The Aflac Duck Is a Black Swan

In a recent workshop of mine we were discussing the waning effectiveness of advertising. A participant asked, “Doesn’t the success of the Aflac duck prove that advertising works?” I responded that of course some advertising works, but for every Aflac duck or GEICO gecko there are a million (billion?) ad campaigns that don’t work. The success of one does not imply the success of any others.

Then I realized that the Aflac duck is actually a Black Swan.

Nassim Taleb describes Black Swans as “large-impact events with small but incomputable probabilities.” Black Swans are often associated with 18th century British philosopher David Hume but, as Taleb points out, Hume never used the term. The similarity comes from Hume’s “Problem of Induction” that says that we can’t infer anything outside our own experience—I have only ever seen white swans, but that does not prove that there are no black swans.

Taleb is more interested in approaching the same induction problem from the other direction. His Black Swan concept would say one Aflac duck doesn’t tell us anything about how likely it is that other similar advertising successes could happen. In fact, as Taleb would say, we are “fooled by randomness” and have a tendency to overestimate the likelihood that unlikely events will repeat themselves. The Aflac duck is an “outlier,” a “surprise,” not an indication that other companies should spend millions of dollars behind animal advertising mascots.

I will freely admit (possibly opening myself to criticism), that I have not read Bang! Getting Your Message Heard In A Noisy World, by Linda Kaplan Thaler, the creator of the Aflac duck. I’m told by mutual acquaintances that Kaplan Thaler is brilliant. But the idea that we can translate these Black Swans to good, productive marketing decisions for our own companies is completely antithetical to my beliefs. We have been fooled by the relatively infrequent successes of brute-force advertising and branding for too long. We must recognize that these visible successes don’t give us any more reason to invest heavily in advertising than does George Clooney‘s success tell me I should move to Hollywood and try to make it in the movies.

Steve Yastrow posted this on December 2, 2006, in Marketing.
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