In the latest episode of “Real Time with Bill Maher,” Bill paid a rather interesting compliment to Sarah Silverman. He said, “you’re amazing because you’re willing to unsettle an audience. Anyone can come out and tell people what they want to hear, but you’re willing to scare them.”
This fact may be one of the secret ingredients to Silverman’s success and it also offers an insight into what motivates people to think and act. One of the theories of humor is that it’s essentially based in incongruity. What makes people laugh is a sudden twist of plot or perspective — something that surprises us. On a bustling street, where everyone is going about their business as usual, when someone slips suddenly, one of our instincts is to laugh (for some, this instinct is stronger than for others). When the punch line is in sharp contrast to the set up – when they are most incongruous – we laugh the hardest.
Beyond humor too, contrast seems to emotionally move humans. We live in a world of symmetry – almost all living organisms are symmetrical, so when we experience incongruity we are startled. It causes us to laugh at jokes, pay attention to art, avoid danger, and gasp when we’re frightened.
It’s not surprising that humor is such a mainstay in advertising. In order to emotionally move someone in 30 seconds or less it takes tremendous incongruity, and humor is the best way of getting at it.
Naturally, I began to wonder what the role of all of this is in social movements and branding.
When I thought of the strongest brands, the ones with the most loyal, passionate followings (the ones that most resemble social movements), it seemed they were all conceived from some form of incongruity or dissonance. Apple of course stands for creativity in a world that was once dominated by beige boxes. Google gave us easily organized information in the wild west that was the internet. Target represented the democratization of design in a mass production economy.
Similarly, social movements are all born from intense dissonance from prevailing social currents. Without the affluence and prosperity of the 1950’s would the Beatniks have been so down-trodden and anti-materialist? Without the growth of the Industrial Revolution, a period of horrible working conditions, would organized labor have become such a force? If college graduates weren’t entering such a bleak economy today would they insist they like the taste of PBR?
The whole point of social movements is that they originate as an opposition – an incongruous alternate to the way the world is. Without representing some sort of a contrast, a brand will just blend into everyday business. So what makes your brand worthy of a movement? What would you say that would unsettle an audience?