Consumers, voters and fans are all creatures of emotion and sentiment, who can be swayed in any direction.
Initially, I thought it was confined to the glitzy, unreal world of advertising and marketing. We were in a meeting with a multinational giant that makes the largest-selling hair-dyes around the world — and the director vehemently refuted that he was in the hair-dye business at all. We are in the business of hair colour, he said.
The reality, the “true” facts of his product and its chemical ingredients remained unchanged. The hair dye was irrefutably the reality; the concept of hair colour is what I would term as “reality plus”.
Now, it’s easy enough to shrug this off as insignificant, as no big deal. But labelling a product as hair colour, instead of hair dye, has meant a difference of millions of units in sales, and many millions of dollars in revenue for a multinational corporation. And that is a big deal, something no one can shrug off.
So, in advertising and marketing, the benefits of “reality plus” are obvious. A cola is sweetened, aerated water — that is the dull, factual reality. But the reality plus is that a cola stands for victory, superstars, and a feeling of exhilaration, a heady and electrifying mix. Inundated with these images, a teenager does feel some of these things when he downs a cola — and that becomes a concrete reality.
This would be of significance only to marketing professionals, if it were restricted to advertising — but in a world where truth is a swiftly moving collage, the concept of reality plus applies to every domain of one’s life and work.
Let’s talk politics. A politician, who we shall call Mr X (or, better still, Shri 420), is accused of appropriating large sums of money from contracts allocated by his ministry. The accusation is first made by opposition parties; all sections of the media, both press and television, report the matter widely. The matter has grabbed the attention of the public at large, and passions have been aroused.
Now, in this instance, the “fact” of the matter should be the questionable ethics of Shri 420 — is he corrupt, or is he not. But, in today’s world, that fact is largely irrelevant. His guilt or innocence can only be determined by a commission of inquiry, followed by a lengthy court trial, both of which would take years or even decades to come to any conclusion, if they come to any conclusion at all.
Meanwhile, in the immediate short-term, what is relevant is the reality plus — do the voters think that he’s a charming, wonderful man who’s always on the side of the underdog? Or do they think he’s a piece of human slime waiting to take them up corruption creek? It is the reality plus that will determine whether there will be a major swing in sentiment, and whether an election will be won or lost.
The facts of his guilt, or the truth of his innocence, if ever discovered, will be confined to the dusty pages of a forgotten file in a government office. Regrettable, but true, nevertheless.
Reality plus has always existed. (John F Kennedy was regarded as a knight in shining armour from Camelot, who brought a fresh idealism and optimism back to American politics — the facts of his presidency, like the Bay of Pigs fiasco, were largely ignored.)
Today, what has changed, though, is that the pace and swirl of life has acquired a new and almost dizzying speed. With electorates and consumers being bombarded with a thousand images every day, they have significantly less time to sift through the facts; they are guided, instead, by a swiftly-made overall general impression. And thus, reality plus acquires a greater and a more dominant space in the collective consciousness.
So you will find all of America glued to the television set to watch a vice-presidential debate — only because one of the candidates happens to be a former beauty pageant winner (the TRPs for this telecast were said to be higher than the presidential debates). Will this affect voting patterns on election day? The pundits predict that it could.
You will find an Indian film star waving to hysterical crowds gathered below his terrace after his release from jail. The images of those whom he has run over will be buried as quickly as his victims. The film star’s charm, the warmth in his eyes and his smile (along with the muscles of his brawny arms), all lovingly captured on 70 mm, will carry him through crisis after crisis.
Witness the performance of the cricketers in the national team. Some members seem to owe their near-divine status more to their exploits in commercials than on the cricket field. In the commercials, there is no monster hurling a ball with blistering speed and deadly accuracy to blow the demi-god’s clay feet into smithereens. So a century against a minnow will be followed by a slew of heroic commercials — and the myth and aura around the cricketer remains intact; his place in the team is safe for another season.
But these are nebulous areas in any case, aren’t they? Consumers, voters and fans are creatures of emotion and sentiment, who can be swayed in any direction. Perhaps, reality plus affects only such weak creatures and not mature, hard-headed individuals, who are guided by nothing but cold facts. So let’s shift our attention to the Wall Streets of the world — this is where an array of figures and statistics are churned out, analysed and dissected everyday. And this is where people put their money where their mouth is — investing hard-earned dollars, rupees and dinars, based on their judgement.
And yet, as any stock analyst will tell you, and as a study of recent events will prove, stock prices do not only reflect reality, they reflect reality plus. Not just in the short or medium term, as you would expect, but in the long term as well. You will find companies that operate in the same business sphere, and you will find differences in stock price that are simply not justified by assets, turnover, revenues or profits alone.
Stockbrokers will tell you that some companies seem to acquire a halo around them, they become favourites in the market and they command attention and share prices that are not directly attributable to their business performance.
And while investment bankers are said to be shrewd and sophisticated, the subprime crisis reveals that they bought into packages of “dodgy” debt when it was offered as “structured investment vehicles” with names such as High Grade Structured Credit and Enhanced Leveraged Fund.
Thus, from consumers who buy into hair colour to investment bankers who buy into questionable SIVs, we have come full circle.
Is the dominance of reality plus in today’s world a terrible development? Perhaps, it is. In an ideal world, all decisions that men and women make would be rational ones based on facts and logic. But that is not the world that you and I live in, that is not the world that you and I know. Perforce, we must learn to deal with it. This is the culture in which all business must learn to operate.
Anand Kurian is a writer and marketing communications professional. Along with two former deans of the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, he has developed a new subject ‘The Culture of Business’ for management students. This article is adapted from lectures at the IIMs, the Film & Television Institute of India and the National Institute of Design.