The importance of gimmicks


Why do gimmicks exist? What does a gimmick mean to you? I guess gimmicks can mean several things so lets create a definition.

Good gimmick: “A unique or quirky special feature of no intrinsic value used to explain or get attention for an underlying, and more complex & significant idea, product or movement.

Bad gimmick: “A unique or quirky special feature of no intrinsic value used as the idea product or movement itself.

Good gimmicks work because they closely relate to the underlying idea they are trying to get attention for. The closer the correlation, the more truthful & honest the message being delivered appears. Another way of looking at this is the relationship between design & Marketing: Marketing makes a promise to the customer, the design delivers this promise. When the two are closely linked, trust & honesty emerge. When the promise of marketing is far away from what the design delivers, fear, ignorance & distrust grow. For the most part, this neatly explains why Apple stores regularly have large queues for their latest product & why no one has ever queued outside a Currys or PC world for anything.

A gimmick can be used as a simple introduction to a more complex idea. The most successful artists, photographers musicians & designers have used gimmicks for this purpose: Mark Rothko is ‘that guy who paints the squares‘, Sally Mann is ‘that lady who photographed her children naked‘, Deadmau5 is the ‘DJ with the big mouse head‘ & Joshua Davis is the designer ‘generating chaos with graphic design & code‘. None of these examples are meant to sound shallow, I describe the gimmicks they use, not the complex ideas underneath they point to. Good gimmicks in the creative world are often mistaken for bad gimmicks, or cons, because the gimmick is mistaken for the idea itself. This happens all the time in art: Carl Andre’s ‘Equivalent VIII’ is described by some as ‘just bricks, anyone could do that‘, but these bricks are obviously a stand in, a gimmick, for a more complex underlying idea, that some people miss entirely.

Another non creative example are the Documentaries of Adam Curtis: Fast cutting, old stock footage, radical left wing ideas, regularly criticised by those who already understand world politics. The documentaries themselves function as the perfect gimmick to introduce the more complex ideas of world politics that are far harder to grasp.

A bad gimmick often works too because it appears, at least initially, to be the same as the good gimmick described above. Its not until Internet Explorer lets a virus ruin your computer, or the ‘durable’ headphones you used in the rain once break, that you discover the gimmick was a lie, a bad gimmick.

The reason the introduction of 3D falls under the bad gimmick definition here is precisely because the gimmick, the marketing, did not correlate to the underlying idea at all. The gimmick of 3D is marketed as ‘Immerse yourself in an experience‘, but the reason the experience is often underwhelming is because in reality, 3D is designed to get customers to pay to see the film in the cinema, instead of downloading the film for free online.

For a gimmick to work, it has to be simple enough for you to memorise & fit into your own story. Good gimmicks enable story telling, word spreading & empower the teller through simplicity. ‘My story‘ about ‘my product‘ or ‘my idea‘ becomes ‘your story‘ about ‘your new product‘, ‘this awesome new idea‘ or ‘this important new movement‘ you have joined.

Seth Godin sums this up perfectly: “As you sit down to consider ways to be more remarkable, the challenge is to be worth talking about… at the same time you are adding value for the person who’s talking about you.

Image by me.