We used to create campaigns for Miller Brewing Company that existed solely in places where you could buy beer. We called it “the last five feet of the sale”, when you were standing with money in your hand trying to decide which beer to buy amidst all the others available on the shelf of the cooler or on the tap handles at the bar. The last best chance to do something memorable, to flip a switch in that person’s head so they’d say “Gimme a Miller Lite” (or Genuine Draft. Or High Life. Or Molson. Or Icehouse. Or Mickeys. Or Leinenkugels. Or whatever we were working on).

Often we would figure out ways to link to something we thought the beer drinker would already care about. You love hockey? Hey, man, we’re the hockey beer – buy us and you could go to the Stanley Cup! No, wait, football in Texas? Did you know the Dallas Cowboys are like our best friends? It’s true! Buy a Miller Lite and you could hang out with them!

And if that sounds a little over-caffeinated, remember, this was go-time. Every time we succeeded, the cash register rang for us. And every time we failed, it rang for our competitors. Which the client – and their salesforce – reminded us of every week.

That was why it was imperative that we reframe the beer purchase the customer was about to make. You don’t want just a beer, you want a beer that reminds everyone why the Cowboys are great. Or why hockey is great. Or why you’re great.

And that, John Pollack explains in his very interesting book Shortcut, is essentially what analogies do. They take information that is alien to us and decodes it in a familiar, memorable way.

You can see why this would be useful for Pollack, who spent a significant portion of his writing life crafting speeches in the Clinton White House. But it is valuable to the rest of us because of how our brains work:

As Leonard Mlodinow notes in Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behaviour, about 95 percent of all thought is unconscious. This is because our senses send our brains roughly eleven million bits of information per second – vastly more than our conscious process capacity, which maxes out at an estimated fifty bits per second. “So if your conscious mind were left to process all that incoming information,” Molodinow writes, “your brain would freeze like an overtaxed computer.”

In other words, because of the deluge of information we are subjected to, our brains had to figure out ways to save time and energy so we don’t collapse. Analogies, which quickly reframe new information in ways that are familiar, are one of those ways.

But there’s more. When we use an analogy, comparing say, an abstract idea to something visual, our brains process that analogy much as it would if we’d actually experienced the real thing. It makes very little distinction between our experience of the analogous suggestion and the actual thing:

According to Bergen’s research and that of others, this is because we are using much of the same basic equipment in the brain to imagine a leaping dolphin as we do when we actually see a leaping dolphin.

Which is important because:

According to Lakoff and Johnson, metaphors create realities in people’s minds that become guides for action. Since those actions tend to reinforce the metaphor that inspired them, metaphors often become self-fulfilling prophecies. 

And that is where the real power – and danger – of analogies lies.

Because what Pollack is explaining is essentially this: Our brains can’t handle all the information we’re presented with. So we seek “shortcut” metaphors, which, by definition, are less complete and less accurate. But these are the things our brains grab on to – because they have to. And because they have, the analogies in turn determine the action we will take.

The analogy defines the course of action. Because:

A good analogy serves as an intellectual springboard that helps us jump to conclusions. And once we’re in midair, flying through assumptions that reinforce our preconceptions and preferences, we’re well on our way to a phenomenon known as confirmation bias. When we encounter a statement and seek to understand it, we evaluate it by first assuming it is true and exploring the implications that result. We don’t even consider dismissing the statement as untrue unless enough of its implications don’t add up. And consider is the operative word. Studies suggest that most people seek out only information that confirms the beliefs they currently hold and often dismiss any contradictory evidence they encounter. [Italics added}

In other words, we use this shortcut to help us see a pattern that confirms what we think we already believe. Like when you’re trying to decide which beer to buy. Is this beer better than that beer? Do I like this beer more than I like that beer? Is there really any difference at all? I don’t know. But I know I like the Cowboys, so I’ll buy the Cowboys beer. Mission accomplished. For you, for the bar, for Miller Lite, hell, maybe even for the Cowboys who you may perceive as being as refreshing and enjoyable as a cold beer even when they turn in another dismal performance.

But the insidious thing that creeps into Pollack’s analysis of analogy – due undoubtedly to his experience in political persuasion – is what happens when you mix their robust framing power with confirmation bias. Because the equation it is hard to escape from is this: If we want to believe what we already believe we believe, and if analogies are the fast track to doing that, then you can use them to reframe what people do not know and do not believe in a way that makes them feel that they have, in fact, always believed it.

We now realize we were doing this when we were selling in those beer ideas to the Miller sales force. They would constantly ask us for something new – so they had a fresh reason to talk to their accounts – but not so new that the accounts would be alienated. So we would recontextualize every idea in terms they were familiar with: “You know that old game you played when you were a kid? This is exactly that. All we did was replace A with X, and B with Y. Oh and we added beer. So exactly the same.”

We were bringing them a new thing. We were just getting their brains to latch onto it as an old thing, and then making “minor” modifications so it still felt familiar to them – even though they’d never seen it before.

You know, what analogies do.

But that’s not really the way we tend to think how advertising works. Not now, certainly, but maybe not ever.

But if that’s the way our brains do, then maybe we should.

Shortcut by John Pollack was published by Avery on 09/11/2014 – order it from Amazon here, or from Barnes & Noble here, or pick it up at your local bookseller (find one here).

Please be advised that The Agency Review is an Amazon Associate and as such earns a commission from qualifying purchases

You May Also Want to Read:

Story or Die by Lisa Cron
Made to Stick by Chip Heath & Dan Heath
On Bullshit by Harry G. Frankfurt