Why do clever people keep doing stupid stuff?

Everybody’s heard of the code-crackers of Bletchley Park.  The boffins at this Buckinghamshire mansion were responsible for British Intelligence’s biggest breakthrough of all time and were instrumental in turning World War II in the Allies’ favour.  They deciphered the Germans’ infamous Enigma code, were hailed by Churchill as “the geese that laid the golden eggs but never cackled” and have been immortalised in several blockbuster movies and books.

But they weren’t perfect.

One of their own codes – Naval Cipher 3 – was also cracked by the Nazis.  This was an occupational hazard, of course, so nothing to be ashamed of in itself.  However, in recent years it’s emerged that the British Intelligence services knew about their enemies’ breakthrough and simply did nothing about it.

The inertia stemmed from a mixture of organisational difficulties and divisions.  The boffins couldn’t – or wouldn’t – communicate their technical concerns to the suits.  They worried that no manpower would be made available, to develop a new cipher.  Changing the code would involve more work and administrative upheaval and it wasn’t clear whose responsibility this would be.  Whatever the reasons, Naval Cipher 3 was used for 10 long months, between August 1942 and June 1943, in the full knowledge that it wasn’t secure.  During this period, 80% of Admiralty messages were read by the enemy, 1,100 ships were sunk and 10,000 men perished needlessly.  A top-secret enquiry subsequently admitted that the blunder “very nearly lost us the war.”

What’s interesting about this story is that even very clever people sometimes stick with a methodology that they know is fundamentally flawed, because change would mean too much trouble.

It strikes me that a lot of advertising research is like this.  We persist with out-moded tracking studies, where the metrics don’t move for years, simply because we don’t want to lose the (worthless) trend data.  We use pre-testing models that we know are flawed, because we’ve built up a bank of (meaningless) norms.  We force different creative routes into the same type of stimulus, in the name of a level playing field, (even though this often creates the opposite).

My point is, we know all these things are wrong, and we have done for years.  And yet still we persist with them.  Because, like the boffins at Bletchley Park, we’re not prepared to take on the hassle of persuading our organisations of the need to change.

Now, at least in our case, the consequences aren’t deadly.  But they can be commercially disastrous – and if so, we have only ourselves to blame.

Think of that the next time your rigorously-tested ad sinks into oblivion in the icy, unforgiving waters of the real world.

  • Steve Schildwachter

    Andy, it’s a great question…organizations don’t like change.  Ironically, an American spy recently published a book about how business can learn from the CIA!  Here is a review of how those principles might apply to the advertising business: http://admajoremblog.blogspot.com/2013/04/book-review-work-like-spy.html

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