The Middle

I’ve noticed this little meme floating about lately. From the Clover butter advertisement to the family sitcom The Middle, there seems to be a rising tide of acknowledgement for all things Middle.

Contrary to our intuitive expectations, people do love average. We say that we prefer the extraordinary, the exotic, the mouldbreaker – but in reality, there’s a bank of evidence, academic and anecdotal, which suggests the opposite.

The faces we find the most beautiful, are objectively the most average in terms of shape, colour and features. See exhibit A – the changing face of Cheryl Cole. The more her facial image migrates towards a nondescript barbie doll, the more public adoration she successfully reaps. Experts will offer sound evolutionary reasons for this preference – symmetrical faces suggest the absence of parasites, genetic defects etc.

But our love of average goes beyond people, it’s objects too. We tend to prefer objects closest to our prototypical image in that category, whether it’s cars or houses or chairs. This might be because the prototypical variants are the most familiar to us. Familiarity helps us process them quicker. And our lazy brains are always looking for cognitive shortcuts.

Nowhere do we see this love of average more clearly, than in popular culture. Unusual groundbreaking concepts are doomed to fail here. They’ll achieve critical acclaim and die in the ratings. But if you’ve got a derivative version of an already successful show, prepare for an embrace. Missing Ally McBeal? Introducing Boston Legal. Did you like Desperate Houswives? Here’s Cougar Town. Are you a teenager, working through the pain and angst of high school? Watch Glee/Freaks & Geeks/The OC/Dawson’s Creek/Felicity/My So Called Life. Movies are always pitched in comparisons – “It’ll be brilliant, think Terminator meets The Matrix”.

So when we wonder why so many advertisements look exactly the same, why it’s so difficult to create standout work which truly differentiates, it’s because we’re all following our innate preferences for the average. We are humans before advertising professionals, and so will fall into the prototype trap inadvertantly. If you ask consumers what they like in a focus group, they will inevitably point you towards the middle ground.

We therefore have two choices. We can make the most average of perfect averages in our advertising. People will warm to this output and accept it immediately, though they will forget it quickly. Or we can consciously reject our instincts and aim to create something unaverage, and difficult to process, and harder to forget. Following Paul Arden’s excellent advice – whatever you think, think the opposite.

  1. Excellent post, Neasa. Your comment on the rush to say that a new film concept is a blend of 2 existing ones seems to be the only way to have an elevator pitch in the creative industries!

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