The Snowman Fallacy

Snowperson holding clapper board
Image Credit: © Steve Young — stock.adobe.com #58847555

When I was in primary school, some of the most exciting lessons were the ones taken in the “television room”. Upon entering the room, a seemingly giant CRT TV stood on a metal stand on wheels, and the lesson inevitably started with the teacher fiddling with cables and working out how to use the VCR

I remember one year in late December a teacher showed us “The Snowman“. For those of you not familiar, The Snowman is an animated children’s film focussing on a snowman that comes to life. It has no dialogue, but features the signature tune “Walking in the Air”.

I distinctly remember me and my friends watching in a state of ambivalence and confusion. I mean, as a five or six year old it seemed like there were much better cartoons out there, and although the animation was certainly more artistic it didn’t seem as colourful and exciting as other programs.  Without dialogue it requires the capability to interpret a story arch and subtext that, well, I’m not sure I had at that age. In fact I don’t think I had the attention span at that age either!

Then, much to my confusion suddenly The Snowman seemed to be everywhere. Friends parents would put it on. It became inescapable.The signature tune was forever on the radio. All the adults seemed to think that children loved it, but I just didn’t understand why people thought it was a big deal. “Maybe it’s just like Star Wars. You either like it or you don’t” I can imagine myself thinking as I build another spaceship out of Lego. 

I was reminded of this experience a few months ago when discussing the film with someone who had the exact same experience. Which led me to wonder if any kids liked it at all!

(Of course, I’m being provocative here, I’m sure many kids did, but roll with me for the rest of this blog 😃)

It’s About The Customers/Beneficiaries 

In situations like this, it’s worth asking “who are the real customers here?” and “who are the beneficiaries?”.

Ostensibly, the kids watching the film are the beneficiaries. But, given a choice, how many kids in the early 80s would really choose The Snowman over The Smurfs, Masters of the Universe or Jem? If the supposed target audience doesn’t value the film, then we should probably look more broadly. Perhaps we might argue the following stakeholders are likely to be the real customers or beneficiaries, in addition to (or even instead of) kids:

  • Adults who have children: the film gives them the ability to put on a nice gentle TV programme for their kids. The kind they’d imagine loving when they were younger.
  • Commissioning studio: With no dialogue, it can be sold worldwide.
  • TV stations: a heartwarming film to show year after year, creating nostalgia and drawing in viewers (who will then watch the adverts around the show).
  • Music producers, writers and performers: Getting the show aired means people hear the music and buy it (there was no Spotify in the 80s…). “Walking in the Air” eventually became a top 10 hit in the UK.

Deconstructing this further helps us understand other key facts about the film too. It’s 25 or 26 minutes long (presumably to allow for advert breaks whilst still enabling it to fit in a 30 min slot. There must have been fewer adverts shown on TV in the 80s!).

OK, OK, I’m sounding cynical now aren’t I? As an adult I now do appreciate the creativity and art that went into the film’s production and I’m sure this creativity wasn’t entirely driven by the need for commercial gain.  But the fact remains that the film could probably never have been made if it didn’t balance the needs of different customer and stakeholder groups. 

Understanding The Snowman Fallacy

This brings us on to a common fallacy that has relevance for business and business analysis too. The assumption that a product or service is relevant to just one single homogenous customer group. This manifests itself throughout the business lexicon, from executives talking about “customer value” (Which customers? And how do we know what they value?) Right though to granular user stories that start “As a customer…”. (What type of customer? What research has been done? How will we balance the needs of different customer and beneficiary groups?). It’s crucial to ask these questions and more to make sure that the product or service balances the needs of different groups, including those whose voices might not usually be heard. 

Most of all it highlights the fallacy of pretending something is solely for one type of customer when actually it is largely for another. Take the example of an energy company that constantly tries to coerce customers into downloading an app to submit meter readings so they can phase out their automated phone submission system. They might market this in the name of “convenience” but seriously, who wants an app and ANOTHER set of passwords when the automated phone system worked just fine. Few people get excited about their energy supplier…

Whereas if they accepted that it was largely for the benefit of the company, and might be marginally less convenient for the customer (at least to start with) this changes the conversation. Would I download the app voluntarily when there are other options? No, probably not. If I was offered a free pack of energy saving light bulbs would I agree to submit my readings this way? Probably. However if the real customers, beneficiaries and stakeholders had been identified then it’s likely that a different solution would have been chosen in the first place.

Curiosity Melts The Snow

As with so much in life, curiosity plays a part in avoiding the snowman fallacy. Asking questions, spreading the net wide and understanding a diversity of views is crucial. Most of all asking questions such as “Who are the customers and beneficiaries here, who else is affected or interested, and how are their voices being heard?” is so important.


What are your views? Please add a comment below, and let’s keep the conversation flowing!

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About the author:

Adrian Reed is Principal Consultant at Blackmetric Business Solutions, an organisation that offers Business Analysis consulting and training solutions. Adrian is a keen advocate of the analysis profession, and is constantly looking for ways of promoting the value that good analysis can bring.

To find out more about the training and consulting services offered at Blackmetric, please visit www.blackmetric.com

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4 thoughts on “The Snowman Fallacy”

  1. The System might have got you but it won't catch me

    Brilliant! For the record I didn’t like The Snowman as a child (and without sounding Pyhthonesque) neither did my wife.

    It is a useful analogy though. I recall many a meeting where ‘digital transformation’ where things are made easier for the organisation are presented as ‘what the customer wants’, compared to ‘what we would like our customer to want’. It’s also important to recognise that the same change or project could have different benefits for different stakeholders. Looking at our work through multiple lens helps us see that.

    There is nothing quite so lazy as an idealised single view of the ‘customer’.

    As a final point it is okay for us to design ‘x’ for ourselves, there is nothing wrong with wanting a nice idealised children’s film or a more efficient back office – as long as we are honest about who we are doing what for and why.

    Loved the analogy!

  2. Who is the customer here: every little girl on the planet has watched Frozen about 50 times. I have yet to meet an adult who has actually watched it. Yet it is the adult who pays for the DVD or download for their daughters to watch it.

    Who benefits? Who is the customer?

    The parent because it lets them get on with their work at home uninterrupted?
    The little girl (it might also be little boys for all I know) who enjoys the movie?
    The studio who made the movie?
    The reseller?
    The merchandiser?
    Possibly someone have missed?

    You are right Adrian, we need to look long at hard at who our “customers” are. This is why I like the idea of customers segments. It forces one to think about ALL the customers/beneficiaries.

    FWIW, I have never seen The Snowman

    James

  3. Going back to your point – “Perhaps we might argue the following stakeholders are likely to be the real customers or beneficiaries ……”.
    One way that I sometimes express this is:
    “Cat food ads are not aimed at cats!”.

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