The Attraction of Opposites

“To know one thing, you must know the opposite.”  – Henry Moore

“The opposite of a correct statement is a false statement.  But the opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth.”  – Niels Bohr

One of the most useful tools in creative thinking is to focus on opposites.  For instance, take a current business model or product, create a list of rules, constraints, processes, etc that apply to the model and then ask yourself if you can break the rule or remove the constraint and what that would imply for the business or product.  Rules are very easy to list – How do we currently do things?  What do we always do?  (and What do we never do?).  Paul Sloane calls this “Breaking the rules” game and his article linked below provides a clear description of how this works.

Just click here now, if we applied this to market research, we might see that one of the oldest golden rules is that we always ask respondents a pre-prepared list of questions.  What would market research be like if we could never ask questions?  Many would say that dropping questions would be a great leap forward, although I’ll leave that for another time.  The key is to re-imagine something in a very different way in order to create breakthrough ideas.  In a previous article on problem solving, some of the key questions to ask of a problem focus on defining the boundaries and context of the problem, including understanding what it is not, as well as what it is.

The principle of opposites (also called the Notness principle) has been used creatively in semiotic analysis for many years, and Virginia Valentine of Semiotic Solutions has written extensively on it.  For example, read “Big talk, small talk” which discusses their work on BT’s ad campaign of the same name, and can be found on the website link below.  A premise of this kind of analysis is that when we develop language skills, we understand the world around us by dividing it into pairs of opposites (ie mummy-daddy, noise-quiet, etc).  Parents will know the feeling of relief when children finally understand that No is Not Yes!  The theory comes from Claude Levi-Strauss and his explanation of myth, “The purpose of a myth is to provide a logical model capable of overcoming a contradiction’. That is, myths are stories which dramatise contradictions in order to resolve them.

Great brands create their own mythology, and often use opposites to define themselves and their category.  One of the best known examples of this is Unilever’s “Dirt is good” campaign for Omo, creating a new combination of the opposites good-bad and clean-dirty in a highly creative and impactful communication.

So next time you want to get creative, remember how attractive opposites might be!


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