McGuffins and Nerdwanglers

I’ve been tweeting recently about some purchases I have been making, joking about the fact that I have no idea what Canon SLR 550d 18MP really means, or RAM, memory and processor speed for that matter. Not entirely true, I have a vague idea that more megapixels in a digital camera gives better picture quality, but someone who really knows what they are talking about explained that it is not quite as simple as that. There are many other aspects of the camera, and how you use it, that will negate the benefits of just having more little ‘pixies’ as I call them.

Megapixels is just an indicator of performance, a heuristic or shorthand that helps us judge what we are getting for our money in terms of performance. We need them because most of us cannot grasp all the aspects of performance needed to make a fully considered choice. So we rely on these heuristics and we also just copy what we see other people do who in turn have relied on them. It does not just apply to high tech products like cameras or computers. Most of what we buy now has a huge amount of technological know-how behind it or at least expert craftsmanship. From my earliest days in brand management I learned how complex a detergent is, and from my more recent time in the beer industry I know just how complex is the process (not so much the ingredients although they of course matter) of making beer. Miller Lite (not the most strikingly different of beers) involves no fewer than 3000 choices in the brewing process, each one of which, if made differently, would result in a different tasting beer. Have you ever seen a perfumers organ (no sniggers) – the thousands of little vials of perfume ingredients, some of them worth a fortune, that they use to compose a new fragrance? The marketing focuses on simple vocabulary like “fresh, musky or sensual” to describe what is in effect a work of pure art.

As Gladwell pointed out in Blink we thin slice to form our judgments. We use a few simple things to sum up a person, situation or brand choice. Marketers exploit this by latching on to a few simple concepts – often but not always based on the science – to ‘help’ us. They will hype some aspect of the product to persuade us to buy and sometimes they employ what I used to call “Nerdwanglers” and I discovered years later the Americans call “McGuffins”. Let me explain.

Nerdwangler – showing my age – refers to the late Kenneth Williams, a very camp UK comic who had a character who spoke in a strong west country accent and used phrases with made up words such as “She took me down the orchard and I showed her my nerdwangler”. Nobody knew what a “nerdwangler” was but it sounded naughty and got lots of laughs. It was suggestive. When I ran Persil, we relaunched the brand with a new low temperature bleach that had the chemical acronym of TAED (can’t remember the full name but it starts with tetra). There was an impressive amount of technology and chemistry know-how behind this ingredient. It was only one of several changes we made but in total they did give noticeable cleaning improvements at the lower temperatures people were having to wash in because of more and more artificial fibers (you can literally boil wash cotton). When we tested the new packaging we got a great result for “New Improved Persil – now with TAED for a better Cool Wash”. We knew we would, it was an improvement on “miracle ingredient X” which had worked in the past until it got over used. TAED was a ‘nerdwangler’ – no-one knew what it meant but it sounded good, like more megapixels and twin turbos.

The button on the sleeve of a Dunhill blazer actually unbuttons, the second hand on a Rolex actually sweeps, the door of a Mercedes shuts with a soft, firm sound rather than a clunk. They are all heuristics.

They justify our purchase decisions to ourselves, and to our mates – “Look Fred, your watch goes tick tick tick but my Rolex goes swoosh”.

Any harm in any of this? Well let’s look at some common McGuffins, Nerdwanglers and heuristics.

Audi RS6 does 0-60 in 4.6 seconds, faster than a Porsche Carrera

Single malt whisky is more expensive than a blend (price is the single most common heuristic in purchase decisions)

Rolex is made from one piece of metal with a fully mechanical movement

Dettol kills 99% of all known germs

Camel One has only 1mg of tar and nicotine

You lose weight faster on the Atkinson diet

Canon 550d has 6 more megapixels than the Nikon DX3

Yes but…….

The Audi only does this in a straight line, the Porsche thrashes it on a track or winding road.

A single malt whisky is just an ingredient used to blend a whisky, one with a very distinctive but singular taste – fine for sipping but not for having a few drinks. Any scotch expert will tell you there is vastly more complexity and balanced taste in a decent blend. Scotch drinkers drink blends.

Any Rolex will lose or gain 5 seconds a day (if you are lucky) – the cheapest quartz is more accurate.

It is not good to kill all germs, we rely on them to build our immunity. What about the ones we don’t know and what if the 1% is a superbug that will kill you?

Tests show that smokers who switch to low tar/nicotine cigarettes end up smoking more in a day so the total effect is no different and certainly no better for you.

The Atkinson diet worked by satiating you with protein and fat so you felt full quicker and therefore ate less. Smoking will do the same thing and is probably no worse for you. You lose weight if the calories you expend exceed the calories you take in. If you diet you actually programme your body to gain more weight in the future (it’s a genetic thing, we are designed to gain weight to see us through the winter months).

The Nikon has a better lens and is full frame – it will take much better pictures. It is however a brute to carry around and only the professional will be able to make full use of its superior performance.

Everything I have just said can be discovered on the internet in just a few minutes from a variety of sources that are more trusted than the manufacturer – Wiki, blogs, chat rooms, social networks etc.

The days of the McGuffin and the Nerdwanglers are numbered. We are not becoming more rational in our purchase decisions we are just able to be more rational.

Those of you who are following the debate I am having with Paul Feldwick will know that I do not accept the distinction between rational and emotional choices. If I buy something because a) it makes me feel good b) it says something about me or c) I see lots of other people doing it, then I am behaving entirely rationally as a super social ape wishing to enjoy life, get on with others and avoid risk.

So yes, I have a Porsche, a Rolex (2 actually), a Canon 550d (I did my research, it does take great pictures with all those pixies, a decent Tamron lens and a light body), I smoke Marlboro Light, drink a single malt but only if someone gives it to me. I disinfect my toilet (well someone does). But I eat and drink what I like and try to work it off in the gym. And of course I smoke so I am never as hungry as my more clean living friends but that might not be sensible for my lungs and heart. Apes don’t smoke, maybe I should copy them? But then they don’t see the funny side of showing someone your nerdwangler. (I have no idea of the origins of ‘McGuffins’).

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