This week on the BrainJuicer office stereo the theme has been “Guilty Pleasures”. As a music fan I can’t stand the idea of guilty pleasures – records which get lumbered with the title seem mostly to be catchy, funny and exciting, or at least far more so than the blokey, self-important, ‘guiltless’ alternatives.
But from the point of view of human behaviour, marketing, and innovation, the idea of “guilty pleasures” – and its enormous success – is fascinating. In a pop culture context, the phrase seemed to first crop up in the late 70s, as a column in Film Comment magazine. But it’s pop music where it’s really taken off, spawning club nights, compilations, and endless playlists. It’s a great example of a successful meme, a simple concept spreading irresistibly.
Guilty Pleasures are interesting because they put two of the most powerful forces in human decision making – instinctual response and social behaviour – against each other. On the one hand you have the initial reaction to a record – the “pleasure”, a desire to listen. It might be triggered by memory not quality, but it’s a powerful force. And on the other you have your perception of a social consensus what is or isn’t acceptable to like. The decision to listen to the song and the decision to share the song conflict, and we know that conflicting impulses tend to make decisions harder and people less happy.
From chart conqueror to guilty pleasure?
So if you find yourself in that dilemma, what do you do? One option is self-editing. The social music site last.fm tracks everything its users play, but allows them to delete plays from their public record. It maintains a monthly list of the most-deleted songs: Lady Gaga dominates, but perhaps surprisingly it’s the apparently more credible Adele who currently sits at the top.
But another option is to find something which resolves the contradiction. And this is what the “guilty pleasures” idea did, creating a category which allowed people to listen to songs they actually liked in a social space which pre-empted any serious criticism. In a sense “guilty pleasures” is a classic example of consumer innovation – an observation (“There are songs people like but wouldn’t admit to liking”) leads to an unmet need (“Wouldn’t it be great if I could listen to them in public”) leads to an innovation which meets that need.
And, in a classic next step, a need for some spreads and becomes a need for all. It’s not necessarily something to be celebrated – but it happens. Whatever the original insights behind hair conditioner or multi-blade razors, for instance, the products that resulted are now fixtures. The “guilty pleasure” likewise – everyone who listened to music now understands the category.
But not everyone agrees how to fill it. Once the “guilty pleasure” concept was released, social norms started to accrete around it. Coldplay and Justin Bieber both have large, devoted fanbases and a vast number of people outside that fanbase who can’t stand them. But a Twitter search for “guilty pleasure” and Bieber turns up hundreds of responses, one for “guilty pleasure” and Coldplay only finds five. The feelings sparked might be similar but the phrase has become about cultural associations not just immediate feelings.
But then, the most interesting part of innovation isn’t the discovery, it’s seeing how people use it in the real world. “Guilty Pleasures” works like a real-life Pinterest board – what people leave out is as interesting as what people select, and if you’re paying attention the choices tell you a lot about people and how they feel about things.