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Mimetics -- We're Living It
Get Your Burnt Hair
Wait, you didn’t buy some Burnt Hair cologne? Well, don’t worry, because enough people did (at $100 per bottle) that they sold 20,000 bottles already (well, according to Musk) which means that The Boring Company can add another $2,000,000 to their accounts. Now, we’ve covered Musk before but he continues to add to his collection of companies. According to Wikipedia, he now is
Founder, CEO, and Chief Engineer of SpaceX
Angel investor, CEO, and product architech of Tesla
Founder of The Boring Company
Co-founder of Neuralink
Co-founder of OpenAI
And soon to be owner of Twitter
While he is a busy man, this opens another topic — Mimetics.
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What are Mimetics?
In mimetic theory, mimesis refers to human desire, which Girard thought was not linear but the product of a mimetic process in which people imitate models who endow objects with value. Girard called this phenomenon "mimetic desire", and described mimetic desire as the foundation of his theory:
"Man is the creature who does not know what to desire, and he turns to others in order to make up his mind. We desire what others desire because we imitate their desires." (wikipedia)
In other words, what we desire is not what WE desire, but what other “influencers” have TAUGHT us to desire.This creates a weird dynamic where it is easy to be manipulated by what other people tell us what is going to make us happy. It is not clear that it does make us happy. Instead, it may only produce the illusion of happiness for a relatively short time.
Torches of Freedom
In 1929, Eddie Bernays conducted one of the first public relations projects in changing how society perceived women smokers. Before that, women who smoked were thought to be of low character.
In the nineteenth century it was thought that only fallen women, ‘whores’ and ‘prostitutes’, would smoke. Only sly, devious and ‘characterless’ women were shown to be smoking on screen. The next was to teach women how to smoke properly. Apparently the few ‘respectable’ women who did it publicly made a mess of it and Hill was anxious that such clumsy displays would put fashionable women off this pursuit.
So how do we change that perception?
On 31st March 1929, at the height of Easter Parade, a young woman named Bertha Hunt stepped out into the crowded fifth avenue and created a scandal by lightning a Lucky Strike cigarette. The incident was highlighted even more because the press had been informed in advance of Hunt’s course of actions, and had been provided with appropriate leaflets and pamphlets.
Okay, let’s review some key components of this situation. First, Bertha Hunt was not a random woman. Instead, she was Bernays’s secretary. The cigarette was a Lucky Strike, the company that hired Bernays to create the campaign. The press was ready for it because they had been provided lots of information already about the situation. None of this was “random”.
Ten young women followed Bertha Hunt that day down Fifth Avenue, brandishing their torches of freedom. The audience’s imagination was captured as newspapers enthusiastically reported on this new scandalous trend.
The NY Times published an article on April 1st, 1929 titled “Group of Girls Puff at Cigarettes as a Gesture of 'Freedom’” to drive home the point. Remember that the press was geared up for this situation due to the information that they received about the events that were pre-planned.
Overall, Bernays created an environment that showed women smoking in a strategically structured setting (the Easter Parade, press coverage, women selected to create the right appearance, etc.) that changed the way society perceived of women smoking.
A More Recent Example — Birkenstock Boston Clogs
This Monday on the drive to Rogersville, MO to see our daughter my wife was talking about Birkenstock Boston Clogs. It appears that TikTok has created a sensation in Clay Boston Clogs that have been around for over 40 years and they are now an “it” shoe. Instead of selling for their list price, they are selling for twice that. Why? Because TikTok influencers declared them as one of the shoes to own for this year.
It is not that the shoes have changed. Instead it is due to influencers telling us what we desire to have has changed.
Why Does This Matter?
The reason it is important is that public relations campaigns have gotten a lot better since 1929. At the time, that was a relatively new arena (although it had been in practice for a long time before becoming formalized). Eddie Bernays referred to public relations as
an "applied social science" that uses insights from psychology, sociology, and other disciplines to scientifically manage and manipulate the thinking and behavior of an irrational and "herdlike" public.
Think about that for a minute — “to scientifically manage and manipulate the thinking and behavior of an irrational and "herdlike" public.”
Robert Cialdini, PhD is the author of the book “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion”. This excellent book looks at reliable techniques to manipulate the actions of people. Want to move a product? Make it look like there is a limited supply. Ever notice how long the McRib has been sold at McDonald’s “for a limited time”? It works. There are many more “tips” to use or be on the lookout for how people are trying to influence your behavior.
What has changed? One key item is social media. I’m writing this on Substack and sending my voice out to whoever wants to read it. Okay, I only reach a touch over 400 subscribers. On the other hand, Elon Musk, Donald Trump, Kylie Jenner, Dwayne Johnson, Charli D’Amelio, Barack Obama, and many others can easily reach out to 50+ million people on a regular basis (many reach out to over 100 million people). This kind of reach is incredibly powerful. It also doesn’t matter whether the impression is good or bad…just that the message is getting out there and into the zietgeist. It is getting circulated. Whether Barack Obama or Donald Trump are getting people to agree with them or disagree with them may be relevant, but probably less relevant than that they are constantly taking up space in our minds.
Donald Trump and Barack Obama manage to both rouse their fans and opponents. Elon Musk posts about Burnt Hair cologne and it sells out (in the day or two I’ve been writing this, he officially sold all 30,000 bottles for a cool $3,000,000 in revenue). While this is a rounding error to his net worth, it is brilliant marketing.
Think about LeBron James, Patrick Mahomes, Serena Williams, and countless other sports performers not only make millions of dollars playing their sport, but also more by selling products. Remember the crypto ads of LeBron and Matt Damon?
Why did they get the advertisement role instead of someone who knows more about cryptocurrencies? The reason is that people are more likely to respond to Matt and LeBron, rather than someone who can fully the advantages/disadvantages of Bitcoin, Ethereum, blockchain, etc. LeBron and Matt are selling the potential of getting wealthy from cryptocurrencies, rather than the risk-return tradeoff and how it would fit into a portfolio. They are selling the desire to get rich and famous, because they already ARE rich and famous. It had nothing to do with their skill and ability in the cryptocurrency arena, but their skill set in basketball and acting.
Another big advantage is that people are more aware of how to work the crowd today rather than just present information. Presenting information allows the consumer to weigh the advantages and disadvantages of the service, product, etc that is being sold. Influencers are instead using their personalities to sell the desire for consumers to own the product. It’s a subtle, but powerful difference. The first is likely to lead to more optimal consumer decisions (intrinsic motivation), rather than people who are temporarily happy (extrinsic motivation).
Try to avoid falling for mimetic desire and instead focus on making decisions that are going to make YOU happy. Think about what you value (not what you think others are going to value) and pursue those things in life. You’ll be happier.
There is room for debate on what makes a successful influencer. In my impression, it is a combination of focus and luck.