What makes things cool? What penumbral principle explains not only the marketing campaigns of Harley Davidson, Apple, and Dos Equis, but also the appeal of cowboys, James Dean, and Jennifer Lawrence?
A new paper in the Journal of Consumer Research takes a stab at answering what might be an unanswerable question by studying how brands and companies become cool in the eyes of consumers. And, to my surprise, it's decently plausible.
To understand their theory of cool, compare it to another possibly undefinable concept: humor. What makes something funny? Plato and Aristotle offered what we now call the Superiority Theory. Basically, we laugh at other people's misfortunes, or when we feel superior. This theory explains physical humor, most of Family Guy, and a joke like this:
A woman gets on a bus with her baby. The bus driver says: ''Ugh, that's the ugliest baby I've ever seen!'' The woman walks to the rear of the bus and sits down, fuming. She says to a man next to her: ''The driver just insulted me!'' The man says: ''You go up there and tell him off. Go on, I'll hold your monkey for you.''
But Superiority Theory doesn't do much to explain why we recognize other jokes as jokes. For example: "There are two fish in a tank; one says 'How do you drive this thing?'" Puns are funny (some of them, anyway, theoretically) for reasons besides superiority. They need a broader theory. As Shane Snow explained in the New Yorker, academics are coming around to a more sophisticated idea called Benign Violation.