System One and the swill bucket


“The public are swine.  Advertising is the rattling of a stick inside a swill bucket.”

So George Orwell wrote in ‘Keep the Aspidistra Flying’.  So that’s a bad thing right?

The book is largely about Orwell’s hatred of the way capitalism defines us and ultimately enslaves us in a kind of inhuman worship of ‘the money god’.

And yet, his description is oddly prescient of the current thinking around System 1 (intuitive) and System 2 (reasoning) processing. The pigs’ response to the rattling of the stick is Pavlovian – surely the clearest possible example of a System 1 response.  And the current vogue has it that brands exist in a similar mode.  Our response to brands is intuitive, rather than involving conscious reasoning.  So Orwell was right.  If maybe a bit harsh.

In fact I would argue it’s slightly different.  Most of the  responses we point to in System 1 processing are to do with primeval survival instincts.  Proper life and death stuff, or at least distant echoes of them as they apply in the modern world.  Brands on the other hand, are largely about avoiding having to think.  In part because the subject matter is too trivial (there, I’ve said it).  If we had to go through conscious processing of all the daily trivia in modern living, it would be all-consuming.  So we need short-cuts (or heuristics, as we now know them).  That’s what brands mostly are.  We mostly choose a brand we trust, to avoid having to waste valuable mind energy thinking about trivia.  So in a way, we’ve made System 1 work for us.

Not quite what Orwell meant, but, like capitalism generally, he intuitively got it.


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