The Black Queen Hypothesis in Advertising?

It’s been awhile since I posted a hardcore science article, so forgive me if the pendulum has swung too far back the other way.  I’ve been reading up on a new hypothesis about evolved dependency and I realized that the hypothesis being used to discuss microorganisms could also apply to advertising.  I mean, when you think about it, social networking behaves like a microorganism, but I’m jumping ahead.

Let’s start with the basics:  A new hypothesis posed by a University of Tennessee, Knoxville, associate professor and colleagues could be a game changer in the evolution arena. The hypothesis suggests some species are surviving by discarding genes and depending on other species to play their hand. The groundbreaking “Black Queen Hypothesis” got its name from the game of Hearts.  In Hearts, the goal is to avoid “winning” the Queen of Spades (the Black Queen), which is worth a lot of points. Subsequently, players allow others to take the high-point card while they enjoy low-score tallies.

This same premise applies in evolution, the scientists say.  According to the hypothesis, evolution pushes microorganisms to lose essential functions when there is another species around to perform them. This idea counters popular evolutionary thinking that living organisms evolve by adding genes rather than discarding them.

“A common assumption about evolution is that it is directed toward increasing complexity,” said Erik Zinser, associate professor of microbiology. “But we know from analysis of microbial genomes that some lineages trend toward decreasing complexity, exhibiting a net loss of genes relative to their ancestor.”  Zinser’s opinion piece is published in mBio, the online open-access journal of the American Society for Microbiology. Jeffrey Morris and Richard Lenski of Michigan State University are co-authors. Morris was Zinser’s doctoral student at UT.

The authors formed their theory after studying photosynthetic bacteria called Prochlorococcus.  “This marine microorganism continued to mystify us because it is the most common photosynthetic organism on Earth, but it is extremely difficult to grow in pure culture,” Zinser said. “A major reason for this difficulty is that Prochlorococcus is very sensitive to reactive oxygen species such as hydrogen peroxide and relies on other bacteria to protect them by breaking down these toxic substances for them.”  Prochlorococcus had once performed this function itself, but natural selection decided it was too costly, like carrying the Queen of Spades, and discarded this ability. Instead Prochlorococcus benefits from the hard work of others within its community allowing it to concentrate its energies elsewhere — such as multiplying.

The hypothesis offers a new way of looking at complicated, interdependent communities of microorganisms.  “We know that certain microbial activities, such as hydrogen peroxide scavenging, are ‘leaky,’ meaning their impacts extend beyond the cell and into the environment,” Zinser said. “What the hypothesis suggests is that this leakiness can drive a community toward greater interdependence, even if some members are unwitting participants in this process.”  This interdependence could lend itself to vulnerabilities. The scientists say the work highlights the importance of biological diversity, because if rare members are lost, “the consequences for the community could be disastrous.” This would be analogous to attempting to play Hearts without the Queen of Spades.  Currently, the hypothesis is limited to microorganisms, but Zinser thinks the hypothesis could be extended to larger free-living organisms. All that is needed is a card which no player wants yet is crucial for the game to be played.

I get that if it’s been awhile since you’ve had a biology class, some of the hypothesis might seem a bit mind-numbing, but if you substitute “consumer” with “microbial” and “YouTube” with, well, everything else, then you have a pretty solid theory on why advertising companies make such an effort to create viral (no pun intended) campaigns.  It boils down to this – a microorganism can’t do everything to achieve 100% – it takes too much energy, period.  So, it focuses on some stuff and partners with something else to take it the rest of the way.  50% energy can result in 90% success versus 100% energy can be less than or equal to 100%.  It’s simple game theory in action and the math backs it up.

I’ll skip the math.  Think advertising big picture.  An agency wants to reach 100% of a target audience – could be done but at a significant cost – a cost so great that it most likely exceeds the profit from the effort itself.  So, ad agency spends as if it were trying to reach 50%, but it spends that amount to promote itself on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.  Via rewards are clever advertising or whatever else the cost may be, the effort is pushed to go viral.  If it succeeds, then advocates do all the hard work.  They send it to their friends – they take the effort to identify others and comment and push and promote.

The result?  Just like in nature (if hypothesis is correct) then the campaign has relied on others to do its work and still achieves enough of an objective to be successful.  If it fails, then, just like nature, it dies.  The difference between nature and advertising is that nature isn’t running a sprint – it’s running a marathon.  Agencies don’t have a bunch of generations to succeed, but in some cases, neither do the microorganisms.

So what does this mean in terms of agencies?  I am going to offer my own hypothesis here (and solve it later, hopefully) that money used to create an integrated campaign would be better spent, in terms of total success, on paying a core group of advocates (be it social media or other) to perform the task.  I am the first to admit this doesn’t seem revolutionary because so many campaigns are viral.  However, it is important to note the difference between budget allotment.  Many successful online only (or social media only) campaigns use 100% of their budget for that task, while others allot a portion to that amount.  For example – a campaign that only has $100 dollars spends it all on Twitter and gets decent success vs. a campaign that has $1000 and spends $100 on social.  The real test would be a campaign that has $1000 and spends $500 on Twitter to achieve success.

Yes, it seems intuitive, but it’s always easier to pitch something ‘radical’ when you have the magic of science to back it up.

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