Marketing Unplugged: An Honest Advertisement

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The Genius of Birds is a book that provides a compelling tour of bird intelligence based on their navigational skills, architectural skills and vocal virtuosity.  But it was the chapter on avian aesthetics that most piqued my interest.  Specifically, I was startled by the description of the peacock’s tail as an “honest advertisement,” a term that, from my experience, struck me as suspiciously oxymoronic.

Perhaps I am jaded from the hours spent wandering the grocery aisles reading labels.  My view is that advertisimg operates in the murky gap between perception and reality – a jug of orange juice that advertises fresh taste, while the orange juice itself is far from fresh; free range chickens, which only guarantees that chickens have access to a door if they can find it; the vague but comforting terms of natural, organic or artisan.  In my experience, honesty is a rare attribute of advertising.

The book implies that “honest advertisement” has become a scientific term with the peacock’s tail its poster child.  What forces of evolution produced something so gaudy?  What exactly is the peacock advertising and why is it considered “honest?”  Charles Darwin agonized over the peacock.  The va-va-va voom display of ornamental plumage did not fit into his bedrock concept of the “survival of the fittest.”  The enormous train of the peacock would seem to be a clear evolutionary disadvantage – the peacock is both slow moving and easily spotted by predators.  And yet the drab female peahen is clearly besotted with the most resplendent peacock, preferentially mating with those with the most abundant eyespots in their trains.  In a letter to Asa Gray, a botanist colleague, Darwin wrote, “The sight of a peacock’s tail, whenever I gaze at it, it makes me sick!”

Darwin eventually proposed that the drab peahens actually had a “taste for the beautiful,” that the peacocks sought to “charm” their mates, and that this impractical aesthetic sense must have had a separate evolutionary pathway, which he termed sexual selection.  Alfred Lord Wallace, a cofounder of the theory of natural selection, dismissed the idea of beauty for beauty’s sake and wrote “The only way in which we can account for the observed facts is by supposing that colour and ornament are strictly correlated with health, vigor and general fitness to survive.”

Wallace believed that squandering precious resources on elaborate plumage was an indirect but honest advertisement of underlying fitness.  Peacocks that lack the energy to produce a dazzling train must be feeble, diseased, or otherwise poorly qualified to mate.  Basically, conspicuous consumption was considered an honest advertisement of underlying fitness.  Wallace’s theory was accepted and Darwin’s theory that birds appreciated beauty was largely forgotten.

The peacock’s only function is to provide sperm.  The responsibility for foraging, nest building or brooding the chicks is foisted upon the put-upon peahen.  Therefore, the elaborate plumage is only advertising past behavior, a visual statement that this peacock has overcome his tremendous handicap.  On this basis alone he is a suitable mate.  Co-parenting is the norm for most birds, and in this situation the female must make more subjective judgments about future behavior, i.e. the male as a committed nest-mate.  It seems to me that it is easier to be honest when all you are advertising is survival; there is little gap between perception and reality.  In contrast, honesty about future behavior is easily manipulated.  My husband Nick loves to describe the bait and switch strategy he claims I used in the early days of our relationship.  He believes I sent an honest signal that I liked to fish and assumed that we would happily forage together.  However, once we got married he claims I stopped fishing completely.  My version of the story is that my “dishonest” advertisement was nothing more than a large gap between perception and reality.

Does the concept of an honest advertisement have any applicability to the human experience?   Maybe our aesthetic sense, our attraction to bright and shiny objects, can be traced back to honest advertisements of fitness, but in humans natural selection – the nitty gritty of survival – has been superseded by centuries of cultural evolution.  Using the peacock model, anyone with adequate resources to indulge in conspicuous consumption – a high end sports car for example – would be considered a good catch.  Oh, I dearly hope that mate selection has evolved beyond the eye candy of the 1%.  Besides this strategy would require that the signaler (i.e. car owner) and receiver (typically the woman) share the same aesthetic.  As we drive along the highway Nick is always amazed that I have absolutely no aptitude to distinguish between the fully-loaded Lexus and the down-market Camry.  They all look the same to me. I would absolutely fail as a peahen, but the good news is that my mate selection has been spot on.



  1. Sanjeev Krishna Thakur Ji on August 29, 2017 at 11:56 am

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