You know how it is. You’re in a meeting or at a conference watching a presentation and it’s all fine, things flowing nicely, the speaker’s narrative unfolding gently, inevitably – sometimes even interestingly. And then it happens: something is said that drops into the room like a virtual grenade. Your attention is well and truly grabbed and suddenly you – and everyone else in the audience – will never look at the world in quite the same way again.

The only problem is that many of these ‘facts’ are often not actually facts at all.

They are what I call disruptive factoids. This is what I call fact-like objects (normally stats of some sort) that have a compellingly disruptive feel to them. They demand attention. They run so counter to your deeply embedded beliefs about the world that they actually shock you. You certainly cannot ignore them – and of course they give people instantly sharable social media fodder. (‘68% of Canadians prefer bacon to sex – OMG #whoknew?’)

I first remember noticing this phenomenon well over a decade ago when reading a short piece by a now-famous British advertising writer. Talking about the power of word of mouth, he quoted an academic paper as saying that “80% of buying decisions are made on personal recommendation.”

All these years later, I still clearly remember how astonishing this number seemed to me. If that were true, surely it changed everything I had understood about marketing. The very foundations of my intellectual world were tottering. I felt almost dazed.

But then I started to think about what I’d just read and it really puzzled me. How robust was the research? What method did they use? Where was it carried out? Who did they interview? Was it all types of buying decisions or just some?

So I resolved to track it down.

The footnote led me to a paper in a specialist journal, which led me in turn to another paper in another specialist journal, which led me….anyway, this went on for a while.

Imagine my eventual surprise when I discovered that the original source of all this earnest academic footnoting was an article in a mid-‘80s Advertising Age by an obscure New York ad executive who just mentioned it as if he were saying the earth was round: no research, no method, no source, nothing.

Maybe he heard it in a bar; maybe he made it up. Who knows? 

I couldn’t have been more disappointed. Or more pissed off.

But at least I know that this earth-shattering ‘fact’ was completely bogus. (Presumably no-one else who read the article does. That pisses me off even more.)

Over the years, I’ve realized that this is not an isolated incident. These disruptive factoids are everywhere. And like the psychological equivalent of zebra mussels or Japanese knotweed, they invade your brain and are bloody hard to dislodge.

Only the other day I was watching an otherwise excellent Contagious presentation from this year’s Cannes that quoted an Accenture report as saying that “by 2020 one-third of traditional banks’ revenue will be eroded [by consumer-centric upstart companies]”.

Now the interesting thing is that this was presented as if it were a fact, as true and indisputable as the melting point of copper. And clearly, if it were indeed a fact, it would likely have some pretty profound implications. Especially for bankers. Oo-er.

And yet, and yet….it is not a fact. It is actually a prediction – and it may not even be a very good one. (The subject of the big consultancies and their track record in predicting the future is another subject for another post….)

So predictions can be disruptive factoids too. They really do get everywhere.

More importantly, why are we so susceptible to the power of the disruptive factoid?

Partly I think it’s because we are deluged with information from morning to night and cling to anything remarkable like a drowning person to a rock. But mostly I think it’s because we have largely fallen for the modern myth of drastic, disruptive change being ‘the way things happen round here’ and are thus subconsciously looking for something – anything – that allows us to look as if we are firmly in the flow, and deeply connected to this crucial narrative mechanism of our times.[1]

As planners, we need to be better than that.

[1] For a wonderfully-written and thorough take-down of the what we might call the disruption industry, see this recent piece by Jill Lepore in the New Yorker.

Mark Tomblin is the Chief Strategy Officer at TAXI. His career has spanned many different aspects of agency life, including being a planner, researcher and consultant – gory details at http://ca.linkedin.com/in/marktomblin/.
Follow him if you must at @marktomblin.

About Mark Tomblin

Mark Tomblin has written 8 post in this blog.

Chief Strategy Officer @ TAXI