The Marginal Relevance Of Exceptionalism

September 6, 2016
T. Alex Blum

The Marginal Relevance Of Exceptionalism

Recently, there was an item in Agency Spy about a new esurance spot with the tagline “Don’t Catch and Go”, addressing the risks involved in playing Pokemon Go while driving (which would seem to be pretty obvious). In the opening sentence of the Agency Spy article, they reference the “now waning” Pokemon Go craze, which seems to me to label Pokemon Go as in some way a disappointment or a failure to live up to expectations. And, in fact, if you go to the Gartner Research 2016 Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies, you will find that augmented and virtual reality have both passed the “Peak of Elevated Expectations” in their graph and have descended to the “Trough of Disillusionment”. So this is about expectations, but what kind?

I’m reminded of a Q and A at SXSW in 2014 where Mark Cuban sat up on stage in front of an audience and fielded a bunch of questions about his story, his success, and the experiences in his life which brought him to his present fame, or notoriety, depending on your point of view.  He’s a distinctive personality, entertaining and provocative. Audience members probed him from many different perspectives, some more and some less insightful, but consciously or not, all pretty much directed at teasing out the “secret sauce” of how he came to be so successful. In our media-addicted, celebrity-obsessed culture, we see this repeated often, from Inside the Actors Studio to Iconoclasts to The Ellen Show, the expectation that broad conclusions can be drawn from examining a particular success, looking for its key elements, and applying those to our own lives or processes.

Cuban delivered as promised, but it left me wondering what all these people were trying to discover, and why? Mark Cuban is apparently worth some $3.5 billion or so. He got that way by selling to Yahoo for almost $6 billion, one of the founding stories of this generation of internet-based business cash-outs, up there with Paypal, and others. His massive success is the result of some combination of luck and / or alchemy between him, his partners, their collective brilliance, more luck, a specific set of market conditions that will never exist again, a special moment in the evolution of technology, and myriad other factors, quantifiable and non.

But ask yourself what the implications are of his story (or that of Elon Musk, or even the other Mark, for that matter, you know the one) to the everyday lives, aspirations, and potential success or failure narratives of any of us “normal” people. Here’s my opinion – it has precious little significance. You can choose to be inspired, or not. Everything else is pretty much irrelevant.  Mark Cuban was part of a great idea which became a huge success, and then he cashed out, bought a basketball team, and now he’s part of a TV show which trades on his success and that of others to present a basically misleading picture of how real success actually happens in business.

So what does this have to do with Pokemon Go? Obviously, it’s not a person, but it certainly has a success story.  Its appearance is also a function of a specific point in time, the brilliance of a collection of individuals, the utilization of existing technologies in an original and creative way, luck, economics, and so on. It’s a better mousetrap. It’s a brilliant practical application of the augmented reality technology. Like other great design achievements (the E-type Jaguar, the Iphone, the Luxo lamp) it appears deceptively simple. Inventions like this validate the cliché, “If it didn’t exist, someone would have to invent it”. Once it exists, it seems so obvious, it's hard to un-imagine its existence. Like baseball, it is “of today”, but it compellingly evokes the past, particularly for those who grew up playing the original game and collecting the cards. It’s the exact calculus that studios look for in a blockbuster – recognizable, familiar, but innovative and different. It’s why they keep remaking old TV shows and superhero movies.

But again, here’s what it’s not – a “game-changer” (unless you mean that 100% literally) for marketers, a “must-have”, “don’t miss the boat” opportunity. That was clearly inflated expectations and hype. Pokemon Go is not a new media type. It’s not a new platform. It’s not going to replace anything. People are not going to stop watching what they now call “legacy TV” because of it. It does not redefine marketing or advertising or dramatically change the way brands communicate with consumers. It was never going to be any of those things. That was all breathless hype from the endless news cycle of media and marketing prophecy. Don’t you sometimes wish we didn’t feel compelled these days to constantly decide that “everything has changed”, that there is a “paradigm shift” every time something interesting happens? Perhaps then we wouldn’t bother being disappointed with something as elegant, beautifully realized, and lighthearted as Pokemon Go, something that people do just because it’s fun.

So what, you may ask, does this have to do with Mark Cuban, or Steve Jobs, or an E-type Jaguar? What all these things, or people, have in common, is that they are exceptional, which means, by definition, that they are not the norm. The exceptional does not provide the model for the quotidian. Everybody that is thinking right now that they are the next Mark Zuckerberg if they can just figure out what their “thing” is, or come up with that genius app, should relax. There’s already a Mark Zuckerberg. There isn’t going to be another one, or another Mark Cuban, for that matter. Or another Pokemon Go. There’s going to be something else, something or someone exceptional, but most of them probably won’t change the world, or even the world of advertising.

So let’s just appreciate the exceptional for what it is, the exception, instead of asking too much of it, needing it to change everything. Go play Pokemon Go. Enjoy it. “Catch them all”.  But try to remember not to do it while you’re driving.

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