Adam Ferrier
Mar 31, 2015

Unobvious Observations: Source amnesia

'Source amnesia’ is a relatively recent, and increasingly worrying phenomenon that’s spreading across the world, but is a particularly curious worry for adland.

Adam Ferrier
Adam Ferrier

Source amnesia is the increasing tendency to remember the fact, but forget the source. Like most modern-day malaise the culprit, so ‘they’ say, is Google.

You see, if we put a lot of effort into finding out whether something is true, and cross-reference our knowledge with other pieces of information, we are more likely to remember not only the fact, but the varsity of said fact, and where and how and why we came to that conclusion. If however, we need to find a ‘fact’ and just ‘type it into Google’, well it doesn’t matter how ‘right’ the information is, nor where it comes from. We accept the fact, but don’t pay attention to the source—leading to source amnesia.

Around the world we now have bloggers pretending to be experts in all manner of areas. As long as they get enough views and influential links (i.e. if they are sexy and charismatic, not necessarily right) then Google will ensure their information gets to the top of the pile. This isn’t so bad if they are blogging about where to buy the latest lipstick, but what if they are blogging about things of substance, such as health or childcare? There is a lot of money to be made in these highly emotive areas—and therefore a lot of misinformation being spread, all of which the consumer increasingly takes at face value, due in part to ‘source amnesia’.

In a Google Age, all facts are treated as equal, and that’s a worry. It trains us to not be critical, and just accept what we are given. I see media agencies often do this with research reports given to them by media owners. ‘What, you found that outdoor advertising has more engagement than TV ads? Wow how interesting…. But you’re an outdoor media company.'

We’re losing our ability to delineate good information from bad. When a planner presents the strategy on behalf of the agency do they clearly stipulate the source of the information? Do you know if the source is reputable or not? Do you care?

One fightback to source amnesia is the wisdom of crowds, or getting collective opinion on certain subjects. Depending on whom you ask, Wikipedia is the saviour of the world, or a contributing menace. I believe it’s closer to the former. The collective actions of so many people, and the intense referencing, mean the information on Wikipedia is substantially better than many other areas of the net.

The other related fightback is reviews. If everyone gives an opinion on something, then all of those opinions can be amalgamated, and a truth can be found—crowdsourced fact finding. However, this too is being gamified and corrupted. For example, Yelp recently came under fire for ensuring big advertisers were spared from negative reviews, whilst those companies who didn’t advertise were thrown to the wolves.

My agency recently toyed with the concept of reviews, and with a client of ours, The Art Series Hotels in Australia, we’re offering ‘Reverse Reviews’. Instead of customers reviewing the hotel (which they are encouraged to keep on doing) the hotel will be reviewing the guests. Free nights accommodation will be given to those guests who receive a ‘5-star review’ (it pays to behave!).

This idea is topical and relevant because it plays on the ambiguity of the review system that’s in place at the moment. Disgruntled former employees, or anyone with a vested interest (positive or negative) can bring a corporation to its knees or raise it from the ashes. Be prepared to see more advertising ideas start to play around with, and amalgamate good information, as the need for it increases.

However, this makes me nervous.

I preferred the days when good information was easily discernable from bad. When facts had to be checked, and the only way you’d get heard was on the quality of your references, bibliography, or even the courage of your conviction.

Now it seems anyone with a flippant idea, a URL, or a specific grudge against someone can have a very influential voice.

What happens in this world where all facts are seen as equal? Where the quality of the information is less important than the spin and packaging that’s wrapped around it? As advertisers, I’m worried we are the worst culprits. And dear Google, we need you to be better, and more discerning, but I’ve no idea how to do that.

PS: Please be aware this article has no references, and could be completely wrong!

Adam Ferrier is global chief strategy officer and consumer psychologist at Cummins&Partners. See all of his 'Unobvious Observations". He is the author of The Advertising Effect: How to Change Behaviour (Oxford, 2014).


Editor's note: A Google Research team is trying to do something about this very issue.


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