In a clear rejection of Wall Street’s increasing focus on Social Justice and environmental concerns, 68% of New Hampshire voters say professional managers of pension and 401k style plans should focus on “maximizing long-term growth and profit so retirement savers will have enough money to stop working.” (1)
The poll conducted by VCreek/AMG found only 24% of New Hampshire voters said professional fund managers should “focus on environmental and social justice concerns.”
A proven way for working class and middle-class retirement savers build enough wealth to stop working-- is reinvestment of dividends over decades. Dividends paid from real profits generated from real revenue—not financially engineered gimmicks—are what builds a broad, diverse portfolio of shares that is less subject to vagaries of the market and serves savers of all age ranges.
Real profits from revenue are not easy to achieve. Creating and launching products and services that solve people’s problems effectively, efficiently and profitably is very difficult.
A reason for the popularity of environmental and social justice goals among asset managers and corporate executives is that the performance measures are often hard to quantify. Revenue growth, profits and Alpha are clear measures and often hard to achieve. A second reason is the status signal benefit from talking about prioritizing environmental and social justice goals—key word, Talking, because often it is all just talk.
The Wall Street Journal recently reported, “U.S. authorities are investigating Deutsche Bank AG’s asset-management arm, DWS Group, after the firm’s former head of sustainability said it overstated how much it used sustainable investing criteria to manage its assets” (2)
In other instances, so-called green investments are very dirty. “Green investing has grown so fast that there is a flood of money chasing a limited number of viable companies that produce renewable energy, electric cars and the like. … Some money managers are stretching the definition of green in how they deploy investors’ funds. … One way to stretch the definition is to fund companies that supply products for the green economy, even if they harm the environment to do so,” another Wall Street Journal article reported. (3)
Many asset managers and banks are facing pressure from activist share holder groups to eliminate carbon from their portfolio (4) and engage in other actions to advance environmental and social justice concerns.
These activist groups are organized and loud, but do they really have the mass—as in shares held—to demand these goals? As the poll found, they are a small group of voters and shareholders.
Asset managers like Black Rock, State Street and even Vanguard make statements about how their social and environmental criteria are good for the long-term sustainability of a company and thus retirement savers. Their strategic conjecture does not have the proven track record of dividends paid from real profits generated from real revenue. In terms of “stakeholder capitalism” employee pay and benefits can increase sustainably from real profits generated from real revenue. The technologies that will reduce carbon usage and generate cleaner energy will be funded by real profits generated from real revenue.
This creates a conflict of fiduciary duty: Prioritize the proven, time tested path of profits and paying dividends, or the whims and wishes of loud organized activists?
Given the very high participation rate in 401k style plans, pension plans, IRAs and non-qualified index funds, and that 68% percent of voters prefer “maximizing long-term growth and profit so retirement savers will have enough money to stop working” the individual working and middle-class savers, if organized, should be able compete effectively against activists in shareholder votes.
They would very likely win a jury trial over fiduciary duty.
A multibillion-dollar company’s primary marketing message is a hurtful stereotype aimed at people like me. The company is Planet Fitness. The stereotype is aimed mostly at very muscular men. Planet Fitness calls me a “Lunk.”
One of VCreek’s methodologies is to “use the benign to study and discuss the pernicious because the mechanisms of action are often the same.”
Planet Fitness labeling muscular men and fit women as “Lunks” is benign, with only trivial impact on the targets—which makes it perfect to explore how stereotypes function, are transmitted and sustained in modern culture.
In the scholarly research on stereotypes, there are several broad schools of thought ranging from stereotypes being probability judgements about an individual, to exaggerated or “overgeneralized attributes associated with the members of a social group”1 to negative evaluations and prejudices against members of a group. The stereotype judgements and assessments we make about others happen fast. “People judge each other within a fraction of a second,” writes Princeton’s Susan Fiske. These automatic snap stereotype judgements “anchor subsequent thinking” and are difficult to undo.2
Skim through a few of Planet Fitness’ humorous and well produced television ads then ask—how frequently do these scenarios really happen? And, what makes them funny?
In research on stereotypes, especially the benign ones, some argue that many stereotypes are based on statistical probability. This is often called, the Bayesian Brain. Writing in the journal Nature, the University of Warwick’s Perry Hinton says “The Bayesian brain develops its statistical probabilities from experience in life and learnt about through the media.” 1 The Bayesian Brain hypothesis prompts several questions for our discussion. How often do people visually see very muscular men and fit women in real life? How often in a gym setting? How often in other settings? How many media representations are observed throughout their life? How often do people interact with muscular or fit people? How many do they actually know? How often is the Lunk stereotype confirmed or contradicted? How often do the scenarios depicted in Planet Fitness’ TV ads really happen?
Statistically, very muscular men and very fit women are likely to be rare. According to the CDC, 42% of Americans are obese.2 Seventy-three percent of Americans are either overweight or obese and only 23% exercise 150 minutes a week.
The math would indicate there not very many fit people and the only place to see them with any relevant frequency is in a gym. And even in most gyms, very muscular men and very fit women are a minority--except in gyms where serious enthusiasts congregate like Pure Muscle and Fitness in Toronto, Canada; Armbrust Pro Gym, Denver; Die Hard Gym, Phoenix; etc.
Many, if not most, stereotypes are based on similarly limited real-life information. Think of the benign stereotypes about accountants, computer programmers, engineers, plumbers, video gamers, etc. How often are the stereotypes confirmed or contradicted in real life?
According the Bayesian Brain hypothesis, each confirmation or contradiction to the stereotype would update the rapid—and very generalized—statistical stereotype calculation. Either the stereotypes are accurate enough, or there are other mechanisms of action that perpetuate them. Generalized benign stereotypes could persist and resist Bayesian updating because the consequences for being wrong are minimal. We can all think of instances where the generalized stereotype of an accountant was contradicted, but how often did the error have material consequences like losing money or social consequences like serious embarrassment? Absent the incentive to get it right the next time, the updating may not occur. And in some circumstances, people don’t learn anything from mistakes because our egos get in the way.
Across a series of experiments University of Chicago, Booth School of Business professors Lauren Eskreis-Winkler and Ayelet Fishbach found that people did not learn from failure—even when learning was incentivized.3 One of the experiments quizzed inbound telephone customer services representatives about the telephone customer service sector. On the initial quiz, the average score was 56% correct. One group was given feed-back confirming their correct answers. Another group was given feed-back correcting their wrong answers. When quizzed again, the group of getting feed-back on their correct answers scored 62%. The group with feed-back on their wrong answers only score 48% on the second quiz.
The professors concluded, “Our key result is that people find failure feedback ego threatening, which leads them to tune out and miss the information the feedback offers.”
They also explain that these minor errors are different from large or physically or psychologically painful errors. “It is possible that for large failures, the attentional pull of the negative experience overrides the motivation to tune out. Many failures are small…yet they accumulate a significant amount of information that people might fail to learn from.”
The errors caused by benign stereotypes are often small and may not warrant updating by the Bayesian Brain. The accumulated effects of those errors though could have major consequences for businesses and professionals, especially in sales and marketing.
Another mechanism could be a type of confirmation by omission. Even just recalling a memory or a concept strengthens the memory or concept. A person could see a very muscular man in the gym training very hard with heavy weights. The Lunk stereotype surfaces. And because observing person never gets any information beyond the visual cue, the stereotype is confirmed and strengthened by omission of contradicting data.
The derogatory nature of the Lunk stereotype--depicting Lunks as vain, shallow and one-dimensional-- in some of Planet Fitness’ TV ads, is possibly the result of another mechanism that perpetuates some stereotypes. In the gym domain, the Lunk is successful at what many people consider relevant to the gym domain--building muscle, losing fat or improving their physical appearance or physical capabilities. This can create a strong reaction from some people who are less successful in the gym domain.
University of Kentucky psychologist Richard H. Smith has studied the conditions that create envy and how people treat those they envy.6 The primary conditions for envy are similarity, relevance, inability and unfairness.
Observer sees themselves as somewhat similar to the target.
The domain is relevant to the observer’s identity or goals.
The observer does not think they will be able to reach the target’s level of success
The observer thinks the target has an unfair advantage.
When these elements combine, the emotional result in the observer can be strong. As Harvard Business School’s Karen Huang writes in a working paper on envy in business environments, “When individuals display their successes, the people around them often feel malicious envy, a destructive interpersonal emotion aimed at harming the envied individual.”5 Smith says, “Perhaps the most simple way to channel such defensive ill-will and, at the same time, to repair the damage done to one's self-estimation is to find ways to derogate the envied person.” Some people may take this derogation to the extreme and lash out, i.e. the abusive social media hater. More common would be the observer making a comparison to the target on another dimension.
“It may be difficult to deny an ability difference, to convince oneself that a self-relevant domain is unimportant, or to do much to close this difference,” Smith explains. “But it may be quick and easy to construe the envied person as morally flawed.” Or flawed in another way. The Lunk is dumb, shallow, vain, one-dimensional, and has nothing going for them other their physique.
I have engaged in this behaviour before. We all have. And we all will again. A Lunk is dumb because others need to feel better about themselves in an unrelated comparison dimension. What bears further study is not the derogation itself, but how the derogation is so universally known and used as part of the stereotype.
Professor Hinton, quoted previously, gives a direction of investigation “The Bayesian brain develops its statistical probabilities from experience in life and learnt about through the media.” 1
The average American watches 2 hours and 48 minutes of television a day7 and there is a large body of content analysis detailing the various stereotypes contained in that 168 minutes.8
Writing about television sitcoms and dramas, the late Travis Linn, former Dean of the University Nevada Reno, Reynolds School of Journalism, said, “Stereotypical views of others are part of our shared culture. We participate in these views even when we consciously reject them. It is this reality upon which the writers of sitcoms rely.”9 For the stereotypes in a sitcom to be funny “the humor depends partly on the recognition that stereotypes are stereotypes, that they are not universal truths…the jokes wouldn’t be understandable if we didn’t share at least the knowledge of the stereotype. Our reaction would be ‘what’s that about?’” Planet Fitness’ Lunk ads would not be amusing or effective if people didn’t know the stereotype.
Television characters need to fit easily recognizable types and those types must be believable for the dramatic narrative to have impact. Linn writes that for television dramas “Stereotypes are used as a way of gaining credibility. A stereotype is, after all, an artifact of common belief.”
As an example, Linn discusses the stereotypes of gang members in television crime dramas. “Most people believe that most gang members are Latino or African American because law enforcement officers tell us that is the case, and the evening news confirms it,” Linn writes. “Thus, the use of this stereotype in a dramatic program is one that appears to fit reality, and, because it appears to fit reality, the program gains the confidence of the viewer in that regard.” Linn explains that the use of a stereotype in a television show or commercial reinforces the common belief around the stereotype through repeated exposure.
One-hundred and sixty-eight minutes a day of stereotypes--for decades--is a massive amount of stereotype programming.
Thinking back to the Bayesian Brain, are people more likely to know the Lunk stereotype through repeated personal experience, or repeated exposure through media? The actual number of very muscular men and very fit women is incredibly small. It is likely that there are more portrayals of the type in the media than people ever encounter in reality.
The Department of Stereotypes is not a governmental agency or a nefarious plot— if anything it is in the writers’ rooms of television sitcoms and dramas; it is advertising agencies and newsrooms; generating thousands of hours of programming each year that rely on stereotypes, reinforce stereotypes and distort the Bayesian Brain.
The benign stereotypes about accountants, computer programmers, engineers, plumbers, video gamers and Lunks are reinforced weekly, if not daily on television and other media. Pernicious stereotypes are reinforced the same way.
It’s not the ad customers consciously remember, but the ad their subconscious never forgets that generates the sale.
The statement above is a type of ‘antimetabole’—a rhetorical device that the human brain seems almost hard wired to accept. Advertising that works with the brain, leads to sales gains. (Ryhmes work the same way!)
Nobel Prize winning Behavioural Economist Daniel Khaneman divides the functioning of the human brain into two modes—System 1 and System 2.1
Pure System 1 is intuitive, automatic, unconscious, fast, and takes little to no effort.
Pure System 2 is deliberate, conscious, slow, and takes effort.
System 1 is arriving home from work only being vaguely aware of how you drove home. System 2 is multiplying 32 x 16 in your head. Just try it for a second, you can feel the effort it takes to do math in your head.
The Systems can be thought of as a scale with ‘1’ representing almost no cognitive effort and ‘2’ being focused concentration. We spend much our work-day at about 1.5, which is somewhat effortful, and occasionally spike up to near pure System 2.
As Khaneman says, “many people are overconfident, prone to place too much faith in their intuitions. They apparently find cognitive effort at least mildly unpleasant and avoid it as much as possible.” Thus we live most our lives in System 1.
Most advertising is scripted, produced and edited in System 1.5—2. They are received by listeners and viewers in System 1—1.4, which is good for advertisers because System 1 is more accepting of messages than System 2, especially repeated messages.
The repetition of messages has a powerful effect on the brain. Just think of how many songs people can sing along with on the radio and never put any effort into learning the lyrics.
Experiments replicated since the late 1970s2 have found that “Repeated statements feel easier to process, and thus truer, than new ones. Surprisingly, this illusory truth effect occurs even when claims contradict young adults’ stored knowledge (e.g., repeating The fastest land animal is the leopard makes it more believable).”3
In most of the experiments, false information is mixed with factual information. With increased repetitions and exposure, even false statements begin to be considered true and factual. Repetitions of truthful, believable, factual, plausible, information are even more readily accepted.
This effect is similar to what behavioural economists call ‘anchoring’ or ‘priming.’
Khaneman illustrates this effect with an experiment conducted on Realtors in Florida. The real-estate agents would look at a home and read a detailed brochure about the home. In the experiment “half the agents saw an asking price that was substantially higher than the listed price of the house; the other half saw an asking price that was substantially lower.” The agents were then asked their opinion about reasonable buying/selling prices of the house and the factors that has affected their judgement. As Khaneman notes, “the asking price was not one of these factors; the agents took pride in their ability to ignore it. They insisted that the listing price had no effect on their responses, but they were wrong: the anchoring effect was 41%” Agents who saw a higher price, estimated higher. Agents who saw a lower price estimated lower.1
The anchoring effect is very powerful. Professional Realtors “were almost as susceptible to anchoring effects as business students with no real-estate experience whose anchoring index was 48%. The only difference between the two groups was that the students conceded that they were influenced by the anchor; while professionals denied that influence.”
Everyone is affected by anchoring and priming effects of repeated exposure to an idea or message. Advertising and marketing are about anchoring and priming a prospect for the time when the product or service is relevant to the potential customer.
The brain is also more likely to accept information when people are distracted or under time pressure.
In a series of experiments Daniel Gilbert found time constraints, speed reading and “interruption increased the likelihood that subjects would consider a false assertion to be true but did not decrease the likelihood that they would consider a true assertion to be false.”4
The fast thinking System 1 accepts information especially when distracted, tired and if the information is repeated. Radio ads are a powerful medium because most people are in System 1 when driving, in most cases their System 1 is consumed with driving (Distraction!) and the repetition of the ad over time creates acceptance of the message. Television has two levels of engagement—attentional on the couch and background sound. Background sound is effectively radio. Attentional on the couch is slightly higher on the System Scale and dependent on context of the viewer. Are they alert? or Tired? Are they watching at the start of the day with a full store of mental energy or later in the day after expending energy?
Information is rejected by System 2. To trigger System 2 rejection, the information usually is counter to a quickly accessed, strongly held System 1 memory. Think of the statement from a few paragraphs above about the fastest land mammal. Many people will know it is a cheetah, but if not a strongly held System 1 memory, System 2 does not kick in to analyze the information and repetitions can be effective.
A very visible example is partisan politics. Strong supporters of Red or Blue candidates are rarely ever swayed by advertising or news coverage. Less partisan voters can be swayed.
Advertising should be crafted with the attention level of the recipient in mind and designed to slip past any rejection by System 2.
Ads that are attention getting, distinctive or easily remembered on first exposure are more likely to catch the attention of the System 2 brain and thus be scrutinized and possibly rejected.
Two methods to slip past System 2 are innovative framing and rhetorical styling.
A large body of research has confirmed what we all know: Rhyme Leads to Reason.5 Or as Atlantic Monthly writer Derek Thompson says, “people process the rhyme, then seek the reason.” And since we know the brain is lazy and avoids true System 2 reflection—the rhyme or rhetoric is not subjected to reason.
The list of linguistic tactics ranges from the antimetabole and antithesis to parallelism and tricolon. The distinguishing feature of these linguistic tactics is the smooth, sing-song structure of the sentences. (Alliteration!)
Dale Carnegie was a master of lyrical aphorisms and axioms: “Don’t be afraid of the enemies who attack you, be afraid the friends who flatter you.” Or, as I like to say: The smoother the expression, the stronger the impression.
Innovative framing is a twist used in conjunction with the linguistic tactics and is exemplified in TED Talks and Malcolm Gladwell books.
The TED/Gladwell technique is to ask a rhetorical question that people may not have a strong System 1 answer in their memory or intuition. In the instant that System is drawing a blank or weak response, an answer is given that few recipients would have ever considered.
For a Financial Advisor who specializes in retirement income planning, an open-ended rhetorical question might be something like "what is the most important thing to know before you retire?"
Most people’s System 1 will likely leap to some obvious answers like ‘having enough money’ or ‘health insurance.’
The TED/Gladwell innovative framing goes deeper into the structures of money and health insurance and might be something like:
Advisor—“Minutes. Money. Meaning. How to replace what work provides. How are you going to replace the 2,400 minutes of free time a week that used to be filled with work? How are you going to structure your savings to replace a pay check and cover health insurance premiums that were a part of the paycheck? How are you going to replace the purpose and meaning you earned from work, from doing important and valuable things?”
When it comes to politics, public policy and legislation, issues that have not been defined as Red or Blue are most likely to slip past System 2. (Rhyme!) In VCreek’s national polling in the Spring of 2019 respondents age 45-65 were asked, “What should leaders in Washington, DC do to ensure more Americans have a secure retirement?” Forty-three percent favored tax incentives for workers to save more, 21% said increase taxes on the wealthy to fund Social Security, 9% selected mandatory savings and 27% said “Incentives for private companies to offer pension plans.” The legislation that could lead to incentives for private companies to offer pension plans is the SECURE Act, and the pensions would actually be annuities purchased within a 401k. There were Red/Blue partisan splits on Social Security/Tax Incentives, which is to be expected, but “incentives for private companies to offer pension plans” showed no partisan lean because the issue has not been defined as Red/Blue and slipped past System 2. The SECURE Act passed with bi-partisan majorities.
Ads and messages that slip past System 2 are accepted by System 1 and are the ads that, with enough repetitions, the subconscious never forgets.
Because without a clear signal of non-conformity, there is no clear identity status as a creative, independent-thinking non-conformist. There are many ways to send a signal. Think of them like channels. The free thinker could express truly original ideas verbally, in writing or another medium, which they often do. But those channels are narrow, take effort and other people may not be impressed by the imagination displayed. If a person wants to be thought of as a divergent thinker, the easiest way to send the widest signal, with the least risk of rejection, is personal appearance. For the visual signal to have effect it must be understood by the recipient, creating, through trial and error, a convergence of “non-conformist” visual cues. In other words, a cliché or stereotype. The truly interesting independent would not care what others think of him and thus, visually, may be beyond quickly referenced categorization.