The Context Of Reason

The reason we choose to explain a particular cause and effect is determined by the social context of that reason. Let me explain.

A woman is driving home from the pub, and unbeknown to her she is slightly over the limit, despite checking the alcohol content of the drinks she earlier ordered with the first-day bar person.

She approaches a bend in the road (that is lightly damp from the rain earlier) that the local council have been warned about being a dangerous spot for over a year.

Her car brakes were fixed just two week prior by a less than reputable garage.

A man is crossing the road in a world of his own on the way to the 24 hour hour garage to buy some cigarettes.

The accident happens. Who is to blame?

The chances are that in today’s social context the blame would lie squarely with the drink driver. However, hopefully it's apparent that perhaps there are other reasons at play too.

The council for not heeding warnings regarding the condition of the road? Incorrect information from the ill-trained bar person, or the law for allowing any alcohol consumption prior to driving at all. Faulty brakes that were assumed to be fixed. The rain?

And what if the man had not had his nicotine craving? He then wouldn’t even be there. What if cigarettes were illegal or his parents hadn’t smoked? Would anyone today dare mention the gender of the driver? Or indeed the gender or the careless road crosser?

Perhaps a philosopher who believes in determinism could argue that everyone is blameless, and with a lack of free will, nobody is ever ‘really’ to blame, even if one reason seems a more likely cause than others. The crash was in a way unavoidable. Free will is just an illusion.

A similar dilemma faces creatives when they choose to highlight a reason why a person may wish to choose the product they're working on. The social context of that reason is key.

Do you talk about the easy-to-hold size of can for a fizzy drink? The taste of the drink? The fizziness? Its low calorie contents? The long lasting ability of something being canned? The consequence of not being dehydrated? The fashion statement for drinking that particular brand? Its heritage perhaps or something else entirely?

I think the importance is how that brand wishes to compete in its contemporary setting. The power of a particular reason varies with a social context.

Today many western societies are seeing a retreat from reasoning, with people being seen as objects rather than subjects. People, it is fashionably said by cognitive scientists, don’t have free will and their powers to reason are overstated – they are at the mercy of their genes, neurobiology or social settings.

The reason why someone is as they are, is commonly attributed to un-avoidable consequences.

This has lead to, in some quarters, commercials lacking any reason at all. And instead relying on emotional appeal.

People are seen as being ruled by their emotions, and so adverts attempt to make people feel something about the brand rather that be persuaded by reason.

The emotional appeal is often a positive one i.e. joy, happiness, fun and so on. If you can make someone feel a particular way they will be more inclined to buy your product, or so their story goes.

So it seems that many brands, regardless of their category, begin to make adverts that all have the same emotional goal - to entertain the consumer and leave a feeling of joy or the like.

Can’t great advertising do both? Entertain and provide reason too?

As advertising increasingly elevates emotional messages, it belittles adults' ability to make judgements for themselves. Instead treating them as biologically determined objects who can be nudged easily by kittens, mood films and flashing lights.

As advertising retreats from reason (as does many other areas of modern society) it does humanity a disservice and lets fate in through the back door.

If advertising is going to avoid being discredited as a service that helps brands grow (i.e. sell more) it needs more than ever to understand people as reasoning sentient beings that can be talked to as adults who can attribute their own reasons to their actions.


  1. "A similar dilemma faces creatives when they choose to highlight a reason why a person may wish to chose the product they're working on."

    I thought the almighty Planner has taken over that role, has he not?

  2. In my experience it's not necessarily the fashion for cognitive science which serves as an excuse to produce "lifestyle / image / brand" advertising. What I'm often confronted with is that "all products these days are so similar, there's no real difference to be spotted". Hence we need to deviate from the product and aim for image and brand values. Total bullshit in my opinion.

  3. Products are only similar when the people selling them are too scared to let advertisers differentiate them. Think about gasoline (petrol for you blokes), for instance. In the States, there are only two ways gasoline is advertised. It's either all about the additive package (cleaner gas for a cleaner engine) or it's this derivative excrement about "freedom" and "the American spirit." Most people here are the opposite of brand loyal in that category – no one in Alaska buys Exxon. No one in the Gulf Coast buys BP. After that, it's down to price 99% of the time.

    Because "it's all just gas." It's all the same. Right? Not if you're in advertising. FIND a differentiator. If you can't find one, create one. That's the fun part. Gas is just gas the same way shoes are just shoes and computers are just computers.

    In other words, it's not.


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