Joe Rogan and the tension between truth and attention

If the history of Marketing tells us anything, it’s that sometimes it’s more important to be worthy of attention than strictly correct. We should not be surprised that the most popular podcast in the world is more interesting than accurate, writes Craig Page, Head of Strategy at VMLY&R.

“I’m not a doctor and I’m not a scientist” – Joe Rogan

Spotify’s official world’s-most-listened-to-podcast, the Joe Rogan Experience, has again been dunked in the hot plunge pool over his guests’ “alternative” takes on vaccines, mask mandates and dubious COVID treatments, casting doubt on advice from international governments, leading to reports of Spotify support teams being inundated with complaints, and Neil Young and Joni Mitchell withdrawing their content in protest.

Joe Rogan

Joe Rogan

No stranger to controversy, Rogan’s covered hot takes on issues including climate change, race and bow hunting across a decade of over 1700 multi-hour episodes. In a recent response, Joe spoke on presenting ideas that challenge the mainstream;

“The problem I have with the term ‘misinformation’, especially today, is that many of the things we thought of as misinformation, just a short while ago, are now accepted as fact… I am not interested in only talking to people who have one perspective… I’m interested in finding out what is correct and finding out how people come to these conclusions and what the facts are”

We’re wired for weird

Yes, once controversial views have been later accepted as fact throughout scientific history. But these are exceptions. Against a context of numerous consistent or well-replicated scientific conclusions, challenges to consensus should be considered unlikely until they have been further researched and accepted by the community of those researching it. It’s important to progress that scientists voice alternative hypotheses and experiment to test and ultimately accept or reject them, but it’s not sound for the public to embrace them in the meantime.

Alternative views, both true and false, are instinctively interesting. Evolution has wired us to attend to the unusual; Variations from the expected pattern that might require a change in behaviour to increase our chances of survival. And attention equals trust. We are wired to become more fond of novel ideas as they become more familiar to us. Robert Zajonc established this phenomena (Known as the ‘mere-exposure’ effect) with his experiments of the 1960’s.

Misinformation in marketing

These two neural imperatives combine to explain the natural attraction and danger of misinformation and arguably editorial policy of news publications through history. Ironically, the banal truth may be that the misinformation explosion is less the result of nefarious media owners with shady political goals, and more the interaction of instinctive human desires and technology’s increased ability to meet them.

In our industry we are also prone to think our own research trumps the validated findings of established empiricists like Byron Sharp or Peter Field, their large data sets and (relatively) robust methodologies. ‘Our brand is different’ from a brand manager armed with focus group findings is the equivalent of ‘My body is different’ from an evangelist of the latest nutritional fad. Brand research interpreted well complements established theory, adding specificity and context in order to help you plan your marketing. If your data contradicts better research, the overwhelming odds are that your data is misleading you.

Banal truths will destroy your business

But if the history of Marketing tells us anything, it’s that sometimes it’s more important to be worthy of attention than strictly correct. We should not be surprised that the most popular podcast in the world is more interesting than accurate. If Joe Rogan ensured his podcast met higher standards of truth it would soon be replaced at the top of the charts by a less responsible podcast. Any system that rewards attention captured by definition promotes interesting over correct. In our own industry media, pundits who either claim the new trend will take over the world, or is utter bullshit, get the most eyeballs and the most prestigious columns. We’d rather see strawmen torn to pieces than a balanced review of a genuine position. Regular readers of Mark Ritson will be familiar with his trademark Jekyll and Hyde act between nuanced professor (what’s true) and populist provocateur (what’s interesting).

This is why we define ‘insight’ differently from the dictionary’s ‘deep understanding’. Connected brands build better connections by resonating with people’s taste for the interesting. The insights used to create experiences and campaigns need to be more than true. Banal truths will destroy your business. Campaigns built from believable and brilliant insights, with elements of surprise or tension, are more powerful than more accurate but asinine facts. ‘Dirt is Good’ or ‘You’re not yourself when you’re hungry’ will create more, stronger, longer brand associations than ‘Removes more stains’ or ‘More filling’.

Malcom Gladwell, no stranger to the power of the interesting over the correct, said; “If I was President of the United States, I’d rather be right than interesting. If I was CEO of a company, I’d rather be right than interesting. But I’m a journalist – what journalist would rather be right than interesting?’ To create and grow brands successfully we must not only be mindful of the difference between what’s correct and what’s interesting, but also the power of both when used correctly.

Craig Page

Craig Page is Head of Strategy at VMLY&R


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