Plausibility, and what marketers can learn from the Skywalker family

The world of science fiction writing can teach us a lot about just how much the human mind can accept – and the things it can’t.

Take Star Wars, for instance. Walking and talking robots? No problem, even in the 70s. Moon-sized space station with the power to destroy a planet? Great! The main villain actually being the father of the protagonist? Sure, I can go there. But the lead characters being brother and sister …. um, no (see image).

There are far worse crimes against credulity in the annals of sci-fi, but the Luke/Leia = brother/sister plot twist is one that stretches the limits. It shows a conundrum that all science fiction writers have to contend with – the need to create and blend fantastical ideas within a well-defined and consistent world. Push too far and the whole thing collapses, and you lose your audience.

It is a lesson that translates to the world of marketing through the concept of plausibility – a field of study currently under examination by Ujwal Kayande, a professor of marketing at the Melbourne Business School, along with various colleagues. It is also a concept  which I wrote about last year for CMO.  Basically, it is the idea that there are some claims that brands just can’t plausibly make – such as being big but nimble. If they are to make those claims successfully, there is a lot of ground work to be done to establish a suitable context in the mind of the receiver.

I recently caught up with Ujwal to discuss the relationship between science fiction and plausibility, and how some contexts immediately lend themselves to stretched imaginations – but still within limits. Unfortunately marketers have to ground their campaigns in the real world, although there is no end to the number of campaigns that suggest perhaps that grounding was forgotten somewhere along the line.

Plausibility is one of the topics I talk about in Storytelling with Intent sessions – the idea that few people will believe you if the claims you are making don’t sound achievable, regardless of whether or not they are factually true. It is an issue that I regularly see companies grappling with, particularly those that are trying to re-position themselves in markets. That doesn’t mean re-positioning can’t be achieved, but it takes a lot more work than simply making a bold claim in an ad campaign.