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Using Heidegger to sell flat-screen TVs


In an article for Bloomberg, Drake Bennett writes about the consulting firm Red Associates, which mines the work of such recondite philosophers as Heidegger, Hans-Georg Gadamer, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty to advise corporations on how to market sneakers and design flat-screen TVs. The founders of Red Associates, Christian Madsbjerg and Mikkel Rasmussen, display a shocking lack of irony or shame when they say things like: “I don’t think that the people that designed theories of identity ever, ever thought about toothbrushing, but it’s very, very helpful.” Here’s an excerpt from the article:

Red’s 70 consultants, hired mostly out of graduate programs in sociology, philosophy, political science, history, and anthropology, conduct a form of ethnography, embedding themselves in the lives of consumers the way Margaret Mead did among Samoans. They interview their subjects and the people around them, itemizing the contents of their kitchens and dressers while photographing and videotaping, and accompany them as they prepare a meal, or commute to work, or primp for a night out. Then they sift the resulting information for weeks, even months, looking for connections and telltale behaviors…

In the age of big data, Red practices what one might call little data: Rather than using algorithms to analyze oceans of numbers, it uses small data sets and subjective information parsed by smart, highly educated fellow human beings. Now, having honed their method during hundreds of client projects, Madsbjerg and Rasmussen have written a book, The Moment of Clarity, a slim volume about the power of the “human sciences.”

“Companies, other consultants, they’re often trying to figure out what’s useful or convenient for people,” says Rasmussen. “I’m not interested in what’s useful or convenient. I’m interested in what’s meaningful.” The last decade has seen a profusion of firms that offer similar services—qualitative research is one term for it; corporate anthropology or consumer-centric strategy are others—and companies such as Procter & Gamble, Microsoft, and Intel today have in-house anthropologists and sociologists. The best-known of the innovation consultancies is Ideo, legendary for its work with Apple.

Image: Christian Madsbjerg (left) and Mikkel Rasmussen of Red Associates. Via Bloomberg.