A view from Dave Trott: Right answer, wrong question
A view from Dave Trott

Right answer, wrong question

In his book on planning, called Truth, Lies & Advertising, Jon Steel tells a story to illustrate how research can be simultaneously right and wrong.

The Hawaiians had a huge problem with rats, they came on ships from America and Polynesia and devastated the sugar plantations.

Because they weren’t native to Hawaii they had no natural predators and bred like crazy.

The Hawaiians realised they needed to introduce a natural predator to control the rats.

The ideal animal would be small, aggressive, fast, agile and strong.

Eventually they decided on the Indian mongoose which, famously, could kill a cobra.

If it could kill a cobra, a rat should be no problem.

But just to be sure, they conducted a proper experiment in laboratory conditions.

They placed mongooses and rats in cages together, to observe what would happen.

In every case, the mongoose caught and killed the rat, often it also ate it.

So the mongoose was proved to be perfect and hundreds were shipped in cages to Hawaii.

But the native chief of the island of Kauai, who travelled on the ship with the mongooses, hated the vicious, angry creatures and decided they were far too cruel to be allowed onto his island.

So he had the cages destined for Kauai tipped over the side, and the mongooses drowned.

Meanwhile, the rest were released onto all the other islands.

The sugar plantation owners waited for the rat infestation, and the damage to their crops, to diminish but it continued as before.

They compared notes with Kauai, where no mongooses had been released, and found the rats were untouched on all the islands, with or without mongooses.

So what happened to the fearsome predators? Why hadn’t they attacked and killed the rats?

The answer was the one thing that the research hadn’t revealed.

It hadn’t revealed it, because no-one thought to ask the question.

The fact was that the rats only came out at night, whereas the mongooses only came out during the day, so they never met.

By the time the rats had finished gnawing on the sugarcane, the sun was coming up and they headed home.

At the same time, the mongooses were waking up and leaving their homes, but the rats had already disappeared.

That didn’t show up in the laboratory experiments because the researchers forced the rats and mongooses into the cages together.

It didn’t occur to them that the two species would never normally meet, they were only researching fighting ability not sleeping patterns.

So they got the right answer and the wrong answer at the same time.

Because that isn’t research, that’s just testing.

Properly used, research is about finding out things we never expected, things we didn’t know.

Which is why Jon Steel says the proper way to use research is at the beginning of the creative process, before we even write the brief.

As a way to discover entire new areas for creativity, areas we wouldn’t have thought of.

To find out things we didn’t even know we didn’t know.

What we do in advertising isn’t research, it’s just a fancy name for testing.

Just a thumbs up or down to test the idea after it’s been done.

We ask the question at the end of the process instead of the beginning.

Which is why most advertising is dull, invisible and ineffective.

Because we are consistently getting answers to the wrong questions.

Dave Trott is the author of Creative Blindness and How to Cure It, Creative Mischief, Predatory Thinking and One Plus One Equals Three