You know that old idea that as soon as someone says “Don’t think of an elephant,” there’s one thing you just can’t stop thinking of. (Clue: large, grey, big floppy ears if African, trunk.)
I discovered the adperson’s equivalent many years ago, and to share it with you I have to admit that back in those days I worked (a bit, and among many other things) on advertising for cigarettes. The adperson’s equivalent of “Don’t think of an elephant” was something called the CAP code – I think it stood for Code of Advertising Practice, so it doubled up on the word “code” a bit like the longhand version of the Dutch financial firm ING Group is in fact International Nederlanden Group Group.
The CAP code laid down all the things you weren’t allowed to do in cigarette advertising. For example, you couldn’t claim that smoking a particular brand made you more successful, or cooler, or more attractive to the opposite sex, or indeed to your own sex. No adperson in their right mind would want to do anything so ludicrously implausible and crass. If anyone did, consumers would have mocked the brand to oblivion. We all knew this. And yet somehow…
Somehow, the very existence of the code and its many prohibitions meant that we all spent 99% of our time and energy trying to find ways to get round it. We were obsessed with finding ways to hint, or to imply, on just to enable consumers to conclude, that such-and-such a brand did indeed make smokers more successful or cooler or more attractive or all the rest of it. It was ridiculous, and our clients’ compliance people nearly always made sure our stupid ideas could never appear. But, “Don’t think of an elephant” – we couldn’t help ourselves.
The equivalent in financial services is a little bit more complicated – you might say a bit more conceptual. We’re not allowed to say anything definite about the future performance of investments (except guaranteed investments, obvs, which are a whole different ballgame).
Of course it’s fine that we’re not allowed to, because in our rational minds we don’t want to. We fully understand that nothing definite can be said. The whole thing about investments is that their outcomes are uncertain. And yet somehow, the existence of the rules ensures that we spend 99% of our time and energy trying to find ways to get round them. We’re obsessed with finding ways to hint, or to imply, on just to enable consumers to conclude, that such-and-such an investment is sure to deliver them an excellent return. If we could, we’d put a number on it. It’s ridiculous, and our clients’ compliance people nearly always make sure our stupid ideas could never appear. But, “Don’t think of an elephant” – we just can’t help ourselves.