The Tilt of the Earth: Preserving Asymmetry in an All Too Logical World

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Geography was never really my subject at school. All that talk of arable farming and market gardening went straight over my head. And there seemed to be a tad too much time dedicated to U-shaped valleys, oxbow lakes, cirques, cwms and corries. What’s with all the glacial erosion?

Our elderly geography teacher, Den, wore a smart suit and tattered gown, and was particularly keen on ensuring we wrote ‘Auctore Deo’ at the top of every essay (‘The enterprise is of God’). Den expressed approval with an elongated ‘goood’, and dismay with a tug at the forelock and an admonishing ‘Don’t do it again!’ This latter expression became his catchphrase. Pupils delighted in shouting it whenever he was near - and disappearing round corners before he could take any action.

‘Don’t do it again!’

Den liked to pass the time testing our knowledge of the conventional signs that appear on Ordnance Survey Maps. Footpath, ferry, single-track railway; gravel pit, golf course, electricity transmission line…

When the concentration of the class was waning, Den would stop dramatically and demand: ‘What’s the tilt of the Earth?’

‘Twenty three and a half degrees,’ we cried in unison.

I was not quite sure at the time why it was so important that we should know the exact tilt of the Earth. But much later it struck me that it is a wonderful thing that the Earth does not sit bolt upright, to attention; that rather it is inclined, like a dandy’s top hat, at a jaunty angle.

The tilt of the Earth seemed to me to explain a good deal. Like many I was instinctively drawn to people, places and things that were a little askew, lop-sided, cock-eyed and crooked: the offbeat lyric and the oddball academic; the eccentric colleague and the curious TV show; the idiosyncratic pub and the irregular street-plan. And I was in equal measure consistently suspicious of the square jawed, level headed, regular looking, straight talking, frank and forthright.

'There was a crooked man, and he walked a crooked mile.
He found a crooked sixpence upon a crooked stile.
He bought a crooked cat, which caught a crooked mouse,
And they all lived together in a little crooked house.’
English Nursery Rhyme

So it came as something of a disappointment when I read that, according to numerous scientific studies, human beings are broadly attracted to people with symmetrical faces. Apparently it’s something to do with our quest for good genes: we assume balanced facial features signify health and longevity.

I beg to differ. The symmetrical face lacks something. It’s too neat and tidy; too regular and even. It’s short on character, forgettable.

Indeed I have been reassured to learn that other academic studies, on perfectly mirrored facial features, suggest that, after all, most people do prefer a slightly asymmetrical countenance.

Alex John Beck - Project Both Sides Of

Alex John Beck - Project Both Sides Of

In his 2014 project, ‘Both Sides Of,‘ photographer Alex John Beck created mirror images of the left and right halves of sitters’ faces and set them side-by-side. There’s something eerie and uncomfortable about the results. The mirrored models look disarmingly alien.

Of course, in the field of commerce there is a strong predisposition to impose logic, order and good sense; to classify and categorise; to tidy up, set straight and smooth over.

But we should always embrace asymmetries – of personality, looks and behaviour. Because difference gets us noticed, suggests character, prompts conversation, lingers in the memory. Difference makes us human. And critically for the communication business, difference creates difference.

So if ever you’re tempted to play things safe, to follow the conventional path, the straight and narrow, remember Den’s instruction. The world tilts at twenty-three and a half degrees. It is skew-whiff. And life isn’t quite logical.

'When I was young, it seemed that life was so wonderful,
A miracle, oh it was beautiful, magical.
And all the birds in the trees, well they'd be singing so happily,
Oh joyfully, playfully watching me.
But then they sent me away to teach me how to be sensible,
Logical, oh responsible, practical.
And they showed me a world where I could be so dependable,
Oh clinical, oh intellectual, cynical.’

Supertramp, The Logical Song (Richard Davies / Roger Hodgson)

No. 188

Murder On The Dance Floor

                        Photograph: Manchester Mirror/mirrorpix

                        Photograph: Manchester Mirror/mirrorpix

I was a bad DJ. I couldn't mix; I couldn't sample; I couldn't scratch. But above all, I couldn't make people dance - or at least, make them dance to my tunes.

The withering glances, the paralysing fear, the creeping self-doubt; it all comes flooding back. Staring out at an empty dancefloor, the only movement the geometric reflections from the mirror ball, the crowds clinging to the walls as if pushed by some centrifugal force.

I’d play one top track after another: D-Train, Fatback, Archie Bell & the Drells… Nothing.

‘It’s a shame,
Sometimes I feel like I’m going insane,
But still I want to stay’
Evelyn ‘Champagne’ King - Shame

Gradually the pressure built. They wanted to dance, but they didn’t want to dance to anything I was playing. The occasional Goth would approach, demanding Southern Death Cult.

Eventually I cracked and reached for The Jackson 5. No sooner had a few bars of ABC chimed out than the floor was filled with jiving students, a mass of ecstatic rhythm and moves.

But no time to enjoy my achievement. I faced another challenge. Once they were on their feet for The Jackson 5, I couldn’t very well give them Melba Moore. So I’d unsheath Earth, Wind & Fire. And then Shalamar. And Chic. ‘And the beat goes on...’

Yes, the floor was packed and pulsating now. A joyous Bacchanalian throng. But at the height of my seeming success, I was filled with self-loathing, because I had, in effect, created a Wedding Disco. I knew the revellers would not go home sated that night. They’d had a bop, but it was the same old stuff they’d always danced to. Nothing to be remembered, respected, revisited. Nothing original, authentic, inspired. Last night a DJ ruined my life…

So why am I telling you this?

Well, as a bad DJ I learned that it’s quite easy to generate a bit of fizz, a quick thrill or momentary buzz. But it’s much more difficult to get people dancing to your own tune, to be credited with it and thanked for it. And once you’ve got people dancing to a populist rhythm, it’s nigh-on impossible to get them off it. I learned that, if I ever wanted to be a good DJ, I’d need a thicker skin.

‘Here’s my chance to dance my way out of my constrictions,
(Feet don’t fail me now),
One nation under a groove, Gettin’ down just for the funk of it’
Funkadelic - One Nation under a Groove

I’d been to enough clubs to recognise a proper DJ. I’d seen them seamlessly blend the familiar with the exotic. I’d seen them coax their public onto the floor, change the tempo, manipulate the mood. I’d seen them insinuate a rhythm that took dancers deep into the heart of darkness. And I’d seen the joy unconfined of a real dancehall crowd moving as one.

I think marketers can learn from dance. Dance is about individual fulfilment found through collective action, private passions explored together – not unlike brands. Marketers could learn from DJs, too – the experts who create, catalyse and control the dancefloor, the magicians who manufacture social success. What advice would a good DJ give a brand manager? Well perhaps...

1. Read the crowd. Feel the mood of the masses. It’s about your own, instinctive judgement, not someone else’s.
2. Live in the moment. Be spontaneous, intuitive, impromptu. Don’t plan for a future you can’t predict.
3. Mix sugar and spice, the familiar with the unknown. It may be counterintuitive, but no one will thank you if you play only what they want, know or expect.
4. Surprise them with the arcane, the forgotten and absurd when they least expect it. Don’t let consistency become predictability.
5. Create one seamless journey, contoured with its own highs and lows. Take the whole dancefloor on that journey and don’t get lost in segmentation, tailoring and targeting.

Great brands set a rhythm that unites consumers, propels them onto the dancefloor of life and inspires them to express their truest feelings, together. In the age of the empowered, atomised consumer, we should never forget that, fundamentally, brands are shared beliefs. I have always believed in a brand that seeks to lead opinion rather than follow it. I guess I believe in the Brand as DJ.

Or as Soul II Soul might put it: ‘A happy face, a thumpin’ bass, for a lovin’ race’…

First published: Marketing 06/09/2013

No. 31