In 1964 a series of paintings were put on display in an art gallery in Sweden.
Claimed to have been painted by a previously unknown French artist by the name of Pierre Brassau, the paintings were immediately met with praise, astonishment, and excitement.
One critic even wrote:
“Brassau paints with powerful strokes, but also with clear determination. His brush strokes twist with furious fastidiousness. Pierre is an artist who performs with the delicacy of a ballet dancer.”
Pretty good compliment for a newly discovered painter. And critic after critic praised Brassau’s work and were convinced this previously unknown artist from France would take the art world by storm. It was only a matter of time before the whole world knew of his greatness.
The only problem was that Pierre Brassau was not a French painter.
Pierre Brassau was a monkey (…a chimpanzee to be exact).
A monkey who had been given a set of paintbrushes and then left alone to paint whatever he felt like. Four of his best paintings were then selected and put on display at the Gallerie Christinae in Göteborg, Sweden.
The experiment was designed as a way to test whether art critics could accurately tell the difference between true avant-garde modern art, and the work of a monkey.
Apparently, they could not.
Only one critic claimed that “only an ape could have done this”
So how could this have happened?
How could otherwise smart, sophisticated, and experienced art critics be fooled into thinking that these paintings were in fact fine art, produced by an undiscovered talent?
More importantly, what do the results of this experiment mean for you and your business?
And the answer to those questions can be found in three different psychologically based marketing principles:
I’ll tackle each of these in order. But first, there’s something important to understand that ties this all together.
The world is a loud and confusing place.
This is why our brains need to use a number of different mental shortcuts (known as heuristics), to help to ease the cognitive load of making decisions and evaluating information.
What’s interesting though is that these mental shortcuts all take place subconsciously, and instantaneously, without anyone ever noticing.
Motivation, persuasion, influence, and their evil cousins of propaganda, manipulation, and coercion all play on these mental shortcuts in order to get someone to think, feel, or act in a certain way.
This is how the experimenter was able to get otherwise smart, sophisticated, and experienced art critics all to praise the paintings of a monkey.
Marketing, when done right, is a powerful and almost unstoppable force.
So let me unpack the factors at play that led to such an incredibly successful hoax. Both to arm you with the tools to do good and equip you against others with less noble intentions.
And it all starts with Packaging.
When most people think of packaging they think of physical products. Maybe a box. A bag. Or whatever else a product arrives in.
But in marketing, packaging represents all of the elements that go into creating an initial impression of an offer. And the packaging and presentation matter just as much (if not more) with services and intangible offers than they do with physical products.
Part of the success of Brassau’s acceptance was the packaging and presentation of his offer (i.e. the paintings) to his market (i.e. the critics).
These were not drawings on a kindergarten classroom wall.
The paintings weren’t being sold on a busy tourist street. And they weren’t random pictures tossed together without any thought or vision to their presentation.
Rather, they were painted on canvas, presented in an art gallery, and hung alongside works from other artists from England, Denmark, Austria, Italy, and Sweden.
Nothing there would indicate or give even the slightest suspicion that these were anything but truly remarkable pieces by a truly remarkable artist.
Packaging, presentation, and appearance matters.
One of the ways our brains make sense of the world around us is to use a kind of mental filing system that allows us to organize our knowledge into different categories.
These different categories, or files, or mental shortcuts are known as schemas.
And we have schemas for pretty much everything.
For example, I could introduce the concept of trying something new and liking it by telling you a story about the time I thought I hated eggplant, but then how my friend made a recipe with eggplant and not only was it ok, but I actually loved it.
This story activates the schema of being more open minded or adventurous by showcasing a time I was willing to try new things and then changed my opinion on a subject after being presented with new information.
This is powerful, and happens automatically and instantaneously without you even knowing it.
Participants of a study were exposed to words associated with seniors and older people like “Florida”, “retirement”, and “Bingo” and were then observed as they left the study area.
What’s interesting is that the subjects that were exposed (i.e. primed) to the words typically associated with elderly people were marked as leaving the study area slower than those study participants who were exposed to neutral terms (i.e. terms that didn’t trigger a schema of elderly people).
This is what priming is all about.
Using stories, giving examples, and presenting information that primes your clients to think, feel, and act in a certain way by triggering different schemas they already have in their minds.
The experimenter behind the Pierre Brassau hoax knew this (either intuitively or overtly), and he triggered a schema of an “undiscovered French artist” and all of the associations that go along with it when he presented the art to the critics.
They had to believe. Everything in front of them was pointing in one very clear and obvious direction.
What they were looking at was art at its finest.
But it gets even more powerful than this when you start to combine not just packaging and priming, but also one of the most powerful psychological persuasion switches of all.
The desire for prestige and increasing status.
The drive to acquire status and prestige is hard-wired into our natures as human beings.
The drive to elevate one’s status is why kingdoms and empires are built.
It’s how big brands are able to command often obscenely high prices for otherwise commodity goods. And why status symbols like Ivy League degrees, designer watches, fancy sports cars, and other symbols of success, wealth, or power are prominently displayed across society.
Even in cultures where material success isn’t as highly prized, other forms of status seeking and attempting to climb the social hierarchy ladder still take place.
The key is finding out what kind of status is important and matters most to your market, and then connecting your offer with an increase in that status.
People want things that will increase their status. And will avoid anything that threatens to reduce or compromise their current status.
In the case of the Pierre Brassau art critics, their status is in having expertise, a keen eye, and insider access to this exclusive society.
It’s not hard to imagine the critics making their rounds through the gallery. Wine glasses in hand. Contemplative looks on their faces. Taking in each painting and commenting on its style, influence, and beauty.
Another factor at play is the newness, novelty, or undiscovered aspect of this new artist from France.
Our brains are naturally hardwired to release dopamine when presented with something new and unique.
Not to mention the perceived status increase that would accompany being one of the first to identify the greatness that is a Pierre Brassau original.
Add to this another cognitive bias known as the “Bandwagon Effect”, which is a psychological phenomenon where people do something, believe something, or act in a certain way simply because others around them are doing it, and again it appears our art critics here were all but destined to fail right from the very beginning.
When faced with specific triggers, inputs, and psychologically based marketing principles, we all tend to react quite predictably.
The Pierre Brassau monkey painter worked not because the critics were ignorant, naïve, or foolish. But exactly the opposite.
The experiment worked because they were knowledgeable and looked at those around them (who they trusted and respected) to help guide their decisions.
They were informed (incorrectly and manipulatively) that the works were from a new, undiscovered, and rising talented artist from France.
And everything else about the paintings (their location in the gallery, the corresponding works of art also being displayed, and the other critics being present) all pointed to these works being valuable.
The combination of Packaging, Priming, and Prestige are just too powerful.
And when you create marketing and messages that leverage these powerful psychological forces your clients buy, and selling becomes effortless and automatic.