Christian Madsbjerg co-founded ReD almost a decade ago, after a brief stint in journalism. He dresses the part of the Nordic intellectual, alternating slick minimalist threads (think Dieter from Saturday Night Live’s “Sprockets”) with modish Western wear that no American could really pull off. After more than 30 years in London and his native Denmark, he fled for New York, where ReD operates out of a wood-paneled Battery Park office once occupied by John D. Rockefeller.
The founding story of ReD sounds more like the genesis of a doctoral dissertation than of a multimillion-dollar company. Madsbjerg says he became enamored first with post-structural theory, and then with the 20th-century German philosopher Martin Heidegger, who argued that the distinction between objects and their beholders needed to be effaced. When we consider a hammer, we might naturally think of its objective scientific properties: a certain weight and balance, a hardness, a handle with a rubber grip that has a particular coefficient of friction. What Heidegger posited is that these objective attributes are in fact secondary to the hammer’s subjective relationship with the person wielding it. The hammer has uses (a weapon, a tool), meanings (a symbol on the Soviet flag), and other characteristics that do not exist independently of the meeting of subject and object. A common mistake of philosophers, he claimed, is to think of the object as distinct from the subject. If all of this sounds opaque, I can assure you that in the original German it is much, much worse.
NowThisNews explores how Heidegger’s philosophy helps drive American marketing.
But before long, Madsbjerg had a list of clients desperate for Heideggerian readings of their businesses. The service he provides sounds even more improbable to a scholar who knows his Heidegger than to a layperson who does not. Many philosophers spend their lives trying and failing to understand what Heidegger was talking about. To interest a typical ReD client—usually a corporate vice president who is, Madsbjerg says, “the least laid-back person you can imagine, with every minute of their day divided into 15-minute blocks”—in the philosopher’s turgid, impenetrable post-structural theory is as unlikely a pitch as could be imagined.
But it’s the pitch Madsbjerg has been making. The fundamental blindness in the sorts of consulting that dominate the market, he says, is that they are Cartesian in their outlook: they view objects as the sum of their performance and physical properties. “If you are selling personal computers, you look at the machine and say it’s this many gigahertz, this many pixels,” he says. And you then determine whether a potential new market needs computers that perform faster than the ones currently on offer, and how big that market will be.
These specs, as well as data about how many households in, say, China will reach income levels that will allow a personal-computer purchase, fit nicely into spreadsheets and graphs. But they overlook human elements that exist in plain sight, the things the Anglo-Polish founder of the ethnographic method, Bronisław Malinowski, called “the imponderabilia of actual life.” These are, he wrote, “small incidents, characteristic forms of taking food, of conversing, of doing work, [that] are found occurring over and over again.”
These imponderabilia turn out to have huge consequences if you want to sell a personal computer in China. “We find that these objects have meanings, not just facts,” Madsbjerg says, “and that the meaning is often what matters.” So to sell a personal computer in China, for example, what matters is the whole concept of a “personal” computer, which is culturally wrong from the start. “Household objects don’t have the same personal attachment [in China as they do in America]. It has to be a shared thing.” So if the device isn’t designed and marketed as a shared household object, but instead as one customized for a single user, it probably won’t sell, no matter how many gigahertz it has.
China is a huge potential market, and every corporation with any ambition wants its piece of that pie, on the idea that if you make a dollar off each man, woman, and child in China, you’ve just made $1 billion. A source told me, for instance, that Coca-Cola approached ReD after years of trying and failing to sell bottled tea in China. (ReD would not confirm that the client in question was Coca-Cola.) The beverage company had imagined that this would be a simple variant on the fizzy-sugared-water business that had made it a global icon. Instead, it failed to seize a respectable market share, even though it was competing with lightweight local competitors.
Long-term observation revealed that when it comes to tea in China, what is for sale isn’t merely a tasty beverage. Instead, the consumption of tea takes place in a highly specific web of cultural rules, some of them explicit but many others not. For instance, you might serve strong tea to close friends, or to people you want to draw closer. But you would never serve strong tea to new acquaintances. That meant that no tea, however tasty, would sell if its strength was uniform. Let the consumer choose the strength, however, and you may be able to sell the product within the culture. Coca-Cola’s Chinese tea products are now on course to change accordingly.
To sell the ReD idea—that products and objects are inevitably encrusted with cultural meaning, and that a company that neglects to explore social theory is bound to leave profits on the table—Madsbjerg has evangelized with great success, giving what are surely the only successful corporate sales pitches salted with words like hermeneutics and phenomenology. Most of his consultants don’t have the usual business pedigree; M.B.A.s are very scarce (“tend not to fit in,” he says). Rather, many employees come from academia, and some from another interview- and observation-based realm: journalism. (I came to know the firm first through Lieskovsky—the former anthropology student on the Absolut project—and through another employee, who is a former editor at GQ.)
The second consultant I followed, Rachel Singh, also came from academia. A native of Manitoba, she’d joined ReD a year and a half earlier, after doing ethnographic work for Intel’s Ireland office and attending graduate school in digital anthropology at University College London.
We met a few blocks from the apartment of the day’s interview subject, at a café in the Los Angeles suburb of Tarzana—a concrete jungle named after the principal literary creation of Edgar Rice Burroughs, an early celebrity resident of the area. It occurred to me that in a previous era, before anthropologists discovered that their own societies were as irrationally rule-bound as so-called primitive ones, Singh might have aspired to perform fieldwork in actual jungles, and to study actual Tarzans.
The view of anthropologists as tourists in exotic lands is old and tired, which is not to say dead. Singh surprised me with her candor several times over the course of the day, but the first occasion was when she described her entry into the world of anthropology, which sounded to me like exactly that sort of romantic vision. “I came to university as a premed, and one day I just wandered into a lecture hall and heard a guy giving a lecture about his fieldwork with the Kwakiutl of British Columbia. He went on a ‘vision quest,’ and after falling asleep on a secluded beach, he woke up surrounded by seals. He returned to the village and was told by an elder that he had found his guardian animal.” Then, she said, the lecturer hiked up his sleeve to reveal a seal tattoo. Singh was hooked on the study of culture. She changed her major, and she sees continuity between her academic work and what she does now as an ethnographic hired gun.
In Tarzana, Singh was scheduled to meet, on behalf of a ReD client in the health-care field, a woman I’ll call Elsie. It was 10 a.m. on a beautiful Southern California Sunday—a perfectly awful time to sit inside and discuss the day’s topic, the visible precancerous skin lesions from which Elsie suffers. “It makes me feel like a leper,” Elsie confided after we began, and Singh nodded sympathetically, like an old friend. “It makes me feel like hiding.”
The interview started much the same way the previous one had, with the anthropologist documenting the setting in minute detail. With her iPhone, Singh snapped shots of the street, the parking garage, the squares of grass and the tropical trees in the neighborhood. Once inside, her eyes darted over every surface, and she noted the vacuum track marks on the floor; the drawers full of tubes of prescription creams; the European posters. Singh set up a video camera to record every minute of the six-hour interview—the better to capture the moments when Elsie’s responses revealed traces of unexpected emotion or meaning. Singh asked Elsie, a hefty, sun-spotted redhead of 52, about her medical regimen, then about the basic details of her life—what her childhood had been like, where she had lived, when she woke up every morning, what she ate, and whom she spoke with.
Singh unpacked Elsie’s responses methodically, adding an occasional compassionate or sympathetic word. When Singh asked about Elsie’s lesions, she phrased the questions carefully, suggesting that she could feel Elsie’s pain. “How would I get this condition?” she asked. “What would be the symptoms?”
Elsie’s was the first of perhaps two dozen similarly in-depth interviews, Singh told me later. The client had created a product to treat one of Elsie’s conditions. The company knew very well what would happen to a lesion if it were frozen, zapped, or rubbed with cream. But what about the person attached to the lesion? A simplistic model of patient behavior might say that patients want whatever the most effective treatment is. But the conversation with Elsie revealed a much more fraught human experience. She had her taboos, such as being forced to even say the word lesion. She wanted to escape not just her lesions, but the shame they brought on.
Once Singh had completed the interview, before we parted ways, she made clear that there was at least one argument within anthropology that she was tired of hearing about: “Just don’t make this another story about the clash between practicing anthropologists and academics.”
The politics of anthropologists in academia tends to the Marxist left, even more so than the politics of academics in general. And to many of them, the defection of young scholars to the corporate world looks like a betrayal at best, and a devil’s bargain at worst. I told Singh that academic anthropologists had already shared some harsh words for their applied-anthropology brothers and sisters. “Well, they’re endangered,” she said of the academics, a little snootily. “We’re doing work that’s needed. We’re dealing with human issues.”
The corporate anthropologists I met generally come across as people who acknowledge the limits of what they do. Ken Anderson, the Intel ethnographer, co-founded a conference called EPIC for corporate ethnographers. Over the phone, he was warm and jokey, seemingly without rancor when he told me about his failed quest for an academic job out of graduate school (“At the time, the employment opportunities for white guys in academic anthropology were pretty darn slim”). He found instead a corporate career that has encouraged anthropological work—as long as it could hold relevance to the corporation at some point. He has spent weeks in London hanging out with bike messengers for Intel, and hunkered down in the Azores as digital technology reached remote settlements. Sure enough, his research sounds very blue-sky, and on a recognizable continuum with the anthropological research cultivated in the groves of academe.
A few years ago, he conducted an ethnographic study of “temporality,” about the perception of the passage and scarcity of time—noting how Americans he studied had come to perceive busy-ness and lack of time as a marker of well-being. “We found that in social interaction, virtually everyone would claim to be ‘busy,’ and that everyone close to them would be ‘busy’ too,” he told me. But in fact, coordinated studies of how these people used technology suggested that when they used their computers, they tended to do work only in short bursts of a few minutes at a time, with the rest of the time devoted to something other than what we might identify as work. “We were designing computers, and the spec at the time was to use the computer to the max for two hours,” Anderson says. “We had to make chips that would perform at that level. You don’t want them to overheat. But when we came back, we figured that we needed to rethink this, because people’s time is not quite what we imagine.” For a company that makes microchip processors, this discovery has had important consequences for how to engineer products—not only for users who constantly need high-powered computing for long durations, but for people who just think they do.
Among the luxuries of working for a corporate master is, of course, deliverance from the endless hustle to find funding. My partner is an academic anthropologist, and she goes from year to year having to pull together funding for trips to field sites in the Central African Republic—which, unlike China, is not a hotbed of corporate interest. (By contrast, Madsbjerg told me, “Our resources are not infinite. But almost.”)
But the bigger issue for academics is the fear that corporate anthropology is an ethical free-fire zone. “If there isn’t an IRB [institutional review board], a sort of neutral third party that watches out for the interests of those who are being researched, then obviously there is cause for concern,” says Hugh Gusterson, a George Mason University professor who has led anthropologists in opposing cooperation with certain U.S. military projects. He pointed to fury among his colleagues a few years ago, when it became known that Disney had paid ethnographers to study teenagers’ spending habits, the better to sell them Disney products. “They were learning about people—and not just any people, but minors—so they could exploit them, for profit.”
To get a research project approved at a modern university, a researcher faces a review board of professors commissioned to scrutinize the proposal and check for ethical sticking points—ways the project could hurt the people it studied, disrupt their lives, or take advantage of them. ReD, meanwhile, is bound only by the sense of decency of its senior partners. Luckily, they are Danish. I asked Madsbjerg if he had ever turned away a contract on account of scruples, and he told me the military of a South American country had approached him to discuss an ethnographic project on weapons design. He refused, on the grounds that helping people shoot other people wasn’t what ReD was about. Nor would he do work for a company that wanted to sell junk food to children. On the other hand, even contracts that are less obviously perilous, ethically speaking, could raise the hackles of an academic review board. Helping Coca-Cola feed sweetened beverages to 1.3 billion Chinese, for example, will probably not have a healthy impact on that country’s incidence of diabetes.
Roberto González, a cultural anthropologist who teaches at San Jose State University, goes so far as to argue that those who don’t follow the American Anthropological Association’s code of ethics should no longer be considered anthropologists at all. “Part of being an anthropologist is following a code of ethics, and if you don’t do that, you’re not an anthropologist”—just as you’re no longer fit to call yourself a doctor if you do unauthorized experiments on your patients. “Of course,” Hugh Gusterson adds, “we don’t license anthropologists, so we can’t un-license them either.”
Some anthropologists caution against assuming that the work done by ReD consultants and their corporate brethren is really ethnography at all. During the U.S. invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. Army convened a team of purported ethnographers to staff a group called the Human Terrain System, which was tasked with producing militarily significant ethnographic reports and providing cultural advice. Professional anthropologists raised hell, condemning the participants for using their training inappropriately, but in time it became clear that there weren’t many anthropologists on the HTS staff at all. (One team member I knew had a doctorate in Russian literature.) The civilians on the staff were, for the most part, just a bunch of well-educated people reading up on Iraqi and Afghan tribes and writing reports that were quasi-anthropological at best.
That, it seems to me, is probably the best way to view much of what ReD does as well. The value the firm brings to clients comes partly from anthropology, practiced in a way that may or may not please those still in academia. But the value is also just an effect of putting an impressive ethnographic sheen on the work of many smart, right-brained individuals in a sector that overvalues quantitative research. Much of what I encountered while shadowing ReD’s consultants seemed like the type of insight that any observant interviewer might have produced, with or without an anthropology degree or a working knowledge of Heidegger.
Madsbjerg’s admiration for Heidegger does, however, show something of his genius for self-marketing. Many consulting firms plot growth curves and recommend efficiency strategies, but few offer the kind of research ReD does. Still fewer firms immerse themselves so happily in academic language, and only Madsbjerg has the cojones to walk into a corporate boardroom and tell his audience that the impenetrable works of a long-dead German philosopher hold the keys to financial success.
I asked Madsbjerg how he would sell his firm to a potential employee currently teaching at a university, and he leaned toward me with a smile, slipping comfortably into the Marxist lingo of academia. “Do you want to sit and write about the world,” he asked, “or do you want to do something in it?”
I couldn’t help but think of Steve Jobs’s famous entreaty to John Sculley, then the president of PepsiCo, asking him to join Apple in 1983 as CEO. “Do you want to sell sugared water for the rest of your life?,” Jobs asked. “Or do you want to come with me and change the world?”
The irony, of course, is that ReD is changing the world in part by helping a global beverage company sell more sugared water.