August Strindberg and the Pricey Grey Tank Top: We Tend To Desire the Desired

August Strindberg 

August Strindberg 

August Strindberg’s short one-scene play, The Stronger, features only two characters, one of whom does not speak. Mrs X encounters Miss Y at a café. At first Mrs X talks proudly of her happy marriage and family life, and is sympathetic towards Miss Y’s solitary status. But Mrs X gradually realises that the silent Miss Y has in fact been her husband’s lover. Her anger turns to scorn and she reassures herself that at least her husband is attractive to other women.

‘Why should I take what nobody will have?’

I was quite struck by this sentiment. It’s a rarely acknowledged truth that the scale of someone’s appeal to an individual can be enhanced by the extent of that person’s appeal to other people: we tend to desire the desired.

This is a lesson sometimes lost on the marketing community. We often aspire to a utopian dream of laser-targeted communication: a world without waste, where every message reaches a current or prospective buyer. We imagine that in an ideal scenario our brand could have a tailored, private dialogue with candidate consumers – direct, head-to-head, one-to-one.

But, of course, brands are social entities. They are shared beliefs. The role of marketing is not just to develop depth of appeal with current and prospective buyers. It is also to spread breadth of interest in the wider community - because breadth of belief sustains depth of desire.

I’m sure we can all draw on our own personal experiences of how breadth of belief in a brand helps support a price premium.

Many years ago I was somewhat enamoured of tank tops. (The earnest woollen British variety, not the cotton singlets beloved of American men.) On a quiet lunchtime I wandered into a small Soho menswear shop and picked up a smart grey number with a cool monkey logo. I tried it on and liked what I saw. I strode confidently to the till. Feeling cavalier, I’d not inspected the price tag. And when the attendant asked for an eye-watering amount of money, I didn’t flinch - I didn’t want to give him the impression that I thought it was expensive. But I walked back to my office in a cold sweat, my heart pumping, thoughts racing. Surely this was a mistake. A grey woollen tank top couldn’t possibly cost that much. At my desk I pulled out the receipt to discover that there really was no error at play. I’d inadvertently walked into a shop that specialised in rare and exclusive Japanese street wear.

A few days later, still smarting from my naivety, I wore my regretted purchase to a fashionable bar. An attractive young barmaid served me a consoling gin and tonic. She paused for a moment as she handed me my change. ‘I love your Bathing Ape tank top.’ Suddenly the exorbitant price didn’t seem to matter any more. In fact it all seemed rather good value.

As August Strindberg knew, we tend to desire the desired.


Baitless Fishing: Beware the Seductions of the Quiet Life

‘We’re busy doin’ nothin’
Working the whole day through,
Tryin’ to find lots of things not to do.

We’re busy goin’ nowhere.
Isn’t it just a crime?
We’d like to be unhappy, but
We never do have the time.’

Bing Crosby, Busy Doing Nothing (Johnnie Burke/Jimmy van Heusen)


When I was a kid I used to go fishing at South Weald with my schoolmate Neil. I loved the peace and tranquility; sitting by the water’s edge, chatting about our packed lunches, polo neck sweaters and Prog Rock. But I didn’t like messing around with maggots and removing hooks from gurning roach. I determined secretly to fish without bait, thereby retaining the peace and tranquility but missing out on the muck. For a time this strategy went very well and it worked for the unknowing Neil too: he celebrated landing one fish after another whilst my tally remained resolutely on zero. But eventually Neil tired of the lack of competition and confronted me. When I revealed what I’d been up to, he refused to go fishing with me ever again.

I think many people in business are engaged in Baitless Fishing: keeping our heads down, avoiding conflict, choosing the safe option; never challenging the boss, rarely offering a point of view, always toeing the line. Doing things without getting things done.

Just as it’s a natural human emotion to seek credit, reward and recognition, it’s equally natural to avoid attention and opt for the quiet life.

We can fill our working day with status meetings, updates and catch-ups. We can write lists, file contact reports, adjust Gantt charts. We can attend courses, conferences and multi-disciplinary awaydays. We can meet random people for coffee in the name of networking. We can walk around the office a bit in the name of management. We can jump on a plane and visit some ‘key local markets.’ We can do all of these things without really progressing the Client’s or the Agency’s core agenda.

Of course these activities have some value. They are the stuff of business, the necessary everyday tasks that keep wheels turning and plates spinning. They sustain momentum. But in the digital era momentum may not be enough.

There are two senses of the word inertia. On the one hand it means doing nothing; on the other it means repeating an action or movement over and over again. Nowadays both amount to the same thing. Inertia can be a dominant force in all our lives and we must fight it.

The most common excuse for not tackling the bigger, tougher business decisions is the pressure of the imminent and the immediate. ‘We’ve got to get through this current crisis; see out this week, this day, this meeting.’ ‘We’ve not got the time, the resource or the energy to address the future right now.’

The greatest enemy of the long-term is the short-term. But the short-term and long-term are intimately related. As the Strategist Cathy Reid once observed:

‘The long term is just a series of short terms. You have to decide which short term your long term starts with.’

 Of course, ultimately Baitless Fishing is unsuccessful and unfulfilling. Within a business the metabolism slows, appetite wanes, morale dips; and then the competition outflanks you, the Clients leave you, the numbers condemn you. For the individual, work becomes a job, not a career; an occupation, not a vocation. And, as I learned to my cost, the Baitless Fisherman is always found out.

‘I have wasted time and now doth time waste me.’

 William Shakespeare, Richard II

So we all have to set aside excuses, re-order our priorities and resist the forces of inertia. We must take a deep breath and reach into the seething maggot box of business; bait that hook and cast our line into the deep blue ponds of the future.


This piece originally appeared on on 11 May 2016.

No. 82