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Can perception save our reality?

Posted on November 24, 2009 and read 1,912 times

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marcstoiber Can perception save our reality?Marc Stoiber

I attended a panel discussion on the adoption rate of sustainable actions in our society. The tone wasn’t pretty. One speaker – a university professor – made the point that our society was never going to change rapidly enough to avoid ecological catastrophe. He believed the only way people would really move on sustainability was at the point of a gun, through stringent legislation, or through education.

I found his thinking depressingly incomplete. Actually, I found it depressing period. But that’s another story. Following his logic, we have no real say in changing our behavior for the better. Instead, we have to rely on lawmakers, government or educators to show us the way to sustainability. It all sounded a bit Orwellian. And I know it isn’t true.

I’ve made a career out of engineering people’s perception of things. In simple English, I make ads. As such, I know we can change the way people feel about things. And usually, we can do it while making them feel wonderfully autonomous. I’m not advocating selling our way to sustainability. But I do believe it’s time we engaged more lateral thinkers, started shifting perceptions to fix our reality, and gave the Orwellians the day off.

Adman Rory Sutherland illustrates the point brilliantly with a story about Frederick the Great. Frederick needed to curb his country’s reliance on wheat. Otherwise, a failed wheat crop could bring famine to his people, and make them an easy target for invaders.

Frederick decided to make Germans eat potatoes. Only one problem -  Germans hated potatoes. He tried to legislate potato eating, with predictably dismal results.

Then he did something brilliant. He decreed that potatoes were royal food, and could only be eaten by royalty. In fact, he planted a royal potato patch and ordered guards to watch over it. But not too carefully. German peasants weren’t dumb. They knew if something was worth guarding, it was probably worth stealing. In no time at all, Germany had a thriving contraband potato market, and Germans were savoring their illicit potatoes.

What Frederick had done was re-engineer the perception of potatoes. Nice one, Frederick.

This isn’t an isolated case. Examples surround us. Think about the VW Bug. When it hit American shores a few years after WWII, it was the antithesis of what Americans ‘should’ want – an ugly, slow, little car built by Germans. However, it spoke to a generation disenchanted with the status quo. People who felt turned off by planned obsolesence, cosmetic non-innovation, and crass overconsumption. (Sounds a bit like the LOHAS crowd, doesn’t it.) Fuelled by brilliant ads that were self-effacing, modest and smart, the Bug took off – the biggest automotive success since the Model T.

Today, our Bug is the Prius. A strange little car that’s created a frenzied following of environment-minded folks. The Hollywood elite have even adopted it – a move that’s made it as desirable as royal potatoes in Frederick the Great’s Germany.

You can argue the Prius isn’t the solution. Although it’s all about consuming less, it’s still about consuming. But the Prius illustrates the point that people will gladly change their behavior, if we help them shift their perception.

Think if we took this a step further. Really unpacked our lateral thinking brains and adopted the challenge of making intangibles more valuable than consumables. It’s already happening. I spoke with a young colleague of mine the other day about tangible wealth. We agreed the current crop of 20-somethings would probably be the first generation to have less than their parents. “And be proud of it” he happily chimed in. He’s completely bought into the concept of being proud to own less. Putting more emphasis on what he experiences, rather than what he has.

So let’s take that a step further. What if we tore a page from Buddha’s book, and made enlightenment and compassion the ultimate status symbols? I’d be thrilled to get a creative brief like that. I can’t imagine a creative thinker who wouldn’t be. Imagine the results. People buying less, and enjoying each other’s company more.

Could we actually pull it off? Well, if Frederick could make Germans eat their vegetables, anything is possible.

Marc Stoiber is founder of Change, a green innovation brand agency in Vancouver, Canada. You can reach him at




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