The end of the mystery

And the value of liking something

I’ve spent the past year or so trying to track down and read as many of the winners of the Mystery Writers of America’s ‘Best First Novel’ category as possible. This has been a self-imposed reading challenge and a very silly one, and I’ve enjoyed it a lot. I wound up reading 56 of a possible 76, which isn’t too shabby.

There were some lessons along the way, such as exploring identity, remembering what ‘good’ looks like, and learning that the digital market is just plain weird. I’ll admit that I was hoping for a Greater Theory of Crime Fiction, but, alas, no such luck. If pressed, I could probably pull together some lesser theories (boy, the 1980s were creepy), but, instead, I’d like to use this as a teachable moment at my own expense.

This involves ranking and attitudes and behaviours and a tiny bit of math. There is a spreadsheet, but it is full of books, so hopefully that’s not too horrible.

This is also quite long, so pour yourself a coffee.

As an intermittent reviewer and full-time over-thinker, one of the aspects of reviewing that has always intrigued me is the attitude/behaviour gap.

My ‘taste’ in books is, to some degree, a matter of public record, and, if needed, someone could easily scrounge up a decade or more of my strident opinions. There are thousands (millions?) of words explaining how and why I liked a book.

But those words aren’t the full story. I’ve written many a review about the best debut ever, and then not bought the author’s second book. I’ve also not written reviews of many books, but hunted down and devoured the entire series. I’ve shamelessly slagged off books, and then purchased signed copies. I’ve praised books… and then dumped them into charity bins.

My attitude towards a book - my first emotional reaction, what I feel and say about it - simply doesn’t always match my behaviour. Does that make me a rare hypocrite? No, it makes me a human being. Attitudes are immediate; behaviour takes time and effort to play out. There’s a lot that can (or doesn’t) happen in-between. You can ‘like’ a brand and still use the competitor. You can ‘engage’ with an ad and never buy the product. You can ‘see people like you’ in the powerful video content, but still litter, smoke, and not wear a mask.

Beyond that, behaviour is a pain in the ass to measure. We like to measure attitudes because they’re measurable. They’re useful outtakes and they show people ‘got us’, but theories of change are still theories. We’re waiting for the data to come through until we know what worked.

Let’s get back to the mysteries. Here are the books I think I ‘liked’ the most:

  • Fredric Brown - The Fabulous Clip-joint (1948)

  • John Ball - The Heat of the Night (1966)

  • Ross Thomas - The Cold War Swap (1967)

  • R.H. Shimer - Squaw Point (1973)

  • Susan Wolfe - The Last Billable Hour (1990)

  • David Liss - A Conspiracy of Paper (2001)

First reactions:

  • There’s only one police procedural - Virgil Tibbs in The Heat of the Night) - but, these do all have ‘detective’ protagonists, in some form or another.

  • But also nothing particularly radical or literary in here. Some are funny, some are espionage-y, and there’s one historical… but they’re all pretty much ‘core’ mysteries.

  • And they’re fairly well spaced out across time.

To be completely honest, if a stranger came to me with that list and asked for a recommendation for their next read, I’m not sure what I’d say. There’s not much of a pattern there, except, of course, my own taste. And even that could change.

Here’s where it gets fun (and/or deeply narcissistic).

I’ve gone through and captured my behavioural relationship with every book.

The metrics I chose, in rough order of ‘effort required’:

  • Read (56 books)

  • Liked (28, one attitude, for curiosity. I’m amused it is exactly 50%.)

  • Gave 5* on Goodreads (9. For those not aware of my broken system, I rate something 5* for ‘interesting', or not at all. 1*-4* is too much of a hassle for me.)

  • Recommended to my mom (9. She’s the most voracious reader I know, so I always try to find good books she hasn’t read yet)

  • Wrote about in this newsletter (8)

  • Kept (13. 56 books entered… and 43 left. This includes ebooks - some I read on ebook and didn’t consign to digital oblivion. But, for most, I did.)

  • Bought again in a nicer edition (8. I like pretty copies.)

  • Bought another book by the same author (5)

  • Bought in other media (1)

That gives a simple 9 point system, ranging from the books I never read to the books I became - clearly - obsessed with.

Here are the top results:

  • 8 - John Ball - In the Heat of the Night (1966)

  • 7 - Susan Wolfe - The Last Billable Hour (1990)

  • 6 - Rebecca Pawel - The Death of a Nationalist (2004)
    William DeAndrea - Killed in the Ratings (1979)
    Mary McMullen - Strangle Hold (1952)

  • 5 - Harry Kemelman - Friday the Rabbi Slept Late (1965)
    Ross Thomas - The Cold War Swap (1967)
    Robert L Fish - The Fugitive (1963)

That progression continues pleasingly - there are 5 x 4s, 6 x 3s, 14 x 2s, 23 x 1s.

This tells us a lot more:

  • I’m sorry I didn’t capture more data points about these books, but, even for the one I did - publication date - we suddenly have a meaningful pattern. Unlike my attitudinal list, which was all over the shop, now we’ve got an interesting concentration in the mid-Sixties. (1964 was Florentine Finish, which still earned a respectable 3).

  • Three books set in the media world, which makes sense. I’m such a nerd.

  • Three female authors in the top five of this list, two of whom were left off the attitudinal list. That’s implicit bias. It is nice that, in practice, I liked them. But it is not ok that I didn’t think of them at first. Perhaps more than any other point to land, this is why behavioural analysis is so important. It reveals, and accounts for, bias.

All of a sudden, I have the capacity to make meaningful recommendations for future reading. And not because of what I thought I liked, but because of what I actually liked.

This, in a nutshell, is the difference between what a publisher knows about you and what Amazon knows about you. Scared yet?

Now, imagine you’re a publisher.

Ultimately, the most important behaviours to Shoebill House (aside: do you know how hard it is to find a bird that doesn’t already have a publisher named after it?) are those that lead to further purchases. A reader leaving a review is a good behaviour. A reader pre-ordering the next book is a very good one.

Here’s the list again, now weighted by ‘% likelihood to lead to a sale’:

  • Read (100%. If I read it, that’s because I bought it.)

  • Liked (0%. My emotional reaction has no direct sales value.)

  • Gave 5* on Goodreads (.01%. I think this should be about the lowest non-zero value possible. This assumes I am nudging the star value up in a fractional way that might someday influence an algorithm or future browser or something. Arguably this is more significant for lesser-known books, as my 5* will have more of an impact, but those books are also less-likely to be searched/browsed, so it all comes out in the wash.)

  • Recommended to my mom (75%. She’s very diligent about reading my recommendations - the missing 25% is the chance I’ve recommended her something she’s already read. Moms are great.)

  • Talked about in this newsletter (5%. The click-through rates are pretty high when I recommend a specific title. This seems a fair assumption for the value of a positive recommendation in long-form, opt-in content.)

  • Kept (2%. This is literally the chance that, by having the book on my shelf, I might someday think ‘I should see what the sequel is like…’. Given my impulse control, this might be low.)

  • Bought again in a nicer edition (100%. Literally a purchase.)

  • Bought another book by the author (100%. See above.)

  • Bought in other media (100%. See above.)

Some of these behaviours could lead to multiple purchases (newsletter review, another book by the author), but there are also arguments against that, so, we’ll leave that alone for now.

For those counting along at home, that gives a maximum weighted value of 482%. In that, my behaviours could, conceivably, add up to almost five purchases for each book. I warned you there’d be a spreadsheet.

Here are the all the titles at 2 or above, meaning they resulted in at least one additional purchase.

  • 3.82 - John Ball - In the Heat of the Night (1966)

  • 3.80 - Susan Wolfe - The Last Billable Hour (1990)

  • 3.02 - William DeAndrea - Killed in the Ratings (1979)
    Harry Kemelman - Friday The Rabbit Slept Late (1965)
    Ira Levin - A Kiss Before Dying (1954)

  • 2.77 - Rebecca Pawel - The Death of a Nationalist (2004)
    Mary McMullen - Strangle Hold (1952)
    Robert L. Fish - The Fugitive (1963)

  • 2.02 - Ross Thomas - The Cold War Swap (1967)

The .0001 from GR is rounded down to the obscurity it deserves.

This exercise separates the wheat from the chaff in a way that the unweighted hierarchy didn’t. If ‘meaningful’ is ‘makes purchases happen’, we start to see which behaviours could actually count for Shoebill House’s bottom line.

I bought 56 books. 28 (50%) of them I liked. Yet only 9 (16%) of my purchases led to further sales. That is terrible retention! Especially given the circumstances of my reading challenge! I opted-in! I am a hoarder! Also, how are there 19 books that I liked that didn’t lead to further sales? Each and every one of them is a lost opportunity.

(Let’s hop genres for a moment. I love romance books. They’re often in series (and often in mega-series that hop between series) and there are a lot of them and they all kind of look alike and it can get really confusing. But romance publishers are ruthlessly efficient. Whenever I finish a romance on my Kindle, a pop-up appears to buy the next book. Early series books are deeply discounted (but rarely free), encouraging commitment and feeling like good value. Series are properly tagged and linked on Amazon and Goodreads. It is made as seamless as possible for a reader who liked one book to keep moving, continuously, into further purchases. This is why romance is the best-selling genre of fiction. The readers are relentless, and the user journey is almost entirely frictionless. Meanwhile, back in mystery…)

Despite the fact that virtually all of of these mysteries were the first books in a series, none offered any immediate follow-on sale. Nor was there any encouragement to find another book by the same author, and, honestly, the metadata was often a mess. If I need to Google an esoteric third-party crime blog to find the title of Book 2, Shoebill House has lost the sale. Similarly, noted in an earlier newsletter, even the digital pricing was wonky. In conclusion: How can marketers make behaviour easier?

Not all behaviours are created equal. Giving five stars on Goodreads is easy, and, ultimately, kind of worthless. Writing a review for my newsletter harder, and yet… still pretty meaningless in the absolute scheme of things. Telling my mom that I liked a book? That’s low effort and high reward. Yet there are books I liked - and sometimes even reviewed! - that I never recommended to her. (Sorry, Mom!) Those are all lost sales for Shoebill House. How can marketers facilitate the most meaningful behaviours?

Incremental behaviours work, but only in volume. If I wrote 15 newsletters recommending a book, that’s about the same as telling my mom. Or, more usefully, if 15 different Jareds wrote one newsletter each. Shoebill House needs to use their own resources wisely - not to be chasing individual Jareds, but encouraging an army of Jareds to participate. How can marketers scale less-meaningful behaviours in a cost-efficient way?

A small number of high-trust relationships are worth more than a large number of low-trust ones. I think we’d have to crank the math up to prove this, but, ultimately, a few Moms are worth more to Shoebill House than a hundred newsletters. How do we build high-trust relationships directly with consumers - or help advocates build them on our behalf?

Everyone should read In the Heat of the Night. And The Last Billable Hour.

And with that, I’m officially moving on to Westerns. See you on the other side, pardner.

Some links:

And, finally - I’m hosting Cynthia Miller-Idriss on July 15th. We’ll be discussing her new book, Hate in the Homeland, and how far right extremism can take place in surprising spaces - from clothing stores to YouTube cooking shows.

The Best of British Fantasy

Out now, and extremely magenta.

A quick one: The Best of British Fantasy 2019 is out today.

It looks like this, thanks to Jonathan E:

You can pick it up on, and your local bookshop. There’s a (very limited) number of signed hardcovers, available only through the publisher.

It is, to put it mildly, a crappy time for a book launch.

But it is a great time for stories, and this book collects two dozen of the very best.

Inside, you’ll find pensive houses, angry gods, ghosts, Tube monsters, living statues, were-creatures, skeletons, very good doggos, Billy Zane, and the end of the world. All brought to you by some of the most amazing voices in British writing.

I’ve spoken a bit about it already in interviews here and here. Plus, you can read the introduction here.


P.S. Next week’s newsletter has numbers. Steel yourself.

Catastrophe Theory

I can still taste the kale.

I have lost so many pitches.

So many. 

And these aren't all glamorous, Mad Men-style efforts too. For every dramatic down-to-the-wire battle for an international airline, I've had three lacklustre fizzles for oven-cleaner. 

One particular favourite. Four meetings with a potential client: credentials, briefing, campaign presentation, revised campaign presentation. A few train journeys each way. And then, quite literally, nothing. Ghosted.

Another. We'd been working, full-tilt to put together the Presentation to End All Presentations for the Final Round of The Big Creative-Shoot-Out in front of the Big Boss of THE Hot New Mobile Brand. All-nighters, a truckload of printer toner, and all the premium card-stock in the world. In the pitch, we make it through the introductions, then the Big Boss takes a phone call and never returns.

Neither of these, I’m afraid, are uncommon. We all have these stories - and more.

You tell yourself that you don't care, it didn't matterthey'll suffer for it, it would've ruined the agency culture and we didn't really want it anyway. But those are the lies we tell ourselves (and the junior team members) before going home, binging a family-sized portion of KFC, and crying in front of Friday Night Lights

Why do pitch losses sting so much?

You believe in the pitch.

Communications, particularly advertising, is about creating belief. We poke and prod and pry until we find out why this thing is interesting. Why it is motivating; why it is special. There’s a little box on every brief called ‘reasons to believe’, and the planner’s job is to make those as compelling as possible. That's our job: to reveal a truth that's so damn seductive, so clear, that even we believe in it.

That self-indoctrination is particularly powerful during the anxious compression of the pitch process. We spend hundreds of hours frantically learning everything we can possibly know about a business - their brand, the audience, the sector, the industry, the trends... To live a lifetime with the brand in just a few short weeks, until our knowledge of it becomes instinctual. We visit factories, try products, read tens of thousands of pages, crunch all the numbers, and interview every expert, user, ex-user, potential user, whatever, that we can find. Then we spend the next few hundred hours trying to whittle all that down into a dozen slides and one ‘killer chart’.

A pitch process is self-inflicted brainwashing. You're locked up with the brief and not let out until you know why it is great and, goddamit, you believe in it. I have worn barefoot shoes. I have gambled on cricket. I have changed my gas provider six times and my pet insurance four times. I have drunk multiple milk alternatives and my body weight in probiotic yoghurts. I’ve tried coloured vodkas and clear bourbons. I have eaten kale.

When you pitch something, you become the ultimate truther. There are four lights and this is the best credit card for Millennial families.

You believe in yourself.

Here’s the objective fact of any pitch: the odds are never in your favour. You are cracking a huge problem. A problem that, by definition, is so hard that the client - who literally has a business focused on it - can't solve it themselves. You’re doing this from a cold start, against the clock, nights and weekends, on your own dime; while juggling everything else you need to do to keep your business afloat. And you have to find a solution that’s better than the two - or five - or twenty - other agencies. Just as a matter of statistics, that’s grim.

In order to convince yourself that this phenomenal investment is worthwhile, you have to believe that you are going to win. You make up reasons. You've got a secret. You've got the insight. You've got the truthiest truth. You've got the most dazzling creative.

Spoiler: every other agency is doing exactly the same thing.

A pitch is a genuinely unreasonable amount of work, and in order to do it, you have to believe genuinely unreasonable things. It is suspension of disbelief. When reality snaps back into place, it stings. 

Here's the flip side.

I've been doing this for gfiyfhty years now, and, to be completely honest, until I came to writing this, I had safely forgotten all of the horror stories above. Possibly I'm just ground down by the relentless unfairness of it all. Or, more likely, I’ve learned that - as painful as these lessons were at the time - as a totality, I'm a much, much better at my job because of them.

Yes, I had to eat kale (it was disgusting), but I've also gotten to travel the length and breadth of this wonderful country, and have long, meandering conversations with fascinating people from all walks of life. I like factory visits and secret shopping and poking and prodding at things I’d never once thought about before.

Yes, I’ve worked countless nights and weekends, but I never did so alone. I was always there alongside brilliant, hard-working people. Thanks to pitches, I’ve gained a better understanding of everyone’s role in the agency, their strengths, and how we best work together. I've learned when to cajole, when to bully; when we need pep talks and when we need pizzas. I've learned that sometimes 'shit rolls downhill', but the best leaders still make coffee runs. 

Yes, I’ve spent thousands of hours explaining strategies to distracted marketing directors, but I’m a better presenter for it. I have a better sense of which darlings to kill; which parts of the narrative are important to me, and which actually matter. I know the people to present with - the ones that can finish my sentences, even when I.

And, yes, I’ve cried into a bucket of chicken, but I have learned that it really is just business, no matter how personal it feels. I’ve learned that every person - and every agency - is the hero of their own story.

And, sometimes we win.

Speaking of killer charts - I’m a vast believer in simple diagrams, reductive explanations, clear patterns, and brutal simplicity. A good shape helps me understand (and, in turn, explain) the world.

It is possible to see shapes of processes… The relationship between two quantities can be expressed as a set of points on a graph. If those points form a smooth, continuous curve - the kind that mathematicians call ‘well-behaved’ - then calculus and the analytic techniques descended from it make it possible to analyse the process, determine its rate of change at an instant, and its total change over a period of time, and summarize it as an equation relating x and y. We can speak of a process ‘bottoming out’ or reaching its ‘point of diminishing returns’, and we understand at once the ominously increasing slop of the population curve.

Making an ‘easy’ chart involves hard decisions, but you can understand the appeal - especially for the more challenging and complex problems.


As we have seen, though, much of reality is not so obliging. Many processes yield graphs with obstinately ill-behaved curves. The planets travel in stately Newtonian paths, but meanwhile winds wrap themselves into hurricanes, chickens alternate with eggs, and we change our minds. Discontinuity is as much the rule as the exception.

These quotes are from Woodcock and Davies’ Catastrophe Theory (1978), which attempts to explain a type of topological approach to systems that is way beyond my ability to comprehend. Catastrophe theory attempts to explain how stable systems go wonky: how variables can combine to create dramatic upheaval in seemingly consistent environments, with little or no ‘warning’.

You can see the appeal, especially when it comes to more complex social or behavioural problems. I was hoping to cheat a bit - find a nice universal diagram for a Powerpoint or two. Instead, I’ve wound up spinning off in the other direction, because, well: reality is not so obliging.

This seems to me the more important lesson here, especially as we attempt to address complex problems. In order to create great strategies and clear propositions, we excise and simplify and reduce. We have to. Otherwise, we try to contain multitudes, and down that path lies madness (and bad work).

But… once in the field, there are variables we will never fully understand, or even predict. Our markets, audiences, channels, environments are constantly in flux, and rarely ‘well-behaved’. Our models are convenient fantasies - they are expressions of faith, what we believe about behaviour. When reality strikes, our beliefs are invariably challenged: we can either radicalise or adapt.

Words and words

On Wednesday, I’ll be in conversation with Kurt Braddock, author of Weaponized Words. It is a free, public event, but advance registration is required.

Braddock researches the power of persuasion at its most bleak, looking into the techniques and narratives of terrorist propaganda. He’s also done some fascinating fieldwork into counter-narratives, to understand that awesome persuasive power be used for good instead.

Weaponized Words is immensely readable, which is actually a bit surprising, given that is a mix of very bleak stories and, essentially, technical advice. Highly recommended for folks - like me - fascinated by the real power of words. Terrorism is an extreme (sorry about the pun) case, but the underpinning principles are also relevant more broadly. Copies here.

And please do join us on Wednesday.

This is the second of what looks to be an indefinite/occasional series of discussions with authors and researchers about communications and extremism.

The first conversation was with Matthew Feldman, author of, amongst other things, Politics, Intellectuals, and Faith. The new book collections almost two decades of Feldman’s essays, on everything from Ezra Pound to the Iraq War. The talk was, accordingly, pretty free-wheeling, and a great deal of fun.

The next two guests are in the pipeline, so please watch this space.

A slightly different sort of book conversation:

The Best of British Fantasy 2019 is out at the end of the month.

Early feedback is really positive: it is quite literary this year (fancy!), and showcases a lot of stories (and authors) that come from off the beaten path. It is a diverse collection, in all definitions of the word, and I’m pretty happy with the perspective it presentes on what Britain has to offer fantasy (and vice versa).

Pretty much everything you need to know about the book can be found here. The ebook can be pre-ordered (at a special pre-order-only price!) on or And the best way to pre-order a physical copy, including the sexy limited hardcover is directly from the publisher.

I’m wanging on about the book at length over at The Fantasy Inn. More extracts, interviews, and general excitement to come. It is always important to support new voices - now more than ever, I suspect - so please do check it.

Apologies for the brief and promotional newsletter. Here are some interesting things to read elsewhere:

Alien 3 is better than Aliens

Clickbait and sacred values.

I hold a lot of controversial opinions.

I’m a geek and a Royals fan: I’ve spent my entire personal and professional life making arguments for lost causes. But of all my opinions, might be my most inflammatory.

Why do I believe Alien 3, a film so derided that even its own director has disowned it, is better than Aliens, the Cameron-vehicle once voted ‘the greatest film sequel of all time’?

Alien 3 is loyal to what made Alien great

Alien is terrifying. It uses science fiction to build horror, rather than the other way around. Space is the ultimate ‘lost in the forest’. The alien itself is very scary - it is weird and uncanny and Lovecraftian in the way it is inherently unsettling. It is effective not because it is explicitly extraterrestrial, but because it is other.

Aliens fell into the trap of believing that more is better (given James Cameron, this is not a huge surprise). If one alien is scary, a thousand, or ten thousand, or INFINITE, aliens must be SUPER-scary. And yet, they aren’t. One alien is scary, a million aliens is a statistic.

Aliens 3 understands this, and makes the alien scary again.

Alien 3 is democratic and egalitarian

In Aliens, our heroes are space marines. They are highly trained professionals armed with big guns and the latest gear. The action begins, in fact, with the heroes having to disarm - if they unleashed the full power of their fusion rifles, they could accidentally destroy the whole station. They have to fight the aliens with one arm behind their back, otherwise it wouldn’t be fair.

In Alien 3, our heroes are ordinary people. Even beyond that: they’re some of society’s most vulnerable. Uneducated, untrained, and ill-equipped. They are fighting the enemy with sticks and stones; torches and their bare hands.

It is more interesting and inspiring to side with the overwhelmed: ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. Aliens is fundamentally about people being asked to do what they are trained and supported to do. And they do it. Eventually. (And badly, if you want to be a dick about it. If they didn’t ignore their intel, it’d be a five minute film.)

By contrast, Alien 3 is about getting ordinary people to do what they never should be expected to do - rise up against impossible circumstances.

In Alien 3, cooperation, not competition is the key to success

Our heroes in Aliens are slightly incompetent. And beyond that, they’re sketchy. The real danger comes from within - not listening to one another, not working together, and, ultimately, open betrayal. The ‘high notes’ of the film are when the characters manage to come together - the Lieutenant and his most vociferous critic, for example, or Ripley and Bishop. These are the exception that proves the rule: the atmosphere of suspicion that underpins the film.

Aliens therefore works as a conflict because our heroes make it hard for themselves: they don’t listen to one another, they don’t trust one another, and they have competing objectives.

In Alien 3, the odds are always against them - and, aside from some (reasonable) initial skepticism - everyone is on board very, very quickly. There’s still human conflict, but it is internal to each individual, as they wrestle with their own demons. Alien 3 doesn't work without everyone playing their part as a team.

Alien 3 is about faith

Aliens is a movie predicated on deus ex machina - literally so. There is godlike power hovering in orbit, and the objective of the film is simply to get their big spaceship’s attention. If they can successfully flag down this mechanical deity, they will be saved. Raised up from this murky hell, with their enemies struck down by cosmic force.

We spend Aliens waiting to win. Divine salvation exists, but only if the protagonists can stop falling over themselves long enough to tap into it. When they succeed, they’ll be lifted up and returned to their their glossy techno-utopia.

In Alien 3, there is no promise of salvation. Their problems will only get worse with the Company’s arrival, not better. Yet this makes Alien 3 a better discussion of faith. There’s no tangible salvation hanging around in near-orbit, but they pray. There’s nothing measurable, tangible, or real that they can access, and that’s when faith matters most.

And no matter how the events of the film resolve, their lives have changed - irrevocably - for the worse. The status quo was already pretty shitty, the future is even worse. They're fighting for survival because that's the only thing they can fight for. Where there's life, there's hope. That, again, is faith.


I mean, seriously, what’s the point of constructing an argument around, of all things, Alien 3?

TWIST. This really isn’t about Alien 3 at all. GASP.

It is about how we, as planners, construct our propositions - the ‘arguments’ for our products.

Creating a proposition is about finding the values that matter, understanding why they matter, and then positioning our product as a means of representing or reinforcing those values. Deodorant gives you confidence. Baked beans bring families together.

(The rational part of the argument is then how it helps the product achieve that value. Because you smell good for 48 hours. Because it is a cheap meal that no one complains about.)

But which values are important? Most decisions are about an individual’s balance of values. Health over flavour, efficacy over environmental impact, saving money over pleasure.

My argument for Alien 3 was couched in values like faith, loyalty, democracy and cooperation. If I’m sitting down to watch a film in which bug-monsters eat people’s faces, I’m facing a trade between those values and entertainment, ass-kicking, and fun. Sometimes I want tension and horror. Sometimes I want to see aliens get par-broiled.

Similarly, sometimes I’ll choose the salad over the burger, or the expensive taxi over the slow bus. Every decision is a trade in values.

But what if watching Aliens vs Alien 3 was literally a matter of democracy? Imagine a (very specific) dystopia in which, if you ever chose to watch Aliens you would never be allowed to vote again. I suspect fewer people would watch it, no matter how fun the cargo loader fight is.

Slightly less bizarre scenarios: If your wife is allergic to your favourite deodorant, you change it. If your shoes are made by child slaves, you find a new brand. If the cheap chicken will give you salmonella, you spend more money instead.

These are what is known as sacred values: “any value that a moral community implicitly or explicitly treats as possessing infinite or transcendental significance that precludes comparisons, trade-offs, or indeed any other mingling with bounded or secular values.” You’ll balance calories versus flavour, but not calories versus sex trafficking.

Of course, is that some people may still choose the calories. Or the slave-made shoes, or the anti-Semitic social media platform, or the cigarette that will give you cancer, or... We’re in a diverse, complex, and multi-cultural world, and universal sacred values will never exist. But that’s also why our audiences are never ‘everyone’. A proposition needs to be constructed around a moral community, not all of them.

Working with sacred values requires understanding an audience, and what they really believe in. Not simply finding any ol’ emotional hook, but an emotional hook that is, essentially, deep-rooted, instinctual, and, ultimately, inarguable.

The problem is, of course, it can be ridiculous.

As we’ve seen in the era of Corona-comms, there’s only so much togetherness and understanding and hope that we’ll take from our diet soda brands.

Arguing that Alien 3 over Aliens more democratic is ludicrous and spurious; a transparent attempt to overreach that only backfires. Poor attempts to leverage sacred values are just as taboo as transgressing them.

As with everything else we do in communications, relating to values only works if it is true.


More reading:


Next Wednesday, I’m hosting academic, author, and all around mensch Matthew Feldman in a special (virtual) event to launch his new book. Politics, Intellectuals, and Faith is a (long overdue) collection of his essays, covering every topic from Ezra Pound to Anders Breivik; modernism to the Iraq war. I’ve yet to have a conversation with Matt that wasn’t immensely bonkers and incredibly fun, so please come along.

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