Evolutionary Applications to Marketing




Today I’d like to share an interview of Geoffrey Miller, PhD recorded at Wieden + Kennedy (Portland) on May 26, 2009. First, I’ve rattled off a bit of background on the interview. Below the audio player, I’ll try to connect a dot or two to how this relates to what I’ve got brewing in the evolvify labs.

Despite my recent divergence to a stream of evolutionary biology related posts, one of the main purposes of this blog is to both examine and share applications of evolutionary psychology to marketing and business. I mean… I love all things paleo, but I don’t want to be guilty of my new most-favoritest term:

“Neck-Down Darwinism” (Zywicki 2000)

Okay okay okay… Yes, the muscles attached to our skulls that allow some of us (your humble narrator included) to wiggle our ears are remnants of ancestors with the adaptive ability to point their ears for more accurate pinpointing of sound sources. And yes, we could talk about your male pattern balding or my stereotypical Darwin beard, but those all miss the point. The history of science has included too much avoidance of evolution applied to the human brain. For shame. Onward…

For those of you not familiar with W+K, they’re an advertising agency. Still not ringing a bell? How about this… “Just do it”. Yup, they are now, and always have been, Nike’s ad agency. They’re also responsible for the Emmy winning “Old Spice Guy” and a zillion other brilliant campaigns. Side Note: A friend of mine worked at Wieden on the Old Spice account and left right before they started that campaign… Timing ooops. What’s worse, the only W+K related advertising nerd party I attended was more “Wonder Years” than “Mad Men”. Maybe I just caught them on an off day, but with mildly disparaging remarks like that, who knows when I’ll be invited back.

Geoffrey Miller (books linked below) did his undergraduate work at Columbia and earned his Ph.D. at Stanford. He’s currently Professor of Psychology at the University of New Mexico. His first book, “The Mating Mind” is often referenced in connection to evolutionary psychology. It’s one of the more interesting I’ve come across, and would highly recommend it based on the hypothesis Miller throws down. He also recounts of some interesting and enlightening insights into the political and scientific community context of Darwin’s works. It’s generally great and might blow your mind.

The book discussed in this interview is Miller’s recent, “Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior“. It’s one of only two really good books I’ve found that connects evolutionary psychology with marketing. Thus, it’s the basis for a lot of my study. I remember reading a review about it in some journal… The reviewer complained that it wasn’t well researched because it had a categorized list of major references, but omitted the full endnotes and references. That’s true, and would be a great criticism, but… Instead, Miller had planned this all along. He simply posted the full references as a free download on his website. The endnotes consist of a full 41 pages and the references weigh in at 68 pages on 8 1/2″ x 11″. Despite the whining of a lazy reviewer, I love that they’re digital and freely available… Not only can I copy/paste, but those 109 extra pages might have translated to enough pages to bring down the rest of the Amazon. The book is already 384 pages without the references.

The interview takes place after Miller wrapped up a consulting session with “20″ unnamed W+K staffers. The general topic of discussion is the application of evolutionary psychology to marketing, consumer behavior research, and status seeking behavior.


Miller, on his initial exposure to marketing textbooks, business school textbooks, and business books: “… I was truly appalled because it looked like business people are learning psychology that’s 50 years out of date

“…the 200,000 people in America doing consumer behavior research are being systematically misled or undereducated by their background, and they’re not really using state of the art ideas or measurement tools.”

Miller on the field’s potential: “develop better targeted brands that really appeal to the deep instincts of the consumer

Interviewer: What should ad agencies be doing?
Miller: “…agencies should be learning about this stuff and realizing that whatever formal education they may have gotten in business schools or marketing degree… isn’t enough. There’s a lot more psychology out there that’s a lot more relevant.

Miller: “…it really astonished me in reading consumer behavior textbooks, advertising textbooks, and course syllabi from business schools that people were still using Myers-Briggs, they were still talking about Jungian archetypes. They were still using all of this psychology that’s been out of date for at least 30 or 40 years as if it’s still valid and as if we can’t do any better”

Miller: “Psychology is full of nonsense, but there has been progress.

Isn’t that last line great!?

The interview runs 10:56, but it’s kind of just fluff after 9:00…

Evolutionary Psychologist, Geoffrey Miller at W+K

Shifting gears: How does this tie into evolvify and lil’ ol’ me?

My Dirty Secret: I’m an Adman

Don’t let the beard fool you. And… it’s hard to see in some of the blog pictures, but the beanie is just there to hide the fedora that’s permanently attached to my skull.

The bulk of my education is in Multimedia (Art Institute of Seattle) and International Business (Linfield College). After folding my short-lived hedge fund because of increased regulations (and you thought hedge funds were unregulated, eh?) in late 2004, I made the segue into marketing. By 2006, I’d built an online marketing company to a level that allowed me to move my operations (read: laptop) to Panama City, Panama. In 2007, I found myself back in the U.S. and pitched a new position to a company in Portland, Oregon. I was hired for that made-up position, and ended up becoming their Marketing Director before the end of my first year there. I then bought a sailboat and got out of Dodge. I teamed up with a small team of web developers as their marketing… well… department in early 2008. By the end of that year, I was Managing Partner. At that point, I leveraged my experience from the previous few years and started a small ad agency early in 2009. Again, almost exactly a year later… My biggest and favorite client sold his companay to “our” biggest competitor. They then tried to get me to join up with them, but after spending a year out-marketing them, something about it didn’t feel right.

Since then, I’ve been coasting on the previous momentum while loading copious amounts of research and theory into my brain. That’s where this ties back to the interview. Geoffrey Miller is an evolutionary psychologist who shifted his expertise to marketing. I’m a marketing guy melding my expertise with evolutionary psychology. I’ve now been at it long enough to make this announcement… You’ll notice a brand-new shiny “Services” button above.

I’ll continue writing more of the paleo stuff I’ve been writing… I’m also going to continue to get deeper into the business and relationship aspect of all of evolutionary theory and help apply you apply it in whatever way possible. Along with that, I’m re-hanging the shingle on the ad agency… with my vastly upgraded evolutionary perspective. The button’s there if you want to give me cash to help your business.

…agencies should be learning about this stuff and realizing that whatever formal education they may have gotten in business schools or marketing degree… isn’t enough.” -Geoffrey Miller

Yes Dr. Miller, I heard you… and I’m all over it…


Zywicki, Todd J., Evolutionary Psychology and the Social Sciences (October 2000). Humane Studies Review.