Product endorsements versus the truth

Whenever you find yourself in a technical discussion about whether a given “miracle” product actually does what it claims, WITHOUT EXCEPTION there will be at least one person who says “Mick Bigtime endorses it, and Mick is world-famous for his artistic accomplishments, so obviously the product must do what it claims.” Some of the more realistic-minded people in that category will say “whether it does or doesn’t do exactly what is claimed on a technical level, Mick likes it and therefore it does something good, and that’s all I need to know.”

There are so many things wrong with those lines of reasoning that it makes my head explode.

First, there are a lot of other reasons why an artist may endorse something. Sometimes they just like the reinforcement it gives to their famous status. Sometimes they like getting a discount on their favorite brand or getting backline support. But the main, most important reason is that they are just as prone as anyone else to being fooled by psychological factors that make any of us hear things non-objectively. Being famous does not give anyone the power to defeat their own brains.

Being a successful musician does not automatically give someone an engineering education on how their equipment is designed internally. It does not mean they understand the real reasons why a device will seem to work a certain way. When they talk about the science behind the gear, nearly always they are just parroting what they were told by the people that sell the goods. The “defenders of the faith” will say they don’t need to know why something works the way it does–they just trust that if a sucessful artist likes it, then it works, and that’s all that matters. But when the artist has bought a bill of sale, bought into the claims of a manufacturer without really understanding, and allowed themselves to be fooled, then the faithful are sucked in with them, like debris in the undertow.

I’ve heard some endorsing artists say “I get paid for the quality and sensitivity of my hearing, so I know that what I heard is real”. The thing is, that artist only knows what they heard–they typically don’t know why they heard it. And this is important because when they (as endorsers) go around saying they heard such-and-such a tonal effect from some great product, they influence other people to buy that item, even though those other people will probably not get the same results! Or more importantly, they may be able to get the exact same results without spending so much money.

For example, my favorite axe to grind, instrument cables. If a certain cable is claimed to have “deeper lows and smooth warmth”, odds are it had higher capacitance relative to whatever other cable it was being compared with. If it is claimed to have “bright sparkling highs and fast transient detail”, odds are it had lower capacitance. If it’s a $200 cable and Mick Bigtime endorses it, then Joe Consumer will think he has to spend that kind of money to get those tones. But instead he could just shop for cables by paying attention to their capacitance, and get ones higher or lower according to taste, for normal working-man’s prices.

Of course there are cases where it’s all in the imagination, as with boutique power cords. There are no excuses there, no matter how famous the endorser, no matter how good their ears–any difference they heard with a super-exensive IEC cord was strictly imaginary. Same goes for high-end HDMI cables, and other digital cables. People who endorse imaginary things, and the people who spent big bucks based on those endorsements, need a serious freaking wake-up call.

That’s where science comes in, and that’s why it is seriously worth your time to pay attention when somebody who has no financial stake in the product makes an effort to explain factually HOW the product does or doesn’t work. It’s not a case of “lab nerds listening with their calculators instead of their ears” as some kind of enemy to “real musicians who know what they hear”. In fact those so-called nerds are trying to help the musician get better results for less money! Once you have learned some science behind the products, you are not so dependent on the hyped sales pitch from the vendor; and you won’t be fooled by the misleading appeal of a famous person’s endorsement.

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  1. jp said,

    September 22, 2011 @ 6:56 am

    Great points C..the sheeple always need affirmation and justification for their consumerism. One of my favorite scams is the “jimmy page slept here” can fill in whatever sooper heero you want instead of Page..modeled after a 1960’s tourist gambit for hotels that used the phrase “george washington slept here”, and used by two of the biggest guitar mfg’s, it’s a marketing play designed to appeal to well healed lawyers/podiatrists/upper 10% ers who have a mid lifer and want to recapture their youth as aspiring “rockers”, but in reality was spent learning how to be..lawyers/podiatrists..etc. $5500 or so will buy you JUST what Jimmy PageClaptonHendrix plays, except not..and even if it did. extra points for keeping it in a glass case in the “rec room”.

    Thanks again for the well done rant..more please.

  2. Justin said,

    June 18, 2013 @ 7:50 am

    Ha! Great rant & I agree with most of what you’re saying & enjoy your blog! I also link to your technical articles on my website & find your objectivity refreshing.

    That said & while I entirely agree that a compensated endorser has no more sway over science than an orca has over my bowling average (weird analogy???) – I think that endorsers DO contribute some value in the mi industry. I often talk to colleagues and research favorite players regarding what works well for them, how rugged equipment is in the real gigging world & how they approached getting various sounds and such.

    Blanket dismissal? Nah. But, YES – if an endorsers claim defies the laws of science and reason, it’s best to defer to conventional wisdom and applied physics!

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