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Why show off when you can signal?

Signalling theory is more generally associated with the animal kingdom, but Peter Totman shows how it can help us understand people, brands, and ourselves.

‘Showing off’, ‘boasting’, ‘bragging’, ‘grandstanding’…what have I missed? We all do it, often instinctively, and instinctive things are often the hardest to think meaningfully about. It could well be worth the effort. Showing off might be universal, but the nature of the boast could provide valuable insight into both enduring human nature and current cultural mores.

As is often the case, the evolutionary sciences can provide another perspective. For starters, we need to add another word to that list — in evolutionary sciences people don’t show off, they ‘signal’. The fact that brands have now started to signal, too, makes engaging in this area even more important. More about that later.

Insight from the animal world

We can learn so much about people by studying animals and so much about animals by studying humans — and I mean no insult to either party! Humans are fully paid-up, but somewhat chippy, members of the animal kingdom.

‘Signalling’ covers a range of behaviours and traits that convey a message about the sender — whether in terms of their status, their mate-appeal, their potential as a useful ally or their threat as potential foe. A signal can be a gratuitous physical attribute (the peacock’s tail), or a conspicuous behaviour. The male Bowerbird spends much of life building beautiful and intricate nests simply to win the attention of a female for the necessary few seconds. He doesn’t even stay a single night.

Back to us humans: A lot of signalling going on

When it comes to human beings, things get more complicated:

Humans are born completely vulnerable, requiring high levels of parental involvement. People then don’t just judge potential mates on physical benefits, but their potential as parents, and a whole host of new characteristics come into play.

Humans live in hierarchical communities, so status is key. People higher up the hierarchy get access to better resources… and therefore make better providers. Status in humans means many different things.

  • Language allows us so many more ways of signalling: it allows for subtlety and variance while increasing potential for deceit.

Key choices (e.g. of mate) are, therefore, made in reference to many different criteria — and hence the unparalleled range of human signalling behaviour.

Social media, the home of signalling

Social media is not just a great canvas for signalling (it is successful because of it), the status box essentially asks people for a declaration about themselves. Unsurprisingly we tend to declare our genius in a million different ways. Witness signals about intelligence, taste, wit, compassion, humour… and not just in my posts.

But bragging also goes against a social norm — and this is where the fun starts. We have to balance the need to advertise against fear of being ‘caught’ out and ridiculed. Welcome to the world of subtle boasting. Here is one brilliant Facebook humblebrag:

“Dodgy posts by awful people boasting about whatever 5 star hotel they are staying in …I prefer the cultural immersion you get by staying with a local family …a richer experience no matter how modest the accommodation … to quote Annie Lennox ‘Memories are made of this’. “

Brand signalling … brand activism

Brands are themselves signals, of course, that is what brand power is all about. More recently, though, brands have started signalling in a different way. They do so by ‘virtue signalling’ their good character as if they were a person. Corporate Social Responsibility has now morphed into ‘brand activism’. Gillette is just the most recent example — but take a look at the Superbowl advertising from the last couple of years: brands compete with each other to demonstrate their ‘woke’ credentials.

Yes, but is it strategic?

It often seems that brand activism isn’t approached with the same level of strategic thought as other brand activity. Perhaps signalling theory could help? Here are some thoughts about how we could inject a little more planning-style discipline.

Who is the audience the brand needs to signal to and what signals will be attractive to them? If marketing department members simply want to signal they work for a progressive company to friends, or to amass praise on social media, that is one thing — but do their customers share their values?

Academic Geoffrey Miller uses Jonathon Haidt’s moral foundation framework to point out how narrow the political spectrum of brand activism tends to be. Of Haidt’s Five foundations, only one, the care/harm foundation, is tapped into by brands and frequently, e.g. Jigsaw Clothing’s recent ‘Love Immigration’ campaign. The other four are, he argues, equally potent sources of connection.

Does the signal seem like an honest one? Enter authenticity: is it real or a transparent attempt to fool the customer? There are many ways of demonstrating authenticity in tone of voice, language, etc. Signalling theory introduces the idea of cost or handicap; a signal is more convincing if it costs the sender.

Nike’s use of Colin Kaepernick to thumb its nose at Trump was controversial, but at least felt sincere; it was willing to risk losing sales.

Hopefully these musings have shown just how helpful the evolutionary science lens can be. It is a very different way of looking at the world from social science or classic psychology. Another lens for the budding bricoleur, and good signal potential too!

 

Peter Totman
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