All possible states: Defending marketing against fundamentalism



There is an unrelenting stream of rhetoric issuing from ad- and marketingland that insists marketing has undergone - or must undergo - a fundamental change of gear:

Marketing must be realtime, not fixed

Marketing must be personalized, rather than mass

Marketing must be always on, not scheduled

Marketing cheap, not expensive

Marketing must be mobile, not tethered

Marketing must be about utility, not ‘image’

Marketing must be in beta, not the final product

Marketing must be about small  ideas, not big ideas

Marketing must be interactive, rather than one-way


Quite aside from the fact that it’s an argument that more often not is motivated by ill-disguised self-interest, it is an inflexible, judgemental and fundamentalist view of the world.

Uninformed by context, need, audience, and business, it pre-judges solutions to be ipso facto undesirable and ineffective.

And in doing so, it denies or seeks to eradicate complexity, choice, and paradox.

The very things that define the glory and the blight of the human experience.

The very things that ensure that marketing has a rich and varied toolbox to draw from in building its solutions.

Schrodinger gave us the story of the eponymous cat, placed in a steel box along with a Geiger counter, a vial of poison, a hammer, and a radioactive substance. When the radioactive substance decays, the Geiger detects it and triggers the hammer to release the poison, which subsequently kills the cat. The radioactive decay is a random process, and there is no way to predict when it will happen. Physicists say the atom exists in a state known as a ‘superposition’ - both decayed and not decayed at the same time. Immediately upon looking at the cat, an observer would immediately know if the cat was alive or dead and the "superposition" of the cat - the idea that it was in both states - would collapse into either the knowledge that "the cat is alive" or "the cat is dead."

The point of  Schroniger’s thought experiment is that without observation we cannot say what something is doing.

As Eric Martell, associate professor of physics and astronomy at Millikin University, puts it:

If you put the cat in the box, and if there's no way of saying what the cat is doing, you have to treat it as if it's doing all of the possible things - being living and dead - at the same time. If you try to make predictions and you assume you know the status of the cat, you're [probably] going to be wrong. If, on the other hand, you assume it's in a combination of all of the possible states that it can be, you'll be correct."

We create bespoke solutions and we cannot know what is the right approach until we understand the nature of the problem we’re being asked to address.

So until we have identified the specific circumstances and needs of a business, marketing is  - like Schrodinger’s cat - an ampersand.  It is is everything it can be:

Realtime and fixed

Personalized and mass

Always on and scheduled

Cheap and expensive

Mobile and tethered

Utility and ‘image’

In beta and the final product

About small ideas and big ideas

Interactive and one-way


The author Annie Dillard reminds us that our technical and emotional resources are the limits of what we may accomplish. She cites the painter Paul Klee who maintained that “You adapt yourself to the contents of the paintbox.”

Says Dillard:

The painter, in other words, does not fit the paints to the world. He most certainly does not fit the world to himself. He fits himself to the paint. The self is the servant who bears the paintbox and its inherited contents."

We create bespoke not one-size-fits-all solutions. So if we want as broad a palette as possible at out disposal, we should resist the shallow arguments of the fundamentalists and their attempts to reduce our resources and options.



Annie Dillard, The Writing Life

National Geographic