Signaling the Creative Reassembly of Free Will

"You promise every treasure, to the foolish and the wise
Goddesses of mystery, spirits in disguise
Every pleasure, we bow and close our eyes
Clockwork angels, promise every prize."
--Neil Peart


I looked up. The older, attractive flight attendant smiled at me. Maybe in her early 50's, the white of her perfect teeth, twinkle in her blue-gray eyes framed in vintage horn-rimmed glasses, and the two Scotches on the rocks in her hands triggered something inside. An old magazine ad from the Mad Men era of the 1960's, maybe.

You're pretty, I thought. But no Scotch for me, thanks. 

The pilot chuckled. "Hey, you should've told her you needed a drink to pass."

That's when I woke up. My colleague and I had just boarded the plane bound for Atlanta and the SHRM Conference and Exposition, and the flight attendant, Scotches still in either hand, was wanting to pass in front of me to hand out the drinks to two other first-class passengers, of which I was no party to.

"I know, I should've," I said to the pilot. 

The flight attendant leaned back in front of me, looking from me to the pilot. She swirled the drinks, winked and then smiled.

"Mmmm…a little Dewars never hurt anyone. This is what my dad used to smell like when he came home from work every night," she said.

Yep, Mad Men era.

The pilot and I laughed -- he a little too enthusiastically, me a little too uncomfortably.

"He was a Veterinarian."

"Wow," I said. The pilot laughed again.

She shrugged. "Hey, it's not like his patients were going to sue or anything."

More discomfort -- the pilot didn't laugh either -- and now I wanted that drink myself. But too late, she handed them to the passengers and I was shuffled away to my seat in coach.

Too much information to process, but the signaling of sorts worked, meaning I wanted a drink based on what I experienced in that moment and the information I was given; it might as well have been a liquor ad (sans the vet commentary, however). 

More precisely, signaling is an economics term, the idea that one party conveys some credible information about itself to another party. For example, when I'm driving down the highway and I see a billboard for a brand-name restaurant, one where a happy family is hungrily eating away, even if I'm not that hungry, it signals me that I should consider stopping for a bite -- at that particular brand-name restaurant -- whether it's the best restaurant or not.

Signaling also meant that, before the proliferation of choice via the internet, the more money dumped into my brand advertising the better, because when it came to choosing what I should consume, I wanted name brands over no-names, even if the no-names were better quality products. It helped us choose, for better or for worse, like sexy Sirens guiding us along the coast to safe harbor. According to a great New York Times Magazine article by Adam Davidson, co-founder of NPR's Planet Money, "Signaling is also often associated with consumer goods. In many ways, it was useful. How does anyone really know that they’ve picked the right baby formula, soda or car? They don’t, and manufacturers know that. That’s why our economy is filled with highly promoted branding campaigns that, however superficial or annoying, can be enormously helpful guides."

As it relates to the world of work, American economist Michael Spence's job-market signalling model, "states that (potential) employees send a signal about their ability level to the employer by acquiring certain education credentials. The informational value of the credential comes from the fact that the employer assumes it is positively correlated with having greater ability." Even when it doesn't.

But then the internet changed everything. The democratization of online research gave us the power to discover and find products, services and careers that we never knew we wanted or needed.

The same goes for content. Sure the episode when JR Ewing is shot on Dallas was the highest rated global airing of all time back in the 1980's -- but then again, there were only four networks to choose from. Now there are hundreds. In fact, the entire media industry -- publications, networks, blogs, radio shows, podcasts, videos -- has created virtually an unlimited choice for us savvy consumers to pick from, splintering marketing and advertising into a billion little pieces.

And that's a problem, because now there's too much. Way too much. Universal media democratization has created a monster. Lots of monsters. Monsters that don't need the help of drunken Veterinarians. Monsters that battle it out Japanese B-rate Saturday afternoon matinee style. For our attention. And our money. Every minute of every day.

Now we the professional consumers need help -- we need "cuts" in business as well as pleasure. We need new friendly signalers to help us along the free-to-choose-what-we-want path, to know what it is we really need in the face of interconnected oblivion. That's why we look to product and service consolidators and reviewers, filtering algorithms, and content aggregators and conversation analyzers (like, of course, the new SocialEars HR Edition). 

And speaking of closer to our HR B2B home, we also look to industry influencers to help us vet the hundreds of HR suppliers on the expo floor of SHRM, as well as the schwag (which, by the way, I'll be selectively shopping for my B-hive girls), as well as the mind-boggling volume of industry content available today in the form of news articles, blog posts, tweets and more. Queue my social media hippie friends to come in and save the day -- and bring even more content with them along the way.

These people and products help us get magically to the "short lists," where once again the democratization of choice and the creative reassembly of free will take hold.

Be brave my people. We can take on the monsters and once again own our personal and professional marketplaces.

[Wink. Smile.]

Now, have a seat, sir. That'll be $10 for the Scotch.

Post written by Kevin W. Grossman, HRmarketer's Chief Strategy Officer.

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