When your communication breaks down, your customer suffers rectal earache.

I am currently reading a classic book titled Influence – The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert Cialdini.

Influence The Psychology of Persuasion

Influence The Psychology of Persuasion

When I finish it I will summarise my learnings in a future post, but I just had to share this funny excerpt that describes what happens when communication breaks down.

According to Professor Cohen, in case after case, patients, nurses, pharmacists, and other physicians do not question the prescription.

Take, for example, the strange case of the “rectal earache” reported by Cohen and Davis.

A physician ordered ear drops to be administered to the right ear of a patient suffering pain and infection there.

But instead of writing out completely the location “right ear” on the prescription, the doctor abbreviated it so that the instructions read “place in R ear.”

Upon receiving the prescription, the duty nurse promptly put the required number of ear drops into the patient’s anus.

Obviously, rectal treatment of an earache makes no sense. Yet neither the patient nor the nurse questioned it.

The important lesson of this story is that in many situations where a legitimate authority has spoken, what would otherwise make sense is irrelevant

The case of the rectal earache

The case of the rectal earache

What does it mean for marketers?

The excerpt above is a hilarious example of one of my favourite quotes from George Bernard Shaw in action:

The problem with communication…is the illusion that it has been accomplished

In research circles this is often referred to as branded message take-out, which I think is one of the most critical metrics for any piece of communication.

So basically, if your communications aren’t scoring high in this metric, your customers end up suffering rectal earache.

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Categories: Book Reviews, Communication, Psychology

Author:Chris Maloney

Chris is a multi-channel marketing strategist and one of Australia's most awarded young marketers.


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4 Comments on “When your communication breaks down, your customer suffers rectal earache.”

  1. July 24, 2009 at 9:22 am #

    As someone with a love of language, the power of simplicity and elegance in communications, especially in written form, is an art first with commercial implications second. I suspect without the love, the practice continues to fall short of the mark.
    My take on the above post is that while authority (i.e. credibility, authenticity) is critical, so is the level of demand/need of the recipient (i.e. customer/client). The less acute the demand, the less reactive the customer (prospect) will be to that message. In fact, the more time between message delivery and reaction, the more opportunity to apply a ‘common sense’ test. A sort of check-and-balance against perceived brand authority.
    Another point I will make is the filter of networks. Between two people (especially when they are unfamiliar with each other’s personal characteristics), the chance of miscommunication is relatively high, but between one and a thousand, where that thousand is networked and freely sharing information, the chances of miscommunication (along with abuse of power, any power) greatly diminishes.
    I appreciate the food for thought.

  2. July 24, 2009 at 10:51 am #

    Beautifully written comment Andrew. Couldnt have said it better myself.

    One question for you. What does Chinese Whispers mean for the filter of networks concept?

  3. July 24, 2009 at 6:29 pm #

    This conundrum is based on what you ‘apparently’ heard, filtered by your own prejudices, expectations, and emotions. It all starts falling apart when people start dropping the ‘punctuation’!
    Chinese Whispers is like Xeroxing one copy after another. Eventually the image has no quality (or value) at all.
    The beauty of networks, especially digital networks, however, is that they are not linear. The original written (or video, audio) message can be replicated and disseminated without loss of quality and without prescribed filters.
    Also, in the ‘game’ of Chinese Whispers there is no transparency. No one knows who was responsible for the corruption, so people become careless. In a network sense, the fingerprints can always be found!


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