The Black Swan – Marketing Tool or Schlock?

December 4, 2007 at 5:56 am | Posted in Books, Communication, General, Gladwell, Malcolm - The Tipping Point, Machiavelli, Niccolo - The Prince, Marketing, Online marketing, Taleb, Nassim Nicholas - The Black Swan | 2 Comments
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Over Thanksgiving, I started reading The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. (Ironically, I was also reading 109 East Palace by Jennet Conant about the Manhattan Project, perhaps one of modern history’s more poignant Black Swans, itself.)

A Black Swan is “a highly improbable event with three principal characteristics: It is unpredictable; it carries a massive impact; and, after the fact, we concoct an explanation that makes it appear less random.” Taleb gives examples of Google’s success and 9/11. Fine, this is all terribly interesting. And I should mention that I am only about 60 pages in, but I would love to hear from all of you whether you think this is a worthwhile book to spend my time on and whether it is appropriate for marketers.

First, as a marketer, the sheer volume of prick-itude is distracting. Taleb comes off as a real jerk. It makes me not want to read or believe his theories (does anyone at Random House edit for assholery?). He starts the book regaling us about his snotty language and his snotty school: “Yet I recall something that felt special in the intellectual air. I attended the Free lycee that had one of the highest success rates for the French baccalaureat [pg. 5]…” His ancestors always were rich and he will always be rich: ” [I]f the driver spoke skeletal English and looked particularly depressed, I’d give him a $100 bill as a tip, just to give him a little jolt and get a kick out of his surprise [pg. 39].” And his casual cruelty is amazing: “You can even include Frenchmen (but please, not too many out of consideration for the others in the group) [pg. 32].” Does it really help the reader believe the author if we have grown to hate him in such a short time? I think Taleb thought more about his grandiose theory rather than how he would market himself.

But, there are flashes when I think The Black Swan may be appropriate for marketers because of shared themes with two of the best books about marketing: The Tipping Point and The Prince.

One of the key beliefs in Taleb’s book is that history makes jumps, rather than crawls. This belief is shared by The Tipping Point‘s Malcolm Gladwell. He writes, “Of the three, the third trait – the idea that epidemics can rise or fall in one dramatic moment – is the most important, because it is the principle that makes sense of the first two [contagiousness and that little causes can have big effects] and that permits the greatest insight into why modern change happens the way it does.” Gladwell believes in it so much that it is from this idea that he draws the title of his book. I think Gladwell is a brilliant mind and if he shares something with Taleb, that inclines me to continue reading.

Another (the first?) great marketing book is Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince. If you haven’t read it, go out today during your lunch hour and buy it. You will learn more about power and control in this slim book than you will anywhere else. Power and control get a bad rap – after all, as marketers we are convincing people every day and those are two pretty persuasive traits. So what does Taleb share with Machiavelli? Consider this statement:

“I discovered that it is much more effective to act like a nice guy and be ‘reasonable’ if you prove willing to go beyond just verbiage. You can afford to be compassionate, lax, and courteous if, once in a while, when it is least expected of you, but completely justified, you sue someone, or savage an enemy, just to show that you can walk the walk.”

Really a heart-warming gent, isn’t he? Compare this to Machiavelli who writes, “So any injury a prince does a man should be of such a kind that there is no fear of revenge [pg. 10, 1999 ed.].” And again, “[I]t is far better to be feared than loved if you cannot have both [pg. 71].” These are, in their core, about marketing one’s self in the world. I would not be surprised if Taleb was a big fan of Machiavelli’s.

I guess what I want to know today is whether I should continue reading. Taleb pisses me off to no end – to the extent that I actually trust his theories less – but this does not mean (in itself) that they are worthless. And if he shares ideals with two authors I trust for very good marketing advice, perhaps I should keep on reading. What do you think? Has anyone out there read The Black Swan? Does it become more palatable in any way?

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  1. I’ve read it. If you’re sixty pages into it, I’m pretty sure you can tell by now that it’s not a book you should read for Taleb’s winning personality. Having said that, if you’ve never read his work before, there’s a fair amount of interesting anecdotes to be had from the The Black Swan — just be warned that the middle part of the book sounds like one huge rant where he toots his own horn.

  2. You sold me. I’m going to read it. First, I completely agree with the Black Swan premise, and it ties with what I have observed and employed. The Black Swan overnight changes the context of the situation, which then can be used to help to help a campaign. The essence of being strategic is to recognize the potential, anticipate the probablity and then await the arrival of the Black Swan. So, you’ve piqued my curiousity, and it’s on my to-read list. I think that counts as an endorsement. And, I agree with you: Machiavelli gets a bad rap. Shoot, now I want to reread “The Prince.” If you really want to read a good book, read “Before the Dawn: Recovering the History of Our Ancestors.” I found it to be incredibly enlightening.


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