Human nature

Some years ago, a country publican took ownership of a neglected rural hotel and, on his first day in charge, the front bar was once again overrun by a local drug dealer and his crew of hoons.

"10am, they were playing pool, feeding $20 into the jukebox. One bloke even got on the bar to dance. The thought they owned the joint," said the publican.

In a sense they did: the hotel had such a bad reputation, local mums and dads wouldn't walk into the place; it was dying. The dealer even told the publican, "This is our pub mate, we've got it just the way we like it."

"That's when I walked into the office, phoned the local hire company and told them 'Come pick up the pool tables and the juke box,'" said the publican.

The next day, the hoons appeared, saw their toys gone and guess what? They left, disgusted, never to return, and the publican's since opened a family-orientated restaurant serving 2500 meals a week.

He could have tried any number of approaches: persuasion, threats, police or barring the hoons might have had some impact, but the method he chose was simple and effective because of its understanding of human nature or at least the hoons' nature.

I always think of this story when I hear media experts opine about why people will pay for movies, music and news on the internet, when with one click of their finger they can get much the same content for free.

It goes against human nature: most of us will take the path of least resistance, and in monetary terms that means what we can get for free, a sizable cohort will not pay for.

If someone takes away our jukebox and pool table by making us sign up for convoluted monthly credit-card billing, most of us internet hoons will go elsewhere.

However, the thing many people in the media don't seem to understand is that "elsewhere" is changing with increasing velocity.

Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple said in April: "Two years after we shipped the initial iPad, we've sold 67 million. And to put that in some context, it took us 24 years to sell that many Macs and five years for that many iPods and over three years for that many iPhones."

Yet half the world seems to still be trying to work out how to make money from advertising via an internet viewed on computers, but it's too late - we're all moving to tablets and phones.

In five years' time, many pundits predict we won't even own laptops, let alone desktops, just juiced up iPads with mobiles replacing broadband completely.

And you think it's hard selling banner ads now? Try it when the screen's only 10 centimetres wide.

I don't mean to intimate the majority of news consumers are the virtual equivalent of drug dealers in a pub, but if you've spent any time online you'll know people just act differently to their real world selves when perched behind an ostensibly anonymous keyboard.

Citizens who would never dream of shoplifting, will quite happily illegally download music, software, films and TV shows so, as cynical as it sounds, perhaps we're wasting our time building business models based on an idealised vision of human nature.

If you've ever seen the TV show Mad Men, you might enjoy the book that inspired it, Jerry Della Femina's 1971 bestseller From Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Pearl Harbor: Front-line dispatches from the advertising war.

In it he tells the story of a cake mix an advertising company was asked to help promote – to which you just added water – although nothing they suggested could make it sell.

"They found out the average housewife hated the product because if she couldn't do something physical in the making of the cake, she felt she was being cheated. If all she had to do was add water, well, she felt she really was nowhere as a homemaker and a cook," writes Della Femina.

Instead of trying to change the buyer, they changed the product and let the housewife feel like she was still doing something.

The solution? They fixed it so you had to break an egg into the mix.

Makes me wonder what the egg's gonna be for media publishers?

Sam de Brito's latest novel Hello Darkness is in bookstores now. You can follow him on Twitter here. His email address is here.