Putting A Little Africa Back Into Marketing (2005)

A disused freeway turned into a market at the edge of Lagos, Nigeria

Several years ago, I came across this wonderfully contentious quote in an interview with the musician, Brian Eno, in Wired magazine: “The problem with computers,” he said, “is that there is not enough Africa in them… Do you know what a nerd is? A nerd is a human being without enough Africa in him or her.”

While the comment can be interpreted in a number of ways, one of them as a kind of inverted racism, I think what Eno was trying to get across was the idea of Africa as a metaphor for the fuzzy logic and intuitive rhythmic physicality that is entirely absent from a Western engagement with technology.

You could apply the same comment to marketing and communications today. Both have become so hidebound by conventions and protocols, so inflexible, unimaginative, and lacking in real human engagement that Eno’s perspective of putting “a little Africa” into our current ideas about them may be the only way to liberate our creative thinking ­– and rescue its diminishing effectiveness.

Much of so-called smart thinking about marketing today is undone by a pervasive disregard for people’s individual capacity for unpredictability. The fatal flaw of many ‘designed’ environments, both physical and virtual — and for me, an ‘environment’ can be anything from a web page, TV ad or a computer game to a living space, a shopping mall or a household appliance — is that consideration for aesthetics and technology comes first, the expressive, improvisational nature of human functionality second. They lack not just basic utility, but soul.

Intuitiveness is missing, and instead of our awareness being enhanced, our minds and senses are overloaded. Too often, too, real creativity has been replaced by what Malcolm McLaren has called, “a karaoke world, a world without a point of view… it is a virtual replay of something that has happened before: life by proxy — liberated by hindsight, unencumbered by the messy process of creativity and free of any responsibility.” The result: media and humanity have become, somehow, disconnected. Which is why, these days, I find myself arguing for some kind of benign chaos, and abandoning a measure of organisation and structure (both inherent in the definition of ‘design’) to allow for more random, unmediated patches of unmanaged response and purposelessness — even just plain silence — in consumer marketing. I’m arguing for more humanity, for more Africa.

We’re reminded by post-modern social thinkers that the emphasis on design nowadays is inextricable from the emergence of shopping as the primary culture of developed societies. More and more products compete for our attention, and each has to communicate a unique distinction to capture a jaded consumer’s attention. The trouble is, the context (design) often overwhelms the content and the consumer, who is drawn by the context is left dissatisfied and frustrated. Which makes them harder and harder to reach. It becomes a self-negating cycle: design rather than substance is used to attract the and briefly sustain the consumer’s attention. Its allure fades and ends up disappearing into the irritating white noise that surrounds our lives. And the disappointed consumer, still compelled by a search for meaning, just moves onto the next thing.

Marketers and product managers too often think of their markets as somehow orderly, navigable, the result of a coherent architecture, rather like the cities of Brasilia, the capital of Brazil, or Canberra (both of which were purpose-built as their nation’s capitals but suffer from a sterility that compels a degree of both individual isolation and collective dysfunction). In fact, most markets are like Lagos in Nigeria. If you have seen any recent photos of this city, you’ll immediately understand what I mean: freeways and main roads unfinished and blocked by cars for which they have become temporary parking lots or shanty towns or makeshift bazaars; repurposed for social and commercial interaction, they’re no longer useful as arteries for any kind of mechanized traffic, but they work in other ways.

In 1999 and 2000, the Dutch architect, Rem Koolhaas and the Harvard Design School’s Project on the City studied Lagos, Nigeria and the total breakdown of basic infrastructure and civil order there that defies all conventional wisdom on how cities develop. He wrote, “We resist the notion that Lagos represents and African city en route to becoming modern… Rather, we think it possible to argue that it represents an extreme and paradigmatic study of a city at the forefront of globalizing modernity.

“That is to say, Lagos is not catching up with us. Rather, we may be catching up with Lagos.”

If marketing is to evolve, if it is to continue to be effective, it has to acknowledge the increasing incoherence and lack of control that are apparent in today’s fragmented, individualised audience/consumer base. It has to become chaos-compliant, rather than operate on the artificial construct of demographic or social order.

It has to respond to the human, and the natural disorder that defines it.

© C.C. O’Hanlon 2005

First published as a foreword to Living Brands: Collaboration + Innovation = Customer Fascination by Raymond Nadeau, McGraw-Hill, USA, 2006