The Reddit ad started out like a clichéd car commercial, with two S.U.V.s racing across the desert. Then the signal seemed to fry, and Reddit’s orange-and-white alien-head logo commandeered the screen, followed by a lengthy printed statement that left viewers scrambling to grab a photo or screenshot...
The Kellogg School Super Bowl Advertising Review, an annual ranking from Northwestern University’s business school, reported shortly after the game on Sunday that Reddit’s commercial was among the most effective commercials of the broadcast. The Kellogg School’s list measures the execution of the commercial, the quality of the attention it generates, its memorability and other factors...
When one analyses this ad from Reddit and attempts to theorise the ‘how and why it worked the way it did’ one is sure to run into the concept of ‘schema incongruence in brand messaging’.
Schema incongruent advertising
When incoming information can be well organized into one’s existing knowledge structures, it can be called as schema-congruent information. When the information does not easily ﬁt into the existing knowledge structures, the information is schema-incongruent.
In a seminal paper in 1982, George Mandler from the University of California, San Diego proposed his Theory on Schema Incongruity. His thesis centered on the notion that although people generally like things that match their expectations, moderate incongruity can be arousing and thus intriguing. Furthermore, because moderate incongruity can be resolved with minimal effort, it tends to result in favourable evaluations. (source)
Over the years, several researchers have validated the impact of schema incongruence on brand messaging. For example, in an oft quoted research paper by Halkias, G., and Kokkinaki, F. (2012) titled ‘Cognitive and affective responses to schema-incongruent brand messages‘, the authors empirically investigate and validate that incongruent stimuli may attract more of the recipients’ attention, increase their cognitive arousal, and may finally elicit more positive judgements.
And in another research paper by Hye Jin Yoon (2015) titled ‘Understanding schema incongruity as a process in advertising‘, the author states that strategies evoking schema incongruity have often been used in advertising because information incongruent to schema has the potential to increase interest, memorability, and persuasiveness in consumers.
And to help elucidate this further, she proposes a four-stage process model (see below) and discusses each stage in detail with a focus on the impact factors that need to be addressed for using a successful incongruity strategy in advertising.
So the next time you see an ad that seems irreverent, fun and provocative (the tropes most often employed by ‘impulse brands’ like candies, chewing gum etc) you know the method to the madness behind their creative work – a dollop of ‘schema incongruence’ strategically thrown in to serve as powerful stimuli.
Quick Read: The next time you see something labelled as a meme, ask yourself if it is actually actually the expression of a mainstream culture (or counter culture) albeit within a specific societal context. Calling something a ‘meme’ strips off the necessary nuance and clouds comprehension. So – it’s mainstream, not meme.
Would I expect to find Jeff Bezos or Bill Gates or Warren Buffet on r/WallstreetBets?
After all, why would some of the world’s richest people fancy a speculative bet on fundamentally weak stocks? So I would be surprised if they’d even know, much less care about stonk memes.
In it, he speaks about ‘Michael Church’s 3-ladder system’ and how once you recognise it and its constituent dynamics, you cannot unsee it play out across demographics and domains all around you. He writes:
Several years ago, Michael Church wrote a neat summary of the American social class system, and how the traditional metaphor of “climbing the ladder of social class” is wrong in an important way. There isn’t one single ladder; there are three – each with different values, norms and goals. You have the first, and largest ladder, Labour. Next, you have the “Educated Gentry” ladder that corresponds to what we typically call the Upper Middle Class. And finally, you have the elite ladder.
Climbing the labour ladder means making more money. At the bottom are really tough jobs, typically paid hourly, informally, or with tips. Above that there are stable, but modest blue collar jobs; then high-skilled or good Union-protected careers. Finally at the top you find “Labour leadership”, which doesn’t mean being a union boss, but means, “You’ve made it. You own stuff. You drive a new F-150, you have income properties, you enjoy nice things.”
If you’ve made it to Labour leadership, you are by no means hurting for money. But you have not actually escaped the category of “economic losers”, because the Labour ladder does not create paths to leverage. That is the fundamental difference between how the labour ladder works versus how the elite ladder works. The people on the labour ladder fully understand this. (…)
Skipping the middle ladder for a second, we move to the Elite ladder. The Elite ladder has a lot in common with the Labour ladder: it’s straightforward. You move up by getting more money and more power. The only fundamental difference is that you climb the Labour ladder by working hard, whereas you climb the Elite ladder by acquiring leverage. (..)
The middle ladder works completely differently from the other two. This ladder isn’t about money or power; it’s about being interesting. You climb this ladder by being more educated, and towards the top, by having costly habits and virtues.
At the bottom is also a transitional layer: it’s how you get onto this ladder if you weren’t born there, often via Community or 1st generation College. Above that is the upper-middle class Petite Bourgeoisie. Higher up the ladder are “elite creatives”, people with obscure or virtuous-sounding PhDs, notably interesting lives, or Blue Check Marks on Twitter. (They may well earn less money than those below them on the ladder – this ladder isn’t about income.) At the very top of this ladder is an exclusive group: “Cultural leadership”. The litmus test for attaining this group is, “could you write an opinion piece in the New York Times.”
When I accept this construct even at a broader level, I’m tempted to posit the following.
Just as there is no single ladder, but three – each with different values, norms and goals, there is no single cultural construct, but (at least) three – each with different values, norms and goals – that correspond to each of these social/societal ladders (this is diversity in cultural constructs that is over and above the conventional manifestations of cultural diversity that we usually recognise around the dimensions of region, religion, ethnicity etc). The idea here is that culture is contextual to its underlying societal ladder.
This might sound obvious (and it is to a large extent). But when we accept this thesis, one should also accept the corollary – there is no one counterculture. Because, different people relate in different ways to what is labelled as counterculture in popular discourse. For, what might resonate with me as a ‘cultural norm’, or what might appear to me as an artefact of an emerging counterculture in my social/societal context, might appear as an entirely different thing (or sometimes might not even be evident) for someone on a different societal ladder living with different constructs/conceptions of culture. So the emergent idea for me here is that counterculture is contextual to its underlying ladder (vs being a universally applicable relic of time).
The Internet has only siloed the contexts where the drivers of the (counter) cultural forces emerge and the canvas on which the strokes of (counter) cultural expressions takes form and shape. That’s why for people who worship at the altar of NYT Op-eds or meticulously follow the blue checkmarks on twitter, the Gamestop short squeeze would have come as a sensational meme or ‘breaking news’, while for those that are on r/Wallstreetbets it was just another day when a topically relevant cultural expression found its restless voice.
That’s why when the rest of India was enjoying it as a Bollywood movie on Netflix or Amazon Prime, the artists in the slums of Dharavi were discovering and finessing their craft through TikTok (now banned in India) and ShareChat.
And that’s why I find Elon Musk’s tweet revealing.
When even those like Hedge Funds that have an existential stake in the emergent buzz cooking up in the worlds of Reddits and Robinhoods were caught unawares of the power of the ‘Gamestonk’ phenomenon, an unlikeliest person seems to have not just understood but also arguably played an influential role in the unraveling of a grassroots phenomenon on r/Wallstreetbets.
After all, that’s the world’s richest person showing that he is more culturally attuned to what is cooking up among the crowds versus anyone else that one may expect to care. He seemed to be able to see something as a mainstream force of a cultural expression – that has just been waiting for its time within a societal context – versus just as some amusing meme unleashed by Robinhood frenzy.
In a parallel universe he might have been a true blue marketer (which he perhaps already is albeit a wealthy one) or better still ……….. a President of a nation state*.
*Did you know that Elon Musk holds triple citizenship? US, Canada and South Africa. (source)