Some questions we’ve all asked ourselves at some point: What are we doing here? What was before the beginning of time? What is outside the universe? Once we get to the end of what we know, what’s beyond what we know?
Science answers these questions with the word ‘infinity’: we can’t know what was before the Big-Bang, we can’t know what’s outside the observable universe, it’s a way of saying since we can’t know there’s no point thinking about it.
There’s an old Chinese saying that’s always worked for me: “What can a turtle, born at the bottom of a well, know of the ocean?”
For me, this sums up human knowledge, but it’s generally looked down on as ‘fortune-cookie thinking’.
And yet the same people who consider this no more than a trivial one-liner will quote ‘Plato’s Cave’ as a deep understanding of our situation.
In Plato’s analogy, man exists, metaphorically, in a cave chained so that he can only ever face the wall of the cave.
Behind man is a fire that he can’t see, between his back and the fire various shapes move across and cast shadows on the cave wall in front of the man.
Because these shadows are all a man can ever know, he lives his life believing the shadows are reality.
If man ever managed to break free from the chains and escape upwards into the world, the light would blind him and the reality would immediately drive him insane.
What’s outside the cave would be impossible for his mind to comprehend.
So here’s my question: apart from being much more complicated, how is Plato’s cave any different from the turtle in the well?
The turtle and the man both live their lives in a tiny restricted space.
They both believe that all they can see is all the reality there is: for the man shadows on the wall, for the turtle slimy walls and a small, disc-shaped sky above.
Beyond what they experience, there exists a reality they can’t possibly comprehend.
So why do the same people who sneer at the turtle analogy consider Plato’s analogy so much more insightful?
My guess would be the fact that it’s more complicated is what impresses them.
The highest form of learning most of us know is university, and at university we learn that people who can handle complicated problems are the most intelligent.
Fair enough in subjects like science, mathematics, medicine, astro-physics etc.
But the problem occurs when that kind of thinking becomes the norm for all thinking, particularly the liberal arts, like a politics, philosophy, and English degree (PPE).
Everyone is taught that complicated thinking is a sign of intelligence.
But then these same people have to enter the real world, in our case advertising.
And what they bring with them is the formula: complicated = intelligent.
The problem of course, is that our work is directed not at university professors but at ordinary people, and ordinary people don’t have time for complicated.
Certainly not in advertising, which is usually an interruption and therefore a nuisance.
Wherever you advertise in the real world you are an interruption.
Consequently, the shortest, simplest way to say anything is the most likely to get noticed and remembered.
What works is exactly the opposite of what is taught at university.
At university, Plato’s cave works because it’s complicated.
In the real world, the turtle in the well works because it’s simple.
Because in the real world complicated doesn’t = intelligence.
In the real world complicated = invisible.