Instinctively we try to add more to things to make them better. Accordingly, we overlook opportunities to subtract to solve a problem, even when advantageous. Studies show that only 20% of participants used subtraction to solve a problem, even when effort and outcomes are designed to be equal. This is such a common bias, we have developed popular phrases like ‘less is more’, ‘addition by subtraction’ and ‘break down barriers’ to remind us on a societal level to correct for it.
Adding things often just adds confusion and complexity, increasing the cognitive load needed to make decisions. Zhang, Fishbach, & Kruglanski found in the course of 6 experiments, that the more messages you try and communicate in your advertising, the less likelihood there is of any single message being communicated. Other studies found that making more than 3 claims in your advertising makes people sceptical of your offer. Not only does each incremental message dilute the effect of the others, but your claims are at increasing risk of seeming too good to be true.
To make this point, legendary copywriter Dave Abbott used to tell clients “Throw someone three tennis balls and they’ll fail to catch any of them; throw one and it lands securely”. Google became the most popular search engine in the world, in part because their homepage – a simple search box – was far less cluttered than all their major competitors who were trying to become portals. Google now offers multiple products, but their homepage remains clean, despite being some of the most valuable real estate on the internet. Google has invested billions in other products, but they maintain a near monopoly in search, and still 81% of their revenue comes from advertising.
This effect – called Goal Dilution – is actually a cognitive bias, because of course some people and companies really are good at multiple things. Leonardo Da Vinci, the ‘renaissance man’ was a painter and sculptor, an engineer and architect, as well as a scientist and philosopher. Benjamin Franklin, another archetypal polymath, was a writer, scientist, inventor, statesman, diplomat, printer and political philosopher, as well as one of the founding fathers of the United States. Elon Musk’s companies do everything from sports cars to space rockets and solar power. However until you’ve proven your genius in at least one domain, you are unlikely to be treated as an exception.
Often we have to cut back to move forward. Getting rid of mediocre ideas, unnecessary words, and design features that don’t ‘spark joy’, is what creates the space for new creativity to bloom. Be vigilant about “what got us here, but won’t get us there”, as Goldsmith calls it. Play what IDEO calls ‘the subtraction game’: when reviewing ads, ask questions like: What was once useful but is now in the way? What is adding needless friction? What is scattering your attention? Subtracting an element can turn a no into a ‘hell yeah’: after all, Han Solo is just a cowboy without a hat. Better than removing, is not adding it in the first place. As Drucker says, “There is nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency something that should not be done at all”.
41 Famous Peter F. Drucker Quotes
Distribution of Google segment revenues from 2017 to 2021
Hell Yeah or No
How many jobs did Leonardo da Vinci have?
Most marketing is bad because it ignores the most basic data
Rule 6: Ask Yourself If It Sparks Joy
Scaling Up is a Problem of Both More and Less
The Dilution Model: How Additional Goals Undermine the Perceived Instrumentality of a Shared Path
The Goal Dilution Effect
Thread on Subtraction, Ethan Mollick
To Be Persuasive, Make Just Three Claims