What kind of black swan is a meerkat?


I recall Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of the Black Swan, questioning whether the past writers and artists we now view as geniuses were really that different from others who have been long forgotten. The point as I recall it (it’s probably in the book but I can’t find my copy) is that the best work of the forgotten may well have been better than the less good work of the masters. Once someone is seen as a genius (‘a black swan’) everything they ever did gets attention and praise. In this sense, genius is a self fulfilling prophesy.

The question of whether success is inherent in the quality of a person or product or the outcome of a more random process by which an initially marginal difference reaches a tipping point is fascinating. Can we shed some light on it by reference to meerkats? 

The other day, as I took a moment’s break from writing some speech or other, I visited the BBC website to check out a 20-20 cricket score. On the text commentary there was a long post from someone describing exactly how many runs The Netherlands needed to score in their innings to qualify for the next stage despite losing the match. The complex explanation ended with a one word exclamation; ‘simples’.

This I surmise is a reference to the incredibly successful ‘compare the meerkats’ ad campaign by the price comparison site ‘comparethemarkets.com’. This advert has now entered the national blood stream. Most people I ask admit that the first few times they saw it they thought it was silly or irritating. But over time it gets to you; next thing you find yourself talking in a funny accent or humming the theme tune.

My question is this: did the creators of the campaign know from the outset that it would take off like this? Was there something inherently brilliant about the concept that made it bound to succeed, or instead was it a more unpredictable and inexplicable process? Soon, of course, the ad's creators are bound to have developed a post hoc rationalisation of their ‘brilliant idea',  but maybe now it could still be possible to get an honest answer.

So I am looking for two things from my readers (who I hope are more responsive to meerkats than they have recently been to my fascinating posts on public service reform): do you think the advert is inherently brilliant or simply benefiting from a unpredictable cultural mini-epidemic and, even better, does anyone know who devised the campaign so we can hear it from the horse’s (or maybe the meerkat’s) mouth?

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