Cargo Cult Marketing

One of my favorite thinkers is the physicist Richard Feynman. He was a man who wouldn’t bow to majority opinion, and he was famous for being in the business of Finding Things Out. I highly recommend his book, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! In a commencement lecture he delivered at Caltech in 1974, he described what he called “cargo cult science.” When I first read it years ago, it clarified many immediate conceptual problems I’d been wrestling with, and it continues to be valuable to me every day, especially at work.

From the lecture:

“I think the educational and psychological studies I mentioned are examples of what I would like to call Cargo Cult Science.  In the South Seas there is a Cargo Cult of people.  During the war they saw airplanes land with lots of good materials, and they want the same thing to happen now.  So they’ve arranged to make things like runways, to put fires along the sides of the runways, to make a wooden hut for a man to sit in, with two wooden pieces on his head like headphones and bars of bamboo sticking out like antennas—he’s the controller—and they wait for the airplanes to land.  They’re doing everything right.  The form is perfect.  It looks exactly the way it looked before.  But it doesn’t work.  No airplanes land.  So I call these things Cargo Cult Science, because they follow all the apparent precepts and forms of scientific investigation, but they’re missing something essential, because the planes don’t land.”

The error that the cargo culters are making could broadly be describe as “mistaking some of the processes provoked by a thing for the thing itself.” Feynman goes on to explain how the scientists of his time, and indeed still today, are making the exact same mistake. Instead of rigorously testing hypotheses with the scientific method, scientists go through the motions of setting up equipment and taking measurements, without properly evaluated their setup or the data they derive from it.

I’m not in the sciences, but Feynman’s observations are relevant for me every day, and for most people, I’d wager. My current work involves several different fields, but one of them is marketing. As a result, many of my co-workers have heard me rambling about “cargo cult marketing” for a while now.

To correctly market something, you first have to understand the preferences of your audience. In the course of doing market research, conducting data experiments, and more, your audience profile slowly starts to get built. You learn its preferences, and the best way to engage with it that is productive for all parties involved. That best way is not universal among audiences, and you will often find that many things vary from audience to audience.

But the mediums of audience communication overlap. Flyers, social media, and more are all used to communicate with many different audiences in many different kinds of marketing campaigns—but keep in mind, the medium is not the marketing. The marketing is the message. Apple’s “think different” was its message, and the channels it beamed that message out across were the mediums.

Cargo cult marketing means eschewing market research and getting to know your audience, and not really building a message. It means, after not doing these things, simply pumping out information across a variety of channels, either online or in physical form (or: flyers = marketing). This process mistakes the medium for the message in the same way that Feynman’s islanders mistook the direction of causality between planes and runways.

Marketing mediums are determined and crafted once an audience profile and a message are established, and are, at best (although rarely) accidentally successful without them. You can’t have good marketing if you don’t know where to find your audience, and yet still insist on putting flyers and other physical promotional materials up just anywhere.

The lessons of “cargo cult [anything],” as I first encountered them through Richard Feynman, are useful to professionals across industries. Using the cargo cult lens allows me to more readily detect proper, well-defined processes, and ones that just superficially resemble them. I also become a better worker myself—Feynman’s lecture continually reminds me to understand why I do what I do, and to never work blindly like the cargo cult of islanders.


This post is part of my project to write one essay every day of February 2018. The essay topics will vary, but they’ll all be something I’m interested in. All essays can be found here.

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