One of my favourite novels is the History of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia, written in the 1700s by Samuel Johnson.  The novel (spoilers ahead) charts the life of Rasselas, the eponymous prince.  He lives in a perfect kingdom in which his every need is met.  The upshot of this endless ‘joy’ is that the luxury loses its edge.  Rasselas breaks out of the kingdom into the real world where his experience of the best and worst of life creates the contrast that enables the experience of true joy. In short, he realises that without pain there can be no pleasure.

This idea has resonances in pretty much every aspect of our lives, not least in our working lives.

I’m going to argue that the central theme of Rasselas – that some sort of divisiveness is essential to a good life – makes it a shoe-in as a set text for marketeers and PR professionals alongside Rupert the Bear (blog passim).

My point is that a polarising voice (one that causes you to either cheer or boo) carries further and more effectively than a sanitised “all things to all people” tone.  Think about a typical day on Twitter, which is now firmly established as the principal conduit for opinion for hundreds of millions of people worldwide.  When I look at what travels most effectively on Twitter it is generally one of two things: a debate or a clever observation on something. Debates feature prominently – some of them light, others more difficult, but always with a thinking and participatory constituency.  Nothing gets shared like opinion.

I don’t think businesses should set out to deliberately annoy but I do think that they should fold the possibility of debate into their narrative and embrace the age of opinion.

Setting up a debate, even if it’s one of John Rentoul’s ‘Questions To Which The Answer Is No’, is a great way of getting people interested and engaged in what you have to say.  Debates are about influencing as well as debating – and catalysing a conversation creates a porousness at the edge of your constituency, meaning that you can attract converts, as well as lose a few. Debates also turn passive into active.

In a sense it’s one of the basic – and far more insidious – principles behind that modern scourge, Spam.  The emails are often terrible and are deleted in an instant.  But the people who develop Spam have this in mind.  They are looking to deliberately polarise and shake off the inconvincible and attract the persuadable.  Their list becomes tighter, better defined and more valuable.

When we started direct marketing I used to gnash my teeth when I’d get an unsubscribe request, but soon I came to welcome them.  We have a particular tone of voice – and it doesn’t suit everyone.  The value in an unsubscribe (or a “stink off, pie face” email as we call them in these parts) is that it tells me that I am unlikely to find a receptive ear in a new business meeting.  In a way I have come to value “no” as much as I value “yes”.

People fear polarising because it sounds as though they might lose half of their friends or customer base, but that really isn’t the case.  A rallying cry can bind your customer base more tightly together and grow it by turning them into evangelists – and after all, nobody ever gets 100 percent of the market, not least because of the OFT and Competition Commission.

Setting up a narrative built around an opinion is memorable – and memorable means that it will be passed on.  Each year billions are spent worldwide on anodyne communications that are starved of an edge.  It’s why we set up to cleanse the world of meaningless jargon (or at least make a dent).

Next time you’re writing something or saying something and you pause to consider removing a statement that you think might be divisive, my advice would be to think again.  You may conclude, on reflection, that it is better to step back from a debate, but you might also find a way of framing a debate that serves your interests more than mitigating against.

Mrs Merton was right.  Let’s all have a topical debate.


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