Waffles, Gorillas and someone else’s problems

Waffles, Gorillas and someone else’s problems

This might be my favourite piece of advertising ever.

My admiration certainly isn’t for its subtlety or production values. What I love about it is what it tells us about human behaviour.

We notice things that apply to us, and largely ignore stuff that doesn’t. The girl on the Oxford Circus waffle stand illustrates this perfectly.

Douglas Adams coined the phrase “Somebody Else’s Problem Field” (or “SEP”) for just this phenomenon.

In his book “Life, The Universe and Everything” a spaceship in the shape of an upturned French bistro lands on the outfield of Lord’s Cricket Ground. None of the thousands of spectators see it, because, it’s just not their problem. Adams described it thus:

“An SEP is something we can’t see, or don’t see, or our brain doesn’t let us see, because we think that it’s somebody else’s problem…. The brain just edits it out, it’s like a blind spot. If you look at it directly you won’t see it unless you know precisely what it is. Your only hope is to catch it by surprise out of the corner of your eye”

Adams’ SEP and the Oxford Street waffle girl are similar to the effect you notice when you learn a new word that you’ve never encountered before, then suddenly hear it used everywhere all the time. The human mind is great at focussing on what’s immediately pertinent to the task and time in hand, and even better at ignoring what’s not. Psychologists Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons illustrated this most dramatically in their book The Invisible Gorilla – asking test participants to count the number of passes of a basketball between white or black shirted players (whilst an unnoticed lady in full gorilla suit pranced around the same scene).

If you look at the waffle girl in the picture above, you’ll see two images of the same girl. One dress for summer, one for winter. They’re both eating waffles. The message is simple but clear: waffles are good for any season, hot or cold (not unlike Coca Cola’s piece of 1930s prestidigitation when it rebranded Father Christmas in its corporate colours to co-opt the season where hitherto consumption of their product would have been at its lowest).

Of course, the two waffle girls are easy to see if you’re sitting at home on a computer, or looking at the picture on your mobile. The thing is, if you’ve walked past the waffle stand picture on Argyll Street before, I’ll bet you only noticed the girl whose clothing matches yours and is appropriate for the season you’re in.

It’s just the way the mind works.