Can you really research Creativity?

Advertising Imitates Humour

Two ingenious gentlemen called Stephen King and Jeremy Bullmore of JWT London, in the 60s, threw 2 buckets of hot water on the existing communication theory, prevalent at the time. They argued at a client meeting, while presenting a piece of creative work, that the old theory of communication didn’t work any more. The old theory of communication was that you had to hammer a message into people’s heads and if you hammered it hard enough, people would believe it.

Mr King and Mr Bullmore of JWT London many years ago, took a powerful analogy and said that if you wanted an audience to believe you were funny, you would hardly hammer into them that you had  degrees and certificates in the study of humour. For them to believe you are funny, you would just tell them a joke. And their response in turn would be that you are funny!

These two illustrious gentlemen argued that the new theory of communication was based on what was called Stimulus and Response. And they said the same was true of advertising.

Arthur Koestler and Humour

Arthur Koestler and his diagrams on Bisociation 

Arthur Koestler, one of my favourite writers on thinking , once spoke about the a-ha of creative discovery and the a-ha of humour in his book ‘The Art of Creation’. Koestler coined the term ‘bisociation’ to illustrate the combinatorial nature of creativity. To Koestler’s mind, humour involved a paradox, because laughter is a universal psychological reaction to a great variety of different, complex, emotional stimuli. He also believed in the deep analogy between humour and metaphor, which arguably is an important ingredient in all the arts including advertising.

And if we assume that the advertising commercial, a movie, or a piece of music is just like a joke, i.e. a stimulus; then an important question comes to mind. How does one research it? And how does one research the response?

An Imaginary Inquisition into Humour

How then would the researcher research a joke, which is essentially a piece of non-linear creative communication.

Lets see how this would go.

Do you remember the joke?

(Lets check quickly for recall and memorability. Most people remember jokes once they have heard it. When they are told it a second time, many know they have heard it, but still can’t tell it to another person. Déjà vu? Why does that sound suspiciously like an effective frequency problem? I have heard people say “ I have forgotten the punch line but I don’t mind hearing it again”.

 Most people can remember a joke soon after its told

Hey, that might have something to do with recency planning although some of you might mistake it for that research dinosaur called ‘day after recall’.

Can you tell me the story of the joke in your own words?

My experience is that much less than half the people who hear a joke can actually tell it again to another person. (Haven’t you heard people say ‘ I am not good at telling jokes, so I will pass’.)

How did the joke begin? How did it end? Do you remember the middle section of the joke? (There goes my interest trace). Did you find it interesting? Did you like the characters in the joke? If not what was wrong with them? Which was the most memorable part of the joke? Did you find anything objectionable in the joke?

Since this is a joke and without trying to be funny, should we now subject it to the SMILE test? Simplicity, Memorability. Interest, Linkage & Entertainment? Imagine having to alter a classic joke after research because some part of the joke was found to be not working. What about the paradox, would it still be intact? What about Koestler’s A-Ha? Would it still make the leap? And would we expect it to still stay a joke. Or better still a revised joke? What is more important to measure though, is if people laughed. And are they going to laugh harder by making the revision? But unfortunately there seem to be more methods to tinker with the stimulus, than the response.

Philosophically speaking, I sometimes wonder if you can have a linear investigation into something that is essentially non-linear. Those of you who have studied mathematics have already encountered this difficulty. Working with non-linear equations is difficult and cumbersome and we often have to bring them back to linearity by making them log-linear to render the task simpler. ( xb  = b log x )

On Linearity and Non-Linearity

The arts and creativity all being non-linear poses a big challenge for the researcher who needs to keep re-inventing new forms and methods to capture the essential non-linearity of creativity in general. Life would have been so much easier researching the old model of communication. A simple message ( rather than a stimulus ) that is hit hard enough!

Being a musician I have have had the same trouble with music. Nothing demonstrates this better than the clip below from the movie ‘Amadeus’ where the Emperor and Antonio Salleri pass a random judgment on Mozart’s latest composition.

It is a great example of giving linear reactions and linear judgements on an essentially non-linear process like music. Which is the problem I think when you try to investigate any of the creative arts.

Video : There are simply too many notes! The conversation between Mozart and the King, and when Mozart asks for his opinion after an important musical performance.

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Prabhakar Mundkur has spent 40 years in advertising and worked in India, Africa and Asia. He is currently Chief Mentor with HGS Interactive a part of HGS in the Hinduja Group. He is on the advisory board of Sol 's Arc ( ) an NGO dedicated to special education for intellectually challenged children. He is also a member of Whiteboard ( ) which supports senior management of NGOs in financial management, PR, Communication and HR through pro bono expertise.


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