We’ve come across a sticky patch. We’re going to have to work through it, or get out and go our separate ways.

March 7th, 2009 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, pr guff, scienciness | 43 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
The Guardian,
Saturday 7 March 2009

A truly groundbreaking document has been leaked onto the internet. The claim is that this 27-page wonder represents a successful $1.5m pitch to make a slight modification to the Pepsi logo. Welcome to the science of PR.

“By investing in our history and brand ethos we can create a new trajectory forwards”, they explain, in the opening pages. This is entirely reasonable. A cognitive linguist by the name of George Lakoff has done some fascinating (and no doubt grueling) empirical work on metaphors in English literature. He has shown, for example, that we often conceive of the abstract in terms of the concrete: anger is an overheated fluid in a sealed vessel, emotional states are locations, relationships are repeatedly portrayed as journeys in a shared vehicle, and fascinatingly, we don’t just talk about things in this way, we may also reason using these metaphors. image

“We’ve come across a sticky patch,” you might say: “we’re going to have to work through it, or get out and go our separate ways”. How else can you explain the fact that “baby, we’re riding in the fast lane on the freeway of love” is so instantly meaningful to us? Perhaps – and this is speculation – we think about abstract things using brain hardware that originally evolved to deal with more simple visuospatial manipulations.

I am open to new ideas. Lakoff may or may not be entirely correct, but he is not throwing words around at random: his ideas are often coherent and stimulating, and they may have explanatory force for real world phenomena. Let us return to the Pepsi document. It is gibberish. “The investment in our DNA leads to breakthrough innovation and allows us to move out of the traditional linear system into the future”. This is accompanied by a helpful diagram, which is reproduced for your delight on this page.

“The Pepsi DNA finds its origin in the dynamic of perimeter oscillations”, they explain. There is talk of an “authentic geometry”. “The breathtaking colour palette is derived”, they explain, “using a scientific method of color assignment based on the product’s essence and primary features.”  They go on to discuss “attraction theory”, and the “pepsi proposition”. This involves the “establishment of a gravitational pull to shift from a ‘transactional’ experience to an ‘invitational’ expression.” The accompanying diagrams show a “typical light path” being subjected to gravitational pull, and then the gravitational pull of Pepsi. The words “relativity of space and time” appear next to a curved light beam, but the diagram for Pepsi shows many Pepsi logos, distorting the human path through “typical shopping aisle”.


Here we find further parallels with conventional physics. “The universe expands exponentially with f(x)=e^x (1 light year = 671 million miles per hour).” One light year is not – if I can anally interject – 671 million miles per hour. Maybe that works because “the Pepsi Orbits” “dimensionalise exponentially”.

This might be a useful moment to mention that the new logo is basically the same as the old one, except one of the curves has been changed a bit to look more like a smile. The Arnell agency has yet to comment on the veracity of the document, but Pepsi certainly announced a revamp in October last year, and from reading his work, Peter Arnell does quite like the word “dimensionalise”. At a recent news conference, he also compared his advert for SoBe Lifewater to the achievements of Thomas Edison in inventing cinematography.

And even if this is an elaborate 27 page long spoof, the horror is that it’s believable. Across huge swathes of the world, scientific reasoning is regarded as decorative: a rhetorical stance, or a speech in a white coat from a 1950s B-movie. We live in a world that has indulged these buffoons for so long that they think they are heroes, while nerds are regarded with contempt.

Our only hope is that after the robot wars, you will all starve, cold and in the rain, wearing leaves and eating mud.

If you like what I do, and you want me to do more, you can: buy my books Bad Science and Bad Pharma, give them to your friends, put them on your reading list, employ me to do a talk, or tweet this article to your friends. Thanks! ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

43 Responses

  1. 10channel said,

    March 7, 2009 at 2:00 am

    It is all very silly and charlatan, and would sound like something that came from the PoMo generator – yet I do not think that scientific reasoning is their priority here. This document seems just to be some attempt to write literature rather than to examine it in more detail. The errors, however, like the idea that the universe always expands exponentially, or that 1 light year = 671 million miles per hour, however, are more concerning, because they are less metaphorical and more plainly false and ignorant. Metaphors are more powerful when they ring truth.

  2. badrescher said,

    March 7, 2009 at 2:23 am

    Ah, pseudointellectual nonsense. What fun.

    Some of the ideas may actually be based on real studies, but that doesn’t mean they work. In my experience, people simply do not understand the nature of experimentation – that controlling and manipulating variables greatly limits our ability to predict effect sizes in the real world and we often know little about interactions.

  3. 24alex said,

    March 7, 2009 at 4:09 am

    I would imagine this is just a really big viral marketing campaign, and you’re playing right into their hands right now!

  4. Akheloios said,

    March 7, 2009 at 5:43 am

    Steve Jobs of Apple once asked the then CEO of Pepsi to come work as CEO of Apple because it was better to do something worthwhile than to sell sugar water.

    Not that long after, the said ex-Pepsi CEO drove Steve Jobs from his position at Apple and ran Apple into the ground.

    Suger water salesmen seem not to understand reality.

  5. mrmuz said,

    March 7, 2009 at 6:23 am

    It would not surprise me if it is real. Based on my, albeit slight, exposure to the field of marketing it is cargo cult voodoo all the way and in serious need of an exposé (if only because people give it such tremendous power). Now that post-modernism is a spent force as any sort of movement (intellectual or otherwise) there’s really only one other reality-shaped-by-words-alone area for students of which to go.
    They do reams and reams of ‘science’ and surveys and things, most of which not fit to be called even social science. They bombard clients with dodgy graphs and bamboozle them with Sokal worthy malapropism/neologisms, although not usually as plain as above. So long as they are the wizards of dealing with the amorphous mysteries of the human mind, too little questioning gets done.

  6. Damien P said,

    March 7, 2009 at 8:23 am

    I actually work in advertising and this document has been doing the rounds for a while now. It could be a joke, but equally horrifically, it could well be real.

    Despite the ludicrous pretension and laughable pseudoscience of this particular work, I’d like to offer some defence if I may.

    I’ve done many of these re-branding/logo design projects in my time and their idiocy is driven by the clients who are buying it. People feel uncomfortable paying $1.5 million for a new logo without some major bullshit to accompany it. It’s not enough to accept the skill, talent and judgement of experienced designers when they present a new design. Clients would feel short changed if you just plonked a logo in front of them with a bill for $1.5m.

    So they force you to dress it up in pseud’s-corner nonsense.

    The media play their part here, too. Every time a major new logo is unveiled, they run angry stories, mocking the work and especially the cost of the logo which they claim “my daughter doing A-level design could have knocked up in an evening.” Look at the furore over the 2012 Olympics logo (which incidentally is a great piece of work; clever, vibrant, adaptable, and designed with the future in mind, because it has to last until 2012).

    It’s quite easy to spend £500,000 in time on a major logo project. Good designers are expensive and they consider lots of options, rejecting most, and refining what they like. Many people are involved, not just one bloke sitting in a shed.

    As Whistler brilliantly answered when quizzed if he was really asking two hundred guineas for two days work: “No”, replied Whistler, “I ask it for the knowledge I have gained in the work of a lifetime.”

    Still, this Pepsi document takes it all to new levels of idiocy.

  7. thepoisongarden said,

    March 7, 2009 at 9:44 am

    Damien P

    ‘People feel uncomfortable paying $1.5 million for a new logo without some major bullshit to accompany it’

    And more fool them but isn’t the point Ben is making that by using ‘science’ to contruct their nonsense they harm science?

    There will always be some who accept this stuff without question but there will also be those who say ‘this is just someone trying to sell me something using ‘sciencey’ words’. Those people are likely to dismiss all ‘sciencey’ words as sales pitches even if the science is valid and important.

  8. BobP said,

    March 7, 2009 at 10:06 am

    Aaargh! Reproduction of the Pepsi logo without a trademark acknowledgement!! Expect to hear from (yet another set of) lawyers shortly.

  9. Suw said,

    March 7, 2009 at 10:38 am

    @DamienP You mean, you can look at the Olympics 2012 logo without seeing Lisa Simpson giving head? Well done you.

  10. sampablokuper said,

    March 7, 2009 at 11:25 am

    Wahey, yet another reason NOT to buy Pepsi!

  11. indigochild said,

    March 7, 2009 at 11:55 am

    An antidote may be found here

  12. evidencebasedeating said,

    March 7, 2009 at 12:13 pm

    Make mine a Diet Coke(TM)!

  13. evidencebasedeating said,

    March 7, 2009 at 12:14 pm

    -without the nauseating Duffy associaton…

  14. Bird Brian said,

    March 7, 2009 at 12:33 pm

    Funny. Of course it’s Pepsi drinkers who pay the bill for the adverts. I buy, on average, around 10 Pepsi’s a year. This is because it is full of sugar and helps ease the pain of a massive hangover. If this company marketed to the right people (boozers) they’d make even more money!

  15. pv said,

    March 7, 2009 at 1:54 pm

    Even if the document is a spoof, it represents fairly realistically the kind of idiocy served up as justification for the price of a bit of doodling. And i’s served up in this faux sciency way because it’s what the client/customer expects. It massages the vanity of the client’s senior executives and exposes advertising execs as about the same as banking execs.
    Advertising and marketing in fact bear remarkable similarities to the financial sector industries in their ability to bullshit and pretend they are practising some academic pursuit on a par with the most impenetrable aspects of quantum physics. Actually I’m surprised the document doesn’t mention quantum electro dynamics or something similar. The currently fashionable reference to DNA is there I suppose so it’s on the right track.
    As they say, it’s complete testicles!

  16. JTW said,

    March 7, 2009 at 2:34 pm

    I’m not surprised by this. I spent most of my career in technical management but was enticed into the glitzy world of sales and marketing for a short period. Knowing little about the field, I did the chartered institute of Marketing postgraduate diploma course. All this did was confirm my worst fears, most of what was presented was just opinions and assertions dressed up as some sort of fancy theory. Mostly bollocks and in fact even worse than most so called management theories. As others have said, it’s all a waste of money and a massive con.

  17. biggerpills said,

    March 7, 2009 at 2:44 pm

    The incorrect use of the phrase “light year” is annoying, just as the word “footballitis” has always annoyed me when it’s been used in World Cup-related advertising campaigns, because it means “inflammation of the football” rather than “football addiction”… geeky digression there, but I have a feeling this document has more in common with those ads and their football scientists than the work of real scientists.

    Just check the “document info” at this link, which appears to be the original upload. Read the description by “The Crazed Geek”. To me this sounds like the kind of person who edits wikipedia pages anonymously for clients (I should know, I’m ashamed to say I’ve done it), or perhaps a “street teamer”. The language doesn’t look natural and the claims just aren’t believable- they “happened to overhear” a private conversation, then “happened to nab” a PDF which would probably have been password-protected and out of the reach of lowly freelancers? As Damien P says, branding and marketing types really do come out with bullshit like this and the documents can be very long, but they rarely get leaked because people don’t want to lose their lucrative contracts.

    Nikon went to even more effort for their vaguely sciencey viral- The Universcale. Nicely done overall but it still contains errors and spelling mistakes, and was clearly more a bit of fun than a serious project.

    I’ve been sent the Pepsi document many times and seen it covered by many serious news outlets, and it appears to have been nothing more than a very successful viral campaign. The “light year” gives it away.

  18. T said,

    March 7, 2009 at 4:07 pm

    This is a meme ….viral advertising…people keep sending me an email regarding cans of pepsi and leptospirosis weil’s disease…very strange that people forward on such obvious rubbish. I had to do a module in ‘consumer behaviour’ as part of my BSc course, it was like having a hot poker shoved up my nose and the inside of my brain cauterised. I have made a full recovery…it took time to heal though.

  19. Diversity said,

    March 7, 2009 at 7:09 pm

    The waffle and gush in a minor tinkering with a major Corporation’s logo 40 years ago was similar, though I remeber metaphors from ‘Technology’ and ‘Design’ rather than science. Adjusting for inflation, I think that the operation 40 years ago was even more expensive. At the end of it, not only could very few people spot the difference, their emotional responses to the two designs were statistically indistinguishable.

    Corporations indulge in these exercises. Why? I have no reasonable hypothesis.

  20. ams said,

    March 7, 2009 at 7:16 pm

    i came across this a while ago.

    i assumed it was a piss take.

    surely its not real?!

  21. The Biologista said,

    March 7, 2009 at 9:07 pm

    When you spend a lot of money to move a single line slightly, you like to feel like there was a very good reason for it. Science!

    If it’s real, it’s amazingly funny.

  22. The Biologista said,

    March 7, 2009 at 9:34 pm

    I suspect nobody really understands advertising. Perhaps they see science the same way and maybe they’re using science like a sort of modern charm. A prayer to the incomprehensible gods of logo design.

  23. i_am_toast said,

    March 8, 2009 at 12:16 am

    I came across a press release that used ‘simplexity’ in cold blood the other day. I lost my last scrap of faith in humanity.

  24. Ian Lynch said,

    March 8, 2009 at 11:22 am

    Marketing and sales are fundamentally based on emotional response. The bullshit is all geared to provoking this response. Scientists respond emotionally by shouting angrily this is bullshit but the target audience is non-scientists who get reassurance from apparent expertise. So while scientists are in a minority the bullshit will continue. The only hope is education.

  25. mikewhit said,

    March 8, 2009 at 11:31 am

    Anyone remember the Scicon logo (mid 1980s), with its accompanying explanation of what the various wedge-shaped objects represented ?

    (If I find an old reference I kept due to its pretentiousness, I will copy it)

    You couldn’t make it up !

  26. tomrees said,

    March 8, 2009 at 11:10 pm

    None of this explains how they managed to spend so much to come up with a logo that looks like a fat bloke.

  27. sherifffruitfly said,

    March 9, 2009 at 1:14 am

    Two words: Sokal hoax.

  28. The Purple Cow said,

    March 9, 2009 at 7:57 am

    Guys, I own an advertising and design agency and this is quite clearly not genuine. It’s certainly nothing like any pitch document I’ve ever seen – it’s designed to look like a work-in-progress. Probably an in-joke, or a spoofer.

    (less-likely) A lame attempt at viral marketing. the same logic that lead Virgin Airways to fake a complaint about their own in-flight food. I first saw this document on Popbitch, and it could be designed to appeal to the cynical Popbitch-type crowd.

  29. SmartBlonde said,

    March 9, 2009 at 8:51 am

    @Bird Brian – you only have 10 hangovers a year? Well done you!

  30. Pete Beaudro said,

    March 9, 2009 at 10:07 am

    Did not anticipate that taking the Pepsi Challenge would ever require a small arsenal of mathematics qualifications.

    I rdad that Marmite were looking to use a similar model in their marketing campaign, but half the light waves appeared to bend toward the stuff and the other half were repelled. I supsect that this was the origin of the Big Bang, but what would I know – I’m just an English graduate.

  31. chatsubo said,

    March 9, 2009 at 11:31 am

    “The Biologista said,
    March 7, 2009 at 9:34 pm

    I suspect nobody really understands advertising. Perhaps they see science the same way and maybe they’re using science like a sort of modern charm. A prayer to the incomprehensible gods of logo design.”

    remember some old Ad hack saying ‘Half the received wisdom in advertising is bullshit. The only problem is nobody knows which half’

  32. The Purple Cow said,

    March 9, 2009 at 7:00 pm

    Well not quite. In 1900 Department store pioneer John Wanamaker said; “I know I waste half the money I spend on advertising. The problem is, I don’t know which half.” There have been a thousand and one variations on that theme since. Back in 1900 it was probably true.

  33. chatsubo said,

    March 9, 2009 at 8:29 pm

    apologies Purple Cow – your quote is spot on, and mine is a half-remembered paraphrase- must be that MMR vaccine kicking in on my brain cells

  34. The Purple Cow said,

    March 10, 2009 at 9:46 am

    No apologies necessary, my point was that since the original quote from 1900 there have been many many variations on that theme quoted by every alleged expert or commentator in the field. So it’s entirely possible that your quote is also correct.

  35. lasker said,

    March 10, 2009 at 1:33 pm

    Hilarious nonsense but I’d happily supply more for $1.5 million a pop.

  36. Robin Johnson said,

    March 10, 2009 at 2:16 pm

    Not sure about the suggestion that we reason using metaphors like that headline – it’s nothing like the reasoning you’d have to make if you physically came to a sticky patch in the road.

  37. kerledan said,

    March 10, 2009 at 5:27 pm

    This just looks like a (successful) ploy to get free advertising for this sugary drink.

    A lot more where this came from, I expect, best not to repeat it.

  38. Paul Murray said,

    March 11, 2009 at 4:18 am

    THe new logo looks like a fat man with a red t-shirt and his white gut hanging out over his blue pants.

  39. rrritalin said,

    March 11, 2009 at 8:59 am

    sherifffruitfly said,

    March 9, 2009 at 1:14 am

    Two words: Sokal hoax.”

    – Pffft! I hope so!

    @ the people who are saying it’s a Pepsi viral:

    What you’re hypothesising is as follows. Ad men at Pepsi feel they’re failing to break into the Nature-reading, QI-watching market, and so they generate an elaborate hoax in cahoots with a real marketing company that potentially makes a laughing stock of said marketing company. The document’s only been read around 7 kilotimes in the week it’s been up, that’s small change in internet marketing.

  40. treeofpain said,

    March 11, 2009 at 10:38 am

    @9 Suw, you have ruined the London 2012 logo for me now 🙂 (correction More ruined, ROFL).
    Irrespective of whether the doc is a spoof (and in the world of the marketing droid, the line between reality and fakery is truly blurred), the offense (after all if science was religion we would be fully entitled to take ‘offence’) is still there that scientific terminology can be used carelessly, in complete ignorance, and worst detrimentally. I actually like the graphics, and the waffle-like explanations, of some of it, those bits that actually deal with the design of the new logo. The rest if valueless twaddle. Cost: at 50k a year for 5 people, that’s 250k total, for a whole year’s work (once you laugh at basic science, realistically, you probably start to laugh at people who **can** count). Consultancy disease strikes here as well (as others have said) in banking.

  41. FredLS said,

    March 13, 2009 at 3:37 pm

    It still doesn’t alter the fact that, as Berke Breathed pointed out a couple of decades back, their product tastes like malted battery acid…

  42. Robert Carnegie said,

    March 16, 2009 at 4:23 pm

    Granted this column’s interest specifically is in the quality of the science presented in the document and not its authenticity, even so if it’s a hoax on the public instead of on Pepsi then it isn’t fit matter for the column, any more than the bad science in an episode of [Star Trek] or an article in [The Onion] is. Those are contexts where bad science isn’t the outrage that it is in the so-called real world, and you may have been pranked.

    I agree it’s hard to see why this as an authentic document -would- be leaked, which if it’s considered a trade secret can, I think, get you 15 years in a U.S. jail. Ben, you’d better -hope- that it’s a fake!

  43. Mr M said,

    March 18, 2009 at 2:18 pm

    having read the document (always check your sources!)… I’ve come across Arnell in a professional capacity and the horrible truth is that I think they may actually have written this and even believe it. Mind you, it’s unfair to single them out, I can think of a few other agencies who could have presented this straightfaced, no irony.
    Sad really, as it’s an interesting idea, to use the curve of the can to make it smile at you as you walk past. Why couldn’t they just say that?