Ignorantium
More reactive than flourine. Funnier than boron.
The Buttered Cat Paradox
Categories: marketing

The following post was originally put up early last year when I was churning out 5000 words a day on various projects. I used it as a warm-up exercise of sorts. It came about like most of my posts through a haphazard process of random conversations, research on Wikipedia leading to nothing relating to the original conversations followed by it all coming together in a semi-coherent form during my morning run. The graphic is one of my favorites and the principle is something I still have cause to use on occasion. I’ve edited it a bit from the original posting so that it makes a little more sense now–not much, but a little.

I came across the Buttered Cat Paradox while doing some browsing on Wikipedia about the terminal velocity of cats.

I’m not making that up either. I really did need to know the terminal velocity of a cat. In order to make some bigger point about test designs and irrelevant statistics I was going to include an anecdote about a study that I read 20+ years ago about the survival rate of cats falling out of high-rises in New York. Mentioned in that article, and remembered by me two decades later, was that the terminal velocity of a cat is 60 mph. Heaven knows why or how I remember that fact lo these many years. I was concerned I had misremembered so was searching Wikipedia to verify that fact. Turns out it’s true. I also found information on the study itself.

The crux of the study was that cats falling from higher than around five stories seemed to have a higher survival rate than cats falling from lower floors as judged by 132 cats brought into veterinarian hospitals. The theory posited by the study was that once a cat hits terminal velocity, which requires five stories or so to achieve, it spreads out, relaxes and take the impact on its feet, thus minimizing, uh, cat-astrophic results. (groan) The obvious flaw in the research, of course, is that the cats used in the study were brought into animal hospitals. No one brings dead cats into animal hospitals, so those that perished from great heights likely never made it into the sample.buttered-cat

What does this have to do with buttered cats? The Righting Reflex. That’s the reflex cats have to always land on their feet, something I’ve always found to be pretty cool. According to the buttered cat paradox, the other thing that always seems to land the same way every time is buttered toast, i.e. it always lands buttered side down. The buttered cat paradox says that if you put a piece of buttered toast on a cats back, with the buttered side “out,” when the cat goes to right itself, the attractive force of the buttered toast will rotate it towards its back. This, in turn, will cause the cat to try to right itself again, and so on and on. Eventually, it is suspected that the cat and toast will end up in some kind of suspended animation, dangling in the air when the two forces reach equilibrium. (See comic left. It’s from Greg Williams, who does “WikiWorld.”)

In that little thought experiment is a perfect metaphor for much that takes place in marketing departments all over the tech world. It’s called “thinking outside the box,” or some such, and it leads to really terrible ideas parading as originality. Just combine a couple of features, some bells and whistles, and you can solve problems that weren’t even known to exist before the previous release or product. Mind you, it doesn’t matter that the bells and whistles were never meant to work together, or that the problem is more than a problem and more like a total failure, just pat yourself on the back for thinking “outside the box.”

Example: At one company I worked for, a bundled plan for service was slapped together to head off some customer attrition. It was thought to be a brilliant and bold strategic move, connecting two disparate needs and increasing customer “stickiness.” It turned out that for every customer saved to a longer contract, the company actually lost money. It would have been better to have let the customer churn. Ooops.

Lesson: Crazy ideas that succeed make great anecdotes, but most of the time they’re just crazy.

Leave a Reply