reminding ourselves they can never represent it perfectly. After all, if life could be reduced to a model, it wouldn’t be worth living.

 Sam Salama is senior research executive at Basis Research.

2 Comments

2 months ago

Sam - nicely done. We've always found the key to a model is the extent to which it represents reality. Models that are not sufficiently isomorphic fail - and you've noted some. Marketers need to work with researchers to gauge how well a model they are using maps to reality. It's not the models that fail (in my opinion), but the user who doesn't understand its possibilities and, more often, its limitations.

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a month ago

A model could at best be defined as "an illusion of reality"

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