Marshall McLuhan's Edgar Allen Poe Parable


In The Mechanical Bride, the Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan mentions the Edgar Allen Poe short story “A Descent into the Maelstrom.” The story involves a sailor recounting how he and his brothers got caught in a violent whirlpool at sea. As the sailor was being swallowed by the whirlpool, he looked around and noticed a few objects drifting to the surface. They were small and cylindrical—barrels and mast poles—so he fastened himself to a cask and jumped overboard. Sure enough, by riding the current of the whirlpool instead of resisting it, he slowly rose to the surface and survived.

The behavioral science community tends to think about the mind as a press secretary, as if to say that our first-person reports are unreliable justifications. Here, we can learn something from Poe’s sailor. In market research, the goal is not to dismiss or circumvent what people say. It is to observe and exploit it.

Sam McNerney