[Aesthetic aha] Most consumers are curious to discover new things yet deeply afraid of anything that's too new
Some new products and ideas slip into the well-worn grooves of people's expectations. In fifteen out of the last sixteen years, the highest-grossing movie in America has been a sequel of a previously successful movie (e.g., Star Wars) or an adaptation of a previously successful book (e.g., The Grinch). The power of well-disguised familiarity goes far beyond film. It's a political essay that expresses, with new and thrilling clarity, an idea that readers thought but never verbalized. It's a television show that introduces an alien world, yet with characters so recognizable that viewers feel as if they're wearing their skin. It's a piece of art that dazzles with a new form and yet offers a jolt of meaning. In the psychology of aesthetics, there is a name for the moment between the anxiety of confronting something new and the satisfying click of understanding it. It is called an "aesthetic aha."
This is the first thesis of the book. Most consumers are neophilic—curious to discover new things—and deeply neophobic—afraid of anything that's too new. The best hit makers are gifted at creating moments of meaning by marrying new and old, anxiety and understanding. They are architects of familiar surprises.
When I design online ads for American Apparel, I almost always look for an angle that will provoke. Outrage, self-righteousness, and titillation all work equally well. Naturally, the sexy ones are probably those you remember most, but the formula worked for all types of images. Photos of kids dressed up like adults, dogs wearing clothes, ad copy that didn’t make any sense—all high-valence, viral images. If I could generate a reaction, I could propel the ad from being something I had to pay for people to see (by buying ad inventory) to something people would gladly post on the front page of their highly trafficked websites.
But entertainment has the merit not only of being better suited to helping sell goods; it is an effective vehicle for hidden ideological messages. Furthermore, in a system of high and growing inequality, entertainment is the contemporary equivalent of the Roman “games of the circus” that diverts the public from politics and generates a political apathy that is helpful to preservation of the status quo.