The four-letter code to selling anything | Derek Thompson | TEDxBinghamtonUniversity

The four-letter code to selling anything | Derek Thompson | TEDxBinghamtonUniversity



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Why do we like what we like? Raymond Loewy, the father of industrial design, had a theory. He was the all-star 20th-century designer of the Coca-Cola fountain and Lucky Strike pack; the modern sports car, locomotive, Greyhound bus and tractor; the interior of the first NASA spaceship; and the egg-shaped pencil sharpener. How did one man understand what consumers wanted from so many different areas of life? His grand theory of popularity was called MAYA: Most advanced yet acceptable. He said humans are torn between two opposing forces: neophilia, a love of new things; and neophobia; a fear of anything that’s too new. Hits, he said, live at the perfect intersection of novelty and familiarity. They are familiar surprises. In this talk, I’ll explain how Loewy’s theory has been validated by hundreds of years of research — and how we can all use it to make hits. Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, technology and media. He is a news analyst with NPR’s afternoon show “Here and Now,” appearing weekly on Mondays, and an on-air contributor to CBS News. The recipient of several honors, including the 2016 Best in Business award for Columns and Commentary from the Society of American Business Editors and Writers, he is the author of the national bestselling book Hit Makers: How to Succeed in an Age of Distraction. This talk was given at a TEDx event using the TED conference format but independently organized by a local community. Learn more at

for thousands of years some of the smartest people in the world been asking themselves versions of the same question why do we like what we like is there a formula for beauty for popularity for human affinity and the ancient Greeks said yes of course there is it's the golden ratio 1.62 etcetera etc 2:1 and then the enlightening kurz Enlightenment thinkers said yes of course there is it's it's consti of aesthetics but today we don't have the golden ratio we don't have philosophers we have Google and Facebook we have advertisers and in the advertiser formula the first variable is always novelty this is a scientific fact they actually went through several decades ago all of the words they could possibly find in all the advertisements that were out there and the most common word in all of those ads wasn't by was it now wasn't risk-free warranty it was new we are living in a cult of novelty companies want us to like new things to buy new things to crave new things but the truth is that we don't like novelty in fact we hate it according to the mere-exposure effect one of the oldest and most robust theories in the history of psychology the mere exposure of any stimulus to you over time will bias you toward that stimulus in English familiarity good and indeed when you think about it we seek out new songs but the songs that we most reliably enjoy are those with familiar chord structures and timbers we seek out new movies but every year this century a majority of the top ten films in America have been sequels adaptations or reboots familiar familiar familiar in fact maybe the best proof of the power of familiarity is that thing that is so familiar to you your own face it turns out that people prefer the face they see in mirrors to the face they see in photographs maybe you have a friend who complains constantly about how he or she looks and Facebook photos but is often constantly admiring his or herself in the mirror well this is not pure vanity this is mere exposure effect the face is slightly asymmetric we see different versions when we see a reflection versus a photo and if you're not a celebrity then the version you're most used to seeing is not in a photograph but rather in the most common reflection in the world in a mirror you prefer that version of your face not because it's you at your most beautiful but because it's you at your most familiar in fact the power of familiarity seems so deep that people think it must be written in to our genetics the evolutionary theory for the preference for the familiar is that if you're a hunter-gatherer and you're the trawling the Savannah of Africa and you see a plant or an animal and you recognize it that's a very good sign that plant or animal has not killed you yet so of course you should prefer it but this creates an enormous problem for creators for creative types because I just told you that people only like new things if they're just like old things so the question before us today is how do you balance familiarity and surprise in such a way as to design hits to design things that people love is it possible to engineer a familiar surprise and to begin to answer that question I want to tell you a short story about a man who was a hero of mine a hero of my book but also a man that I would imagine 9 to 95 percent of this room does not know his name is Raymond Loewy and he designed the 20th century Raymond Loewy was a French orphan who came over to the United States after World War one and his brother picked him up in a cab and this is the 1920s where they drive to downtown Manhattan where one of the tallest buildings down there is the equitable building which looks a bit like a tuning fork with sort of two large buildings rising into the sky and Raymond Loewy takes an elevator to the top of this building and he looks out over Manhattan from this Vista and he's expecting from his dreams in Paris to see a world that is beautiful that is round that is feminine but the New York that infers in front of him is the exact opposite its grungy its noisy it's the Hulk enos of the Industrial Age and lowly makes a promise to himself and his brother he says I'm going to devote the rest of my life to beautifying America in my image and loi did just that Raymond Loewy designed the most famous car of the 20th century the 1953 Studebaker he designed the most famous train and locomotive of the 20th century the Pennsylvania Railroad gg1 he designed the modern Greyhound bus in the modern tractor to modern coca-cola fountain he designed that pencil sharpener that looks like an egg with a little spindle coming out of it that you've seen in a hundred thousand classrooms he designed the logos for Exxon and USPS he basically designed all of 1950s Americana and in fact one day Raymond Loewy was hanging out with his friend and he saw the president's plane take off and he said it looks gaudy so President Kennedy invited loi to the Oval Office where they sat on the floor and cut little papers until they achieved the perfect design for Air Force One and in fact the design that Raymond Loewy came up with there on the floor of the Oval Office with JFK still adorns the most famous plane in the world today so the question is what did this man possibly understand about human psychology that he knew what we wanted from planes and trains and automobiles this man was like Don Draper meets Steve Jobs for the 20th century he understood everything unfortunately for us Raymond Loewy had a grand theory of everything he was called Maya ma y a most advanced yet acceptable Raymond Loewy said that human preferences are torn between two opposing forces on the one hand there is neo philia a love of new things and an appreciation for the new a need to discover but on the other hand there is neophobia a fear of anything that is too new a deep conservativeness and LOI said that in order to make hits you need to make products that live right at that intersection of the familiar surprise to sell something familiar you have to make it surprising but to sell something surprising you have to make it familiar and LOI was not a scientist but this theory has been proved and validated by scores of studies and meta studies since he died it has been used to explain hits in technology in academics in culture and even in politics it start with technology technologists are often in the position of having to make something new and then make that new thing popular with an audience that doesn't understand it this was the problem recently at Spotify Spotify obviously the famous streaming music company which was developing its app which probably many people in this audience have used called discover weekly if you haven't used discover weekly every single Monday discuss Spotify will dump 30 songs onto your phone and initially they wanted those 30 songs to be entirely new so that people had never heard the songs and they had never heard the artists but when they were initially testing it there was a bug in the algorithm that accidentally lets slip through some familiar songs and some familiar artists so they quickly fixed the bug and they kept testing but what happened is that when they kept testing the app once they'd fixed the bug engagement with the app plummeted it turned out that having just a little bit of familiarity in this discovery platform made it significantly more popular to sell that which was surprising they had to make it familiar to academics I'd imagine that most academics don't think of themselves as hitmakers they don't think of themselves as operating in a cultural marketplace but in order to become a star in your discipline you often need to be published by the most famous publishers and therefore you are essentially giving up your research proposing your research to people who are essentially your audience so in 2014 a group of researchers from Harvard University in northwestern wanted to figure out what is the formula for a hit paper they wanted to figure out what sort of paper was most likely to be accepted by the NIH was it really really novel proposals or was it extremely familiar ones so they created a dummy list of 150 papers and they coded each of them for novelty and then they delivered those papers to a group of 150 researchers who scored their favorites and the graph of that score looks a bit like an upside-down you over here you have at most familiarity over here you have utmost novelty but it turned out that the researchers who were evaluating these proposals they too preferred that which they called optimally familiar advanced yet acceptable myah 3 identity in my book hitmakers I spend a long time trying to figure out this issue of why do fashions exist indeed if the brain is an organ of ancient chemistry then why should we change our opinion of what is good but of course we do guitar solos are weird in the 1930s extremely popular in the 1970s and then weird again in the 2000s skinny jeans are unpopular and then popular and unpopular and popular and they followed the sign K the sign curve so why does this happen well it's really important to understand that for the vast majority of human history fashions really didn't exist people wore the same clothes for centuries for millennia it never occurred to people wearing togas they should somehow change the look of their toga from one decade to the next but a really interesting way to look at fashion is to say all right well let's say people clearly do have different you know clothing fashion preferences but let's imagine a make-believe store and at the store all clothes simply exist they all cost the same price and there is no marketing it's important to think about this store sort of in your head because as a as an economic writer I often think all right well to explain fashion I would think that it must be explained explained by price or by the fact that Jake who doesn't want you to wear a certain kind of pant anymore so they take it away or they want you to wear a new kind of pants they market it but imagine with me this magical store where all of the clothes exist and they're all the same price and marketing is impossible well in fact that store exists here in the real world it is the market place of first names think about it all first names exist they all cost the same price and there's no direct marketing Nike really really wants you to buy its next shoe but there is no advertisement in Nike history that has ever said oh and after you buy your shoe would you please name your baby girl after the Greek goddess of victory and speed it's never happened so why do first names follow the same hype cycles as clothes so the sociologist named Stanley Levison investigated this and he came up with a really interesting theory that essentially just went right back to Mya he found that people tend to prefer names that are familiar surprises so take a name like Samantha Samantha the 1980s was not a particularly popular name it was about the 30th most popular baby girl name in the country but just enough young couples decided that that was a perfectly popular name for their baby girl that in 1992 222,000 couples named their baby girl Samantha making it the second most popular baby girl name of that year but then thinking about what happens five years later all these little Samantha's go into kindergarten together and the kindergarten is suddenly just run amok with Samantha Samantha Samantha when all these parents thought they were giving their daughter unique name and so since most parents have a preference for names that are familiar but also surprising the name Samantha naturally without any organization rises in popularity and then Falls when a more interesting proves for the fact that parents have a specific taste for popularity is it siblings tend to have similarly common or uncommon names and this is intuitively true if you meet the siblings Michael Emily and Sarah it's a little bit strange if they say and this is our sister Xanthippe II but if you meet the siblings antha P prairie rose Esmerelda is very strange if they're like also here's our brother Chad parents have a specific taste for familiarity but one of the most interesting proofs of this naming theory is looking at the phenomenon of baby girl names for black Americans for the vast majority of human history for American history excuse me blacks and whites had similar names but starting about the 1960s there was a great forking where some names began to sound white and others and other names sounded black and one of those markers for a black name is the LA or le prefix like for LeBron James or LaDainian Tomlinson but this was basically unheard of before the 1960s but Stanley Lieber soon found it starting in 1967 eight distinct baby a black baby girl names peaked in popularity with a la prefix and they peaked in the following order Latonia Latonya Latasha Latoya the Treece Lakeisha Lakeisha Latricia and what's so fascinating about the sequence is just how orderly it is every next popular name is a play on what came before it it takes the familiar and it makes it surprising fourth politics in this age of hyper partisanship and polarization there is an enormous demand to figure out how people can talk to each other how we can persuade each other but often when we get into debates when we get into discussions and we try to persuade someone of our point of view we begin with our code of ethics so if you're a liberal you'll say you shouldn't like Donald Trump because his policies are cruel to Hispanics or if you're a conservative you might say you shouldn't like Bernie Sanders because he's trying to turn us into Denmark now on its face these statements are perfectly genuine and sincere but they fail immediately as articles of persuasion because if you are a conservative who supports Trump you probably like those policies that are discriminatory and if you are the liberal supporting Bernie Sanders you kinda want to nudge the us toward Denmark but imagine if instead we invert the process and we begin with the code with the code of ethics of the person that we're talking about we piggyback off of their familiarities so if you're talking to someone as a liberal and you're talking to someone who supports Donald Trump you might say one of the things that I've always respected about the Republican Party is their emphasis on patriotism putting country over self and seeking service helped me think through times and Donald Trump's business career he's been a paragon of these values now you might not create a Bernie Sanders supporter on the spot you might be slapped for insouciance you're gonna get a lot farther following this path then you are putting forth first principles that the person you're speaking to disagrees with the model that I've just proposed is called the moral foundations theory and it says essentially that it's always more beneficial when debating with somebody else to begin with their first principles to begin with their code of ethics and then show how slow walking those code of ethics toward the center might make their position leak into your position all debate involves a form of ideological advertising and in both polemics and in products to make it Maya make it familiar the last story I want to tell takes us back to Raymond Loewy and it takes us back to his last assignment as an industrial designer Raymond Loewy was told to design the interior habitat for the first NASA space orbital the most surprising and unfamiliar and exotic environment you could possibly imagine a human being in in deep space and lowly conducted a bunch of habitability studies and he made some tweaks here and some tweaks there but his most famous contribution to space history is that he cut a hole in the side of the NASA Space orbital he placed a sheet of glass there and created a viewing portal for yes that viewing portal that you have seen in all of those movies that too is Raymond Loewy ease innovation and I cannot think of a more perfect illustration for Maya or a more beautiful inspiration to creators everywhere because it says that a window to a new world can also show you home thank you so Maya is just such an interesting concept with so many unique applications I'm wondering do you think that there are ways to apply this idea to help people from diverse backgrounds better relate to each other yeah absolutely I mean one of the ideas that comes up in developmental psychology is this issue of sensitive periods the people develop tastes develop their particular familiarities during specific periods in their life which tends to be relatively young people tend not to change their taste in music or their taste in food after the age of 40 or 50 so when thinking about this question of sort of of justice it's important sometimes to not only focus on adults not only trying to remediate adults but also realizing that the way to get liberal minded people the way to get people who think multiculturally and embrace those of all stripes and colors and creeds is actually to have a kind of cradle to grave strategy where you say we should build neighborhoods we should focus on neighborhoods and build neighborhoods where you have a combination of ideologies and colors and creeds and all of this so I think sometimes we think of justice as purely remedial and of course there's lots of people doing very important work there but it's also so important that we think about taste formation even on important issues like politics as being a project that involves the neighborhood level absolutely thank you thank you [Applause]

43 Replies to “The four-letter code to selling anything | Derek Thompson | TEDxBinghamtonUniversity”

  1. jack gamble

    Too bad… I really enjoyed listening to this until he started with failed attempts of MAYA by interjecting his left views and strategies for others to follow: 16:3517:25 and 20:15 – 20:60 .

  2. NDAYISHIMIYE Valery

    Very interesting! Even looking at the new technology ( internet, phones…) we may think it is a completely new invention but looking deep into the context, it is somehow linked to the way people used to share information! For example, when you look at the way internet works and compare it to how post offices work, you will find a close similarity.

  3. Christopher Smith

    People like new things because of the potential embodied in them to decrease their current pain or increase their satisfaction. But new things also have the capacity to increase pain and cause more stress and anxiety. So, when presented with something new we want to know how it will improve our lives and be given some sense of certainty about the proposition. Certainty comes from an appeal to familiarity because we cannot be certain of anything that we aren't familiar with.

    MAYA- Most advanced yet acceptable, sounds like a nonsensical anagram for the phenomenon though. What is the most advanced part? Something doesn't have to be the most advanced to be new or desirable, it only has to be slightly better than where you are in accordance with your ethic. I guess if you simply said More Advanced it would be work.

  4. djdom43

    “A window to a new world can also show you home”
    – great quote.
    Was this a original quote from derek Thompson or
    Ramond loewy?

  5. Yoo Hoo

    16:14 I like how he slips a little bit of this sweet sweet libtard idea in a middle of "smart" talk.
    Descriminatory for Hispanics? Maybe for Hispanics who cross border illegally? And what about Hispanics who voted for Trump? What about people that disagree with his stance on practically anything but voted for him in spite of Clinton and mistakes of previous administration that she sorta represents?
    Or "Bernie Sanders wants to turn us in Denmark" rather that "implement policies that might have cause economical collapse".
    It's always bait and switch.

  6. V

    Ha ha ha this guy is so right about one thing at least. I am in no way even close to being beautiful, but I wouldn't trade the face I see when I look in the mirror for any other face in the world, but there are very few photos of me that capture the essence of the person I see when I look in the mirror, but I absolutely love new things ❤️🙂 & often would love to be the first to try them or see them or taste them or experience them or start them ! ! ! I have also become much more open minded & willing to listen to others points of view & even revising my points of view based on this new unfamliar knowledge, ideas & territory that I haven't explored before, as I age. I'm well beyond the age of 50 & this not only includes new styles of music & new foods but pretty much everything . Hey I must be in my second childhood now & I'm absolutely loving it 😁🙃😊❤️🌸☮️👍

  7. Nicki nurse

    Hey wait a minute! I'm 60 & always changing! Just fell in love with Sushi 2 years ago! Always open to new music…..thinking of changing careers

  8. Black Opal

    – Successful, longtime married couples almost always look very similar. I knew when I was young it was because that's the face they found pleasing, and looking at my own choices in women and comparing them to my own face, definite correlations. Is this megalomania and narccissim? or rooted in the same branch?

  9. John Pepple

    This technique doesn't really work. I've pointed out to leftists again and again that Muslims have killed leftists and therefore leftists shouldn't support them. For example, Muslims killed perhaps 100,000 leftists in Iran in 1979. They've also killed leftists here in the West (like Theo van Gogh). Furthermore, surveys show that they are mostly ultra-conservative. As far as I can tell, this line of argument hasn't persuaded a single leftist, even though it appeals to some basic values that I assume leftists have (like self-preservation). This technique assumes people are rational, but that needn't be the case. By the way, as far as I can tell, leftists outside of the West agree with me. It is only leftists here in the West who have gone crazy. They are like a battered wife who sticks by her man, no matter how much he beats her.

  10. goldeneddie

    I'm pretty sure that FEW of us prefer our familiar face in the mirror and that MOST of us prefer that one fab photo where we look really well, happy and attractive!

  11. Breakman Radio

    This sounds like Jordan Peterson's theory that human beings thrive best on the border between order and chaos, the known and the unknown.

  12. catharion

    MAYA: Beyond the realms of Advertising, beyond the realms of 'persuading somebody to accept your point of view' in a one-to-one conversation about fashion or politics, let's look at how it's used by the big tech corps, governments, and those who would seek to impose their world view/order upon us all: these are the real masters of it. Specifically look at the predictive programming (oops, I mean MAYA) in childrens' video games and TV programmes, and in Hollywood films aimed primarily at young people: that's where, for example, you first saw 'the future' they're trying to sell us – the one where human beings have merged with a matrix, the 'smart cityscapes' awash with poles, antennae and not a tree or flower in sight (despite the butterflies flitting their merry way in those smart meter ads), the robots, humans falling in love with AI-bots, humans voluntarily inserting chips into their bodies … so many Hollywood films promoting the 'novel' so hard it becomes the new 'normal' … and it's not aimed at people of my ripe old age – no – it's the young, of course. A) They're more impulsive, more likely to be receptive, even keen, B) Their susceptibility is way higher, having been tempered by fewer years of experience than us oldies, C) They've been wifi-ed, (wifi was in schools before most people had it at home) their brains constantly irradiated by 3G, 4G and now (god help us), 5G, disabling high-level cognitive function, trashing their ability to concentrate and discriminate, addicted to social media for continuous dopamine-feedback 'highs' … Yes, the young are their prey. Advertisers are the least of our worries.

  13. LovingAtlanta

    😩Got dang this was torture!!! He lost me and lost me and lost me!! It took me over a month to finish watching this video in pieces parts & short spurts!!! 😩😃 I did like his parting words (more than you can imagine). 👍😃

  14. Yardmaster's Wealth Education Center

    The sin curve allows us to loosely predict the future. We truly should be able to read the "signs" of the times, eh?

  15. Tracie Bulkeley

    The American Girl doll, Samantha, debuted in 1986. I’m sure that’s the basis for all the children being named Samantha in 1992.

  16. Jon Scheer

    If you’re American, you shouldn’t tell anyone what they should do. That is true freedom and liberty. My freedom line ends at yours

  17. mrytully

    nice talk… until it got political… : "conservatives discriminate against Mexicans" ? Another Ted talk that is great until it becomes loaded with cnn trump bashing blerbs.

  18. commentsbydjb

    Nice speach…but this underlying concept of promoting "diversity" is creating "diversity". nothing more than and idealogy to create divisiveness.

  19. Darren owsley

    I am an Artist/Musician and I have always struggled with the fact that '' No one knows what they like , they only like what they know.

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