Too much novelty, not enough appropriateness

Too much novelty = cult leader advertisements.

Posted Feb 23, 2011

One of the most common assumptions that we make in creativity research is that being creative is inherently a good thing. This topic is one I've written about before; I've also been revisiting it a bit because my friend and colleague David Cropley has been visiting from Australia. Along with his father Arthur Cropley and Mark Runco, we edited a book called The Dark Side of Creativity. It's filled with essays that were lots of fun to read and edit, with contributions by people in psychology, education, criminal justice, design, history, and other disciplines.

One of the concepts behind the book was some work that I did with both Cropleys on the concept of malevolent creativity - i.e., creativity deliberately planned with ill intent. Our first paper on the topic focused on the terrorists on 9/11. David and I have been revisiting this topic and refining our theories and ideas as we plan a new paper. One thing that I've been thinking about is the difference between malevolent creativity and negative creativity. Negative creativity, a concept by noted industrial/organizational psychologists Keith James and Karla Clark, can also encompass creative acts characterized by bad intents. But it can also refer to bad outcomes that come out of good or neutral intent. It is one thing to have someone be creative about how to kill someone; it's another thing to have someone creatively cut corners to make a cheaper house - and then see it collapse and kill someone.

I was struck by this distinction upon reading a recent news article. Creativity is usually thought to be both new and appropriate to the task. When creativity has too much new and not enough appropriate, some glorious blunders can happen. Take the story of Hacienda, a Mexican restaurant in South Bend, Indiana. Their sales and marketing folks came up with a new billboard, pictured above.  Next to a picture of a margarita (labeled "To Die For!"), it read: "We're like a cult with better Kool-Aid."

When I think of Jonestown, I think Mexican food.

For those not well-versed in their cults, the billboard refers to the Peoples Temple cult. The group was founded by another guy from Indiana, Jim Jones, and began in earnest in San Francisco. After initial support from such politicians as Willie Brown, Harvey Milk, and Jerry Brown, Jones and several hundred cult members moved to Guyana in the wake of a news article quoting former cult members about various abuses. The group named their settlement Jonestown (after Jones).

In 1978, Congressman Leo Ryan went to investigate new claims of abuse in the cult; he was attacked there and murdered along with some members of his group. He remains the only active member of Congress to be killed in the line of duty (a distinction thankfully still intact as Gabrielle Giffords continues her miraculous recovery). Jones then led cult members in a mass suicide. Nearly a thousand people either committed suicide (or were murdered), including over three hundred children. The method of death was Flavor-Aid (technically not Kool-Aid) laced with drugs. The phrase "Don't drink the Kool-Aid" has entered the mainstream vernacular.

This is a long-winded way of explaining (via a quick refresher at Wikipedia) why some people might not instinctively love the tagline of "We're like a cult with better Kool-Aid." It's definitely new and different; I am unaware of any other restaurant trying to make their ambience seem better by contrasting it with a mass suicide. Yet as my sister-in-law Cindy Katz (a writer for Time Out Israel) pointed out in response to my initial posting on Facebook: "Isn't one of the cardinal laws of creativity something having to do with appropriateness? They fail on that level by a million." Indeed, my instant association with Jim Jones is not "I'd rather have some enchiladas."

As the news article reports, the response from the restaurant was quick and clean:

"Our role is not to be controversial or even edgy. We want to be noticed -- and there's a difference," Leslie told the South Bend Tribune. "We have a responsibility to (advertise) with care, and that's why we're pulling this ad. We made a mistake and don't want to have a negative image in the community."

Part of me would have loved to have seen a response that remained both new and not-appropriate:

"Are you kidding? Wait until you see our next billboard!"

They're negotiating with Pol Pot's estate next

Special thanks to Andrea Okoh for help with the image!

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About the Author

James C. Kaufman, Ph.D., is a creativity researcher and associate professor of psychology at California State University, San Bernardino.

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