Marketing and Mystery

Maybe this will shake things up a touch. On Friday, “This is London” covered an official air-miss report that was filed several weeks ago and which had appeared in Pilot magazine. Aurigny Airlines captain Ray Bowyer, 50, flying over the Channel Islands close to Alderney first spotted an object that he described as “a cigar-shaped brilliant white light.” His sighting was confirmed by passengers, by radar imaging on the ground, and by another pilot flying for another airline.

After realizing the distance to the object, he estimated the size of the object to be a mile wide. Later in his approach, he saw another object. He said it was visible for about nine minutes, which seems to rule out all sorts of optical effects. His interview with ITV News is posted on YouTube and seems quite revealing. The guy seems shaken up and sincere.

What does this have to do with Marketing and Consumer Culture? Well, nothing and everything.

My posts on Philip K. Dick and ontology assert that the way we think about Marketing and Consumer Culture is deeply shaped by our underlying view of what we believe reality to be, what we believe is possible and worthy of study. It’s a guiding assumption of this brandthroposophy blog that we should all stay open minded. There could definitely be an interesting story about the marketing of this story, about UFO stories, about the marketing tie-ins between mystery and controversy and marketing. In fact, my very first conference paper and very first publication were about X-Files fans (“X-Philes”) and in that paper I wrote that X-Files fans

consume mysterious and mystical notions through The X-Files show and through their Internet activities and membership in the fan community. As noted by Belk, Wallendorf and Sherry (1989), mystery is an important element of the sacred. Mystery is “above the ordinary” and derives from “profound experiences and meanings” (p. 7). Consumers are increasingly turning to secular sources –such as television shows, and the subcultures of consumption that spring up based on them– to fulfill their deep-seated need for connection with the sacred. It is also possible that in our faithless, hyper-rational and scientific society, many people crave the excitement and energy that the only the unexplained can inspire.

So, I’ve believe for a long time that there is a massive market for the unexplained. MIT Scholar Geoffrey Long has written about the “negative capability” of fictional characters who are sketched out fairly well in terms of identity and motivation but leave much of the details of their backgrounds and lives for fiction readers to fill in from their own imaginations. Fans love characters with negative capability because they fill in their missing details. There is a lot of conceptual room for them to do identity work with them and inject them with deeper meanings and significance. Boba Fett in the Star Wars universe is a great example.

I suggest that we think about major mysteries such as religious miracles, Virgin Mary sightings, miraculous healings, and modern UFO sightings as a type of supernegative capability, an aporia or conceptual gap writ large. We all seem drawn to their openendedness, to figure them out. There is much that matters and much to explore about our own exploration of these matters.

I enjoy the controversy swirling around this recent UFO news story particularly evident in the hundreds of comments on the digg story. There are true believers and equally hardcore skeptics. The very first comment was someone lamenting the fact that they had a flight to catch that day, right after reading this story. A statement of fear. That was followed by 6 comments chiding the person and mocking their belief, comparing it to an iiratonal faith in “the Flying Spaghetti Monster.”

Something interesting seems to have happened over Aurigny, confirmed by multiple eyewitnesses. But we will almost certainly never completely understand it. There are mysteries left in our world that we won’t solve. And these mysteries are what keep me fascinated by future prediction, big thinkers, utopian dreamers, edgy science fiction and also edgy nonfiction such as that written by Daniel Pinchbeck and Erik Davis, thinkers who don’t shy away from mysteries simply because they are popularly viewed as pseudo-scientific or on the margins of respectability but who also treat them with a healthy degree of skepticism and subject them to rigorous evidentiary claims.

If we are going to adapt to the many global-scale challenges that will face us in the coming years, to innovate brilliantly and effectively, we are going to need to embrace ambiguity on an emotional and intellectual scale we can scarcely conceive of right now.

In marketing, in business, in innovation, and in consumer culture, there are still mysteries left. These systems of thought are highly rational, highly structured, dominated by mathematical and engineering approaches. But the topics they impact–life and society–contain entire universes of fuzzy ambiguities, boldly bizarre belief systems, endless portals of complexity. If we are truly seekers after the novel and the new, I don’t think we should turn away from the darkness and the strange. I am a student of unflinchingly peering into the void.

UFOs in 2007? Weird? Significant? Interesting?

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