Lucky aliens and the creative case for D&I
In a second exclusive extract from Go Luck Yourself, a book written by Lucky Generals founder, Andy Nairn, he discusses D&I's role in creativity and reminds us of some much-loved aliens
Imagine a planet far, far away. Somewhere very different from Earth but teeming with life. Think of the kind of animal that might exist there. Now draw it.
According to researchers from Texas A&M University, you’ve probably sketched a creature that’s not so very different from the ones we have on our planet.
In a series of experiments, they found that the vast majority of respondents included at least one standard sense organ (99%), one standard limb (97%) and the property of bilateral symmetry (91%).
Not only that, the interviewees seemed to have modelled their creatures on the earth animals that most easily came to mind. When questioned, they named cats and dogs as their top sources of inspiration.
The pattern was repeated when other respondents were asked to design tools for a new planet. Even when it was emphasised that the aliens there had no arms or legs, people responded with variations on the hammer, screwdriver, wrench and saw.
It was the same story when another group was asked to draw extra-terrestrial fruit.
Even when they were encouraged to be as creative as possible and explicitly asked not to limit themselves to earth fruit, they came back with things that looked suspiciously like oranges, apples, bananas and strawberries.
To use the researchers’ jargon, these experiments show that our imaginations are highly structured when it comes to conceptual expansion and that retrievability plays an important role.
In other words, when we’re trying to come up with new ideas, we can’t help building on previous concepts – especially the ones which come most readily to mind.
Further studies have shown how this phenomenon affects science fiction writers and design engineers – so we can be pretty sure it applies to marketers too.
It explains why most new product ideas are incremental and why creative teams tend to develop work that has echoes of other, famous ideas. But most importantly, this dynamic also underlines the need for diversity within organisations.
Diversity, Equality and Inclusion are rightly (if belatedly) seen as huge priorities for companies today.
There’s the moral argument, of course. Then beyond that, there’s the eminently sensible point that we live in an increasingly diverse society and businesses can’t hope to connect with their customers, if they’re not representative of them.
But the A&M research points to another imperative: diversity is required to push the boundaries of creativity, because it widens the pool of influences and knowledge that we can draw from. Basically, it stops us coming up with Martian hammers.
This helps to explain why immigrants have received ¼ of Nobel Prizes awarded to Americans and 1/3 of patents – while representing only about 1/8 of the population.
It’s not just that they work harder (although other research shows that they do). They have more novel ideas, inspired by the richer experiences that they have had in life.
The phenomenon is also the reason why people from a multi-cultural background perform better in creative-solving tasks. Or why so many artists (from Handel to Hemingway, Picasso to Stravinsky) have done their best work in other countries.
Again, those responsible have more influences to draw from. They don’t just return to the same old cats and dogs – because their eyes have been opened to the possibility of much more fabulous creatures.
People who are ‘neurodiverse’ (for instance, with autism, dyslexia or dyspraxia) have similar advantages. Research shows that, because their brains are wired differently, they are often better at coming up with lateral ideas.
Likewise, people with physical disabilities are often highly imaginative, because they have had to hone their problem-solving skills to overcome all the obstacles that ableist society puts in their way.
And while most research suggests that LGBTQ+ people are not inherently more creative than others, again they bring a different perspective to the party.
The common theme is that people with more diverse life experiences have wider reference points. To borrow the title of Jeanette Winterson’s classic lesbian coming-of-age story, they know that ‘Oranges are not the only fruit.’
Anyway, let’s get back to aliens.
In 1974, a creative team at a London ad agency called BMP were developing some extra-terrestrial beings for a new campaign. As the A&M research would predict, they drew on their own, earthly experiences.
The characters looked a little like frogs or ants, albeit with metal exo-skeletons. They also had many human traits – most obviously, huge smiles and infectious laughs. They had pincer-like tools instead of hands. And they were obsessed by potatoes.
As such, they were a classic example of our tendency to think in terms of existing memory structures. But these aliens were also a great advert for the power of a fresh perspective.
You see, these particular super-intelligent beings were Martians and they had been devised to promote Smash (Cadbury’s new instant mashed potato product).
BMP’s legendary creative director, John Webster had started it all, with an epiphany down the pub. "It's crazy," he said, to the team over a pint. "If anyone came down from another planet and saw that we bothered to peel potatoes, boil them and mash them up when you can get it out of a packet, they'd think we were barmy!"
This observation inspired one of Britain’s most popular campaigns of all time.
The Smash Martians delighted the nation by poking fun at the way earthlings made mashed potatoes. “They are clearly a most primitive people!” they cackled as they rolled around laughing on their spaceship floor.
Sales rocketed, if you’ll excuse the pun. And while the trend for ‘real food’ eventually brought the brand back down to earth, the aliens are still a beloved part of British popular culture.
All of which underlines the importance of broadening our horizons and seeking out fresh perspectives. The really good news is that we don’t have to go to a different planet or ask an alien for that. We just need to get out of our bubbles – or better still, get others in to burst them.