Oct 27, 2006

The un-simplicity of Aphorisms

Some time ago, I had written a white paper on intranets and how aphorisms can come to the rescue in information storage and retrieval. Richard Huntington, who is a believer in aphorisms himself, recently wrote a post alluding to the paper and arguing for the power of aphorisms.

His post drew a comment questioning if aphorisms simplify things to the point of being simplistic - in a world where consumers are looking for some complexity in the messages they receive. Gareth Kay and Graham Furlong have clarified in their comments that aphorisms 'compress' rather than 'reduce' and the best ones are often packed with meaning.

Reading all these comments reminded me of a further quality of aphorisms which I omitted mentioning in 'The Intranets Of Babel' - because I felt it was outside the purview of the paper.

While they seem one-dimensional to begin with, the very best aphorisms, in fact, embody a multi-faceted nature that becomes apparent only with time. For aphorisms to survive in the evolutionary battle between other aphorisms, they need to display a 'chameleon-like' ability to be different things to different people at different times.

Take the aphorism 'Honesty is the best policy' for eg. Nothing can be simpler - and there doesn't seem to be much written between the lines. But there is.

At its most basic, the aphorism reminds people that being honest is good - for the God-fearing, there also is the hidden warning that not being honest means not making it to heaven.

At another level, the aphorism is also stating that honesty is the best policy simply because you don't have to keep track of the lies one has told - to whom, when and about what.

And there's more. Honesty is also the best policy not because of what it does to you but because it helps other people cope with reality - something that won't happen if you are hiding it from them.

It is to accomodomate this plurality of applications that this particular aphorism is stated in the way it is. And not as 'Honesty is the ticket to heaven', for eg.

An aphorism, therefore, is a master key that opens many different locks - it is a line of code that runs in mind's operating system yielding different results in different circumstances. The beauty of the aphorism structure is that all the locks don't have be unlocked for it to be useful - it is useful, no matter at what level you access it.

Of course, aphorisms may have limited applicability in advertising. But that's because the processes of creation of the best advertising and best aphorisms are at two ends of the spectrum.

The very best aphorisms are created through the process of continuous and dynamic evolution - constant repetition and mutation, coupled with the survival of the 'fittest'. Advertising on the other hand is the result of 'intelligent design' (and worse, is shortsighted) - and therefore, in my opinion, unfit to create aphorisms.
About the author:
Iqbal Mohammed is Head of Innovation & Strategy at a digital innovation agency serving the DACH and wider European markets. He is the winner of the WPP Atticus Award for Best Original Published Writing in Marketing & Communication.
You can reach him via email or Twitter.


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