'Black Swan' and the Fallacy of Neutrality

Ballerinas must be good or evil. Natalie Portman in Black Swan

The other day I was fascinated by Target's decision to carry (kosher) Meal Mart pastrami and corned beef in one of its stores. Just the sight of it brought back so many good memories. 

At the same time it was jarring to see the brand in Target. In my mind it belonged on the Upper West Side or in Monsey. I should have had to order it on the Internet and have it delivered in dry ice.

"That is fascinating," I said to my daughter. "Who would have thought that a Target out here would have this?" And I pointed to the meat.

"Why do you like marketing so much?" she said to me.

The question caught me aback. Why do I like marketing? What a crazy question!

Doesn't everybody?

I tried to explain it to her. What fascinates me about marketing is the play between truth and its representations. That is, I know that there is essential reality and I know that there are ways of describing it. 

The tension between the two, the need to be selective and intentional, the manipulations and omissions and subterranean "narrative wars" that influence public opinion to the point where we make war or decide to have peace - these are what keep me thinking and reading.

For example the current Washington meme, "We've had too much divisiveness." And how that is used to push an agenda across, not to actually bring people together.

Or the new "hold me accountable," when there is a lack of clear and meaningful action to support those appetizing and long-awaited words.

We learned a long time ago in sociology school that disinterested inquiry is a lie. That's a fancy way of saying - you've always got an opinion.

They had a lot of seminars and incomprehensible books about the subject as I recall. And they all started with the word "post." Postmodern, poststructural, postcolonial. "After."

The basic idea was - we used to be able to call a thing a thing. And now we know, that it is we who are doing the calling.

So when I view an object it is totally different from when you view it. In branding terms, I see pastrami and think of satisfaction, the Sabbath, childhood. Maybe you see it and don't even know what it is. You skipped it because it was the kosher section, just like I would not know what to do with many of the products arranged in the Goya aisle.

It gets even more interesting. The pastrami only becomes pastrami through the process of treating the meat. In an earlier phase it is a calf, then a cow. Then a dismembered corpse. Then a huge rack of raw meat. Much later on it gets shrinkwrapped and a label and we can relate to it as a certain "thing."

What about the fact that I am an object also to myself. In other words, I do not observe the pastrami like a microscope examines a cell. In fact, I observe myself observing. And the reflection changes the nature of that observation. You see this in interviews and focus groups: As soon as I know I am being watched, I change what I think - say - do.

That's why it's better to observe people in a natural shopping environment than to ask them about it. My students used to do this in Consumer Behavior. Throw your textbooks in the trash and watch people. Ask Procter & Gamble about professional anthropology - it is how they make a living.

Hook up people's brains to track their brain wave activity when exposed to a brand. Don't ask them directly - look.

Methodology. How do I know that what I know is true, when multiple perspectives are equally valid and when a single person's perspective will definitively change over time - perhaps even in a single day?

I don't. 

I only know myself, and the only defense against biased judgment is to question oneself and allow others in to do the questioning.

We keep on wishing for neutrality. We want our doctors, our judges, our Presidents to have it. But nobody does. The scientist in the lab coat has made a choice about what to study, has a limited set of tools and their frameworks are dated almost before they begin. 

Even G-d is not neutral - having a vested interest in our growth and evolution toward higher beings.

Neutrality can be made more possible of course. Discussion of limitations, the consistency of rules for investigation, the opening of work to peer review. Why do I think a ballerina must be "pure"?

In the end it is more interesting to be human. And to find out how other human beings think, what they want, and how they're trying to get there by influencing me.

* All opinions my own.