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castle amid fog

How to Suspend Disbelief to Fuel Connectivity

Russ Klein

castle amid fog

A letter from Russ Klein, CEO of the American Marketing Association

Leonardo da Vinci once asserted, “Realize that everything connects to everything else.” He was right, but I wonder if he could have imagined a world that could be connected and powered by the internet of things. I have long believed that if you can imagine it, you can achieve it. There’s no better example of this than to see how science fiction has, in many ways, become science reality. As a genre of entertainment, science fiction has arguably had as profound an effect on the evolution and quality of life here in the U.S. and around the world as any true discipline of science.

One of the most fundamental concepts of what makes the entertainment world function predates the cinema: a suspension of disbelief.

Suspension of disbelief is a theory intended to characterize people’s relationships to art. Coined by poet and philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1817, it refers to the willingness of a person to accept the premises of a work of fiction as true, even if they are fantastic or impossible. It also refers to the willingness of the audience to overlook the limitations of a medium, so that these do not interfere with the acceptance of a given premise. According to the theory, suspension of disbelief is a quid pro quo: the audience tacitly agrees to provisionally suspend their judgment in exchange for the promise of entertainment.

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Suspension of disbelief is an essential ingredient in the enjoyment of many B-grade science fiction films and television series, such as the early era of “Doctor Who,” “Flash Gordon” or “Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.” The audience willingly ignores preposterous low-budget props and occasional plot gaps in order to fully engage and embrace an entertaining story.

Suspension of disbelief professes to explain why action movie fans are willing to accept the idea that the good guy can get away with shooting guns in public places or never running out of ammunition, or that our hero seems to have the uncanny ability to avert a spray of machine gun bullets by dodging and diving behind defenses that a bullet would go right through. Or simply not being able to recognize Clark Kent as Superman because he’s wearing a pair of eyeglasses.

Without suspension of disbelief, there might be very little, if any, true innovation on the planet. I’ve used this concept several times with my marketing teams when discussing future scenarios for which our business or brand must prepare. I have always said that while we can’t predict the future, we can predict futures. But you can’t even do that if you’re unwilling to suspend disbelief. Such is also the case when setting up for innovation. True innovation to its fullest degree, innovation that creates brand new business or disruption, requires an imagination. It can feel fanciful or capricious, but nothing could be further from the truth.

In my opinion, there is no better example of suspension of disbelief than how the epic television series “Star Trek” paved the way to inventions that today seem unremarkable. Take, for example, how officers on the Starship Enterprise would pull up a live image of a person on a large screen and talk to them in real time. It was unimaginable in 1966, but not in today’s world of Skype and FaceTime.

Fast-forward to today, when the internet of things holds the promise of more connectivity between machines and people. Yet of all prospective machine-to-machine, machine-to-person and person-to-person connectivity that exists, less than 1% is currently active. This dramatizes the untapped potential for innovative commerce. The world as we know it has not yet been fully imagined, and the innovation that will be enabled from the potential connectivity has yet to be conceived. If you can imagine it, it can be realized. I encourage all of the dreamers out there to get a second wind with this opportunity in mind.

It’s not difficult to envision the estimates for GDP growth tied to an increasingly connected world in the trillions of dollars. If following the money motivates where research and innovation occur, then we should all be doubling down on the promise of a connected world. Think about the product or service for which you’re marketing and growing. Can it be connected to other products or services to enhance customer value? Can it be connected to other people? Can your product or service enable new and meaningful connections between people? Set aside what you know to be possible and breathe in the clean air of suspending disbelief.

Maybe you won’t invent the next smartphone the moment you suspend disbelief, but you can set in motion a new blast of energy that will most certainly be needed to fuel the innovation required for you to avoid the No. 1 stall point of all enterprises: the failure to innovate.

As much as joyfulness and fun are important cultural values for the AMA, let’s not forget that suspending disbelief is serious business in the world of long-range planning and innovation.

As CEO for the American Marketing Association, Russ Klein is charged with the transformation of the AMA to become an essential community for marketers. Klein is a five-time award-winning CMO who has quarterbacked teams for many of the world’s foremost brand names, serving as president of Burger King from 2003-2010 and holding top marketing and advertising posts at Dr Pepper/7UP Companies, Gatorade, 7-Eleven Corporation and Arby’s Restaurant Group.