Dark matter: What lies between and marketing cannot see



As marketing professionals we rightly focus on moments of brand contact. Whether that’s moments of contact with the memory-trace leaving stuff we call ‘advertising’. Or the moments of need, want, desire, decision, purchase.

And since so much else competes for time and attention in these moments, we are rightly consumed with creating the extraordinary. Whether through the productsor communications we create, we set ourselves the goal of creating moments of delight, enchantment, discovery, entertainment, surprise, provocation. Extraordinary experiences, big and small. Extraordinary moments, big and small.

But reading Jon McGregor’s remarkable new novel Reservoir 13, has prompted me to pause and reflect. McGregor’s novel traces the lives of those living in a rural community somewhere in the English Midlands. In minute and exquisite detail it follows the ebb and flow of both human life and the natural world. It is a novel about daily living, like none other.

We rightly focus on finding or creating the remarkable. But what of all that happens around and outside of those moments? What of all the space not filled with the extraordinary? The everyday.The habitual. The unthinking.The familiar.The unremarkable. The dull. The uncommented upon. The shabby and the average. The commonplace and the unarticulated. The stuff that reaches no closure. All that does not make it into newsfeeds and struggles to deserve a hashtag. All that is experienced but remains unexamined and unreflected upon. The small gestures and half-formed words. The commonplace. The unconscious rituals. The uncelebrated.The undocumented. The un-photographed. The un-photogenic. The stuff that fails to surface in surveys and focus groups and search enquiries.

This is the stuff that Alan Swindells called the ‘taken for granted world’:

For any individual consumer the world is made up of a myriad of vague ideas, thoughts, images and feelings. They come together in a loose network of meanings which shape consumer behaviour. Some of it is organised and structured but most of it is disorganised and unstructured. Some of it is thought about, rationalised and is articulate while most of it is vague, inarticulable and taken for granted.”

This is the stuff that’s invisible to marketers. It’s the stuff that lies beneath the surface of the more visible moments.

This in other words, is to marketing what dark matter is to the astrophysicist. It’s the stuff that eludes our powers of observation and detection. That does not interact with the electromagnetic force. That does not absorb, reflect or emit light. That cannot be seen. And yet for all that, actually makes up the majority (a full 95.1%) of the universe. And that makes possible the large-scale structures in the universe we can see.

It may not be directly useful to the marketer. It may not lend itself to be packaged up neatly by the insight industry. It may not be a source of fascination for planning’s self-styled flâneurs. But the stuff that marketing cannot detect or observe is, it turns out, the very stuff and fabric of life and living.

Of course we are right as marketing professionals to focus on relevant moments of brand contact. Whether that’s moments of contact with the memory-trace leaving stuff we call ‘advertising’. Or the moments of need, want, desire, decision, purchase.  But if are blind to the 95.1% that constitutes the real fabric of life, how can we possibly have empathy and love for those for whom we create?

Ordinary things,” the novelist Marilynne Robinson once remarked, “have always seemed numinous to me.” If we cannot see that truth, then there is no marketing toolkit that can help us. No proprietary methodology can rescue us. We cannot research our way to empathy. Only art can help us. It is a truth that marketing in all its pragmatism, anti-intellectualism, impatience and hard-headedness must accommodate itself to. Or remain blind to the 95.1%.