Updated: Jul 28, 2022
The Unfortunate Art of Seeing Only What We Want to See ------------------------
While working as a copywriter for Disney, I was part of a team of writers. We all worked on different properties with different artists, designers, and creative directors, so we weren’t really a team in the true sense. Everyone was nice and competent and talented. We all got along, but we just weren’t a team because we never worked together: a crucial part of the definition. Our weekly status meetings consisted of everyone reporting on projects that didn’t really matter to anyone else in the room.
Regardless, my job was pretty easy, and I was known as smart and creative. I didn’t let stickler process rules get in the way of what needed to be done. I’d often get tapped to “write this” or “fix that” or “help solve this.” I very much liked that fluid, spontaneous aspect of the job.
One day a pitch deck printout hit my desk. I was being asked to proofread it before it was presented to the business SVPs. Everything was spelled right, and the punctuation was correct. The deck’s content, however, was an unfathomable mess. The idea being pitched was to turn ESPN (which Disney owns. You probably knew that.) into a merchandise brand.
You can, of course, purchase ESPN merch. It’s out there. (Note: The T-shirt in the photo is only cool if the guys works at ESPN.) Here are a few quick points to sum up why it’s a bad idea for Disney to put promotional muscle behind the effort.
First, Disney had tried ESPN stores in malls, and they failed miserably. The deck I saw didn’t even mention this venture. If you were really pitching this idea on a professional level, your deck would need to say: “Here’s why that didn’t work, and here’s what we’ll do differently.” This pitch? Nothing.
Second, the entire premise of the pitch was that sports fans would add into their mix of sports-centric apparel and other gear, items that promoted a cable network. This is objectively and demonstrably false. Sports fans buy and wear stuff that reflects their team loyalty and favorite players (e.g. jerseys). To think that’s negotiable is just wrong. What made it even weirder was that the “evidence” for this misguided notion seemed to be the completely unrelated fact that ESPN had higher ratings than similar networks.
Lastly, the folks at ESPN were not on board with the mall stores because they had no desire to compete in the merchandise space with the professional leagues. Simply put, that would be biting the hand that feeds them. Promoting a brand in which the faces and keepers of said brand don’t participate is a recipe for disaster.
So I made a diplomatic, inquiry-based case to the pitch team, trying to get them to see they had nothing and shouldn’t waste the time of the business SVPs. I was respected and listened to, but the meeting happened. I even got invited to witness the total, predictable disaster.
To be clear, the point of this story is not to call out how “stupid” or “incompetent” anyone was. Don’t get me wrong. That’s all I was thinking at the time, but looking back on it now, the experience is only interesting and noteworthy because shows the human tendency to see what we want to see. Information that opposes or questions what we believe is avoided, rejected, or ignored.
I think this is good idea.
Well, here are a bunch of reasons why it’s not.
I still think it’s a good idea.
Okay. Good talk.
The psychology term is Confirmation Bias, and it comes into play most often because someone is either avoiding challenge or seeking reinforcement. The idea is usually represented by the Venn diagram shown here. Pretty simple.
Our current political landscape is the obvious example, taking the practice to an extreme. Conflicting information, no matter how verifiable, is deemed false and the product of some nefarious intent. It’s getting ridiculous and dangerous in that arena, but you knew that already.
Where else do we see confirmation bias in others? What about in ourselves? As an author, I deal with confirmation bias on two fronts: in the writing process and also within the world of the fiction. It's best for authors to keep our bias in check as our editors question things. I’m lucky to work with a smart, talented editor who can be nice and no-nonsense at the same time. We have a good rapport, and the defenses of my thinking usually last a round or two before we agree that she’s right.
On the pages, it's kind of the inverse in that confirmation bias becomes a tool. An author should make good use of characters' belief systems to make their decisions more believable to the reader. The reader needs to see and accept character choices as based on sound, justifiable judgement in their world. Not on what’s needed to move the plot in a certain direction. We’ve all been on the reader side of that annoying, latter practice.
My novel coming out in October is a psychological thriller in which the main characters find themselves in a questionable situation. How they choose to question it is linked to their individual confirmation biases. As a reader, you probably think “What would I do?” and authors want you to think that. That means you're engaged with the story. Characters acting differently than you would is permissible as long as you understand and believe their choices. Here’s a physiological test: If you’re shaking your head at the fictional choice, that’s okay. If you’re rolling your eyes, we might have a problem.
During this time, I’ve been reading some of the more popular thrillers out there. In my humble opinion, too many of these novelists have lost sight of what I see as an author's primary goal: tell a story by artfully conveying information. They have turned the “craft” and the “skill” of writing into how well (or how “cleverly”) information can be manipulated to achieve a certain end. Sorry, but that’s never going to impress me.
Is fiction doomed? I don’t think so. Not yet, at least.
So yeah. I write fiction, and I’m actually pretty good at it. That said, I promise what follows is not fiction. I didn’t make it up.
Remember the ESPN story? Fast forward 20 years. I’m working with Disney Stores and attend a Town Hall meeting in which all the upcoming initiatives are presented. (Sense where this is going?) After much talk about Disney acquiring the bulk of Fox media assets (Yes, Disney owns The Simpsons now. Try to keep up.) we were taken through a pitch deck projected on screen.
I kid you not. ESPN as a fully promoted merchandise brand. It seemed like the only changes in the deck were that the circa 2001 photos of Shaquille O’Neal, Kurt Warner, and Barry Bonds had been replaced with Steph Curry, Tom Brady, and Mike Trout. I will say, though, from where I sat in the audience, it looked like everything was spelled right and the punctuation was correct.