Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

Patrick Collister: Sturgeon’s Law is not a law at all

Patrick Collister, NDA’s monthly creative columnist, is the Curator of The Caples Awards, Editor of Directory and a friend to

Theodore Sturgeon was an American writer of sci-fi fiction. He wrote 11 novels and several Star Trek scripts.

One of these, “Amok Time” is a famous episode of the TV series. It’s the story of how Spock’s biological urges pull him back to Planet Vulcan to find a mate. To win her favours, he has to fight her nominated champion. Provocatively, she chooses Captain Kirk. So the friends have to fight to the death.

It is regarded as one of the best episodes from all 12 series.

In 1957, he wrote a piece for Venture magazine in which he defended science fiction as a genre of serious writing. “90% of sci-fi is crap,” he admitted. “But 90% of everything is crap.”

This has come to be called Sturgeon’s Law.

Though he died in 1985, his law got bigged up by the philosopher Daniel Dennett in his 2013 book, Intuition Pumps and Other Tools. “It is true whether you are talking about physics, chemistry, evolutionary psychology, sociology – you name it – rock music, country and western, 90% of everything is crap.”

It sounds about right, doesn’t it?

Not to my pal Dave, a top copywriter from yesteryear, who recently posted: December was a month “that saw me receive probably the worst bucketload of marketing, advertising and promotional tripe I have ever seen. This included direct mail, emails (how can they keep on getting worse?), advertising, radio ads, TV ads, door drops, social media posts, posters, websites – you name it, it was all – yes ALL – so bad it beggared belief.”

In other words, 100% crap.

Surely that’s going too far?

Well, it’s estimated that 186,000 novels were published in the UK in 2023. 12 made it to the longlist of The Booker Prize, six to the shortlist. That’s 0.003% of all novels are good.

According to Music Business Worldwide, there are 120,000 new tracks streamed each day. 43 million a year. Of which just 15 made it to Number One in the UK charts. 98 made it into the Top Ten. That’s 0.0002%. 

In 2023, $720 billion was spent on advertising. I guesstimate that about 0.0001% of it made it to the shortlist at Cannes Lions.

Sturgeon, then, was being generous. Except that the point of Sturgeon’s Law isn’t that 90% of sci-fi is crap, it is that 10% of it is good. (It’s the iceberg cliché. Without the massive murky bulk beneath, you can’t have the glistening white bit on top.)

Sturgeon was suggesting that while 90% of sci-fi is crap, his stuff belonged in the 10% bracket. Dave is saying much the same thing about himself when he derides modern “marketing filth”.

His cry of pain is in response to what he sees as the abandonment of the skills that made him such a respected copywriter.

Poor Dave. It’s only going to get worse, what with GenAI making its presence felt. The bots really are taking over. 

If the current average CTR across the Google Display Network is just 0.05%, who cares?

Many marketers will argue that if an ad is served 2,000 times and attracts attention only the once, that’s perfectly fine. You just need to serve it two million times. Or 20 million times. If those 10,000 engagements give you a marginal profit, does it matter that the ads are crap?

And, by the way, what does “crap” mean? That’s just someone’s personal opinion. Advertising awards for “great” work are no more than a consensus of opinions. You can argue about an ad’s aesthetics till the cows come home but you can’t argue with numbers. ROI rules.

What we have here is the efficiency versus effectiveness debate. Or left-brain versus right-brain. 

Left-brain is satisfied with marginal gains while right-brain is more ambitious. Right-brain jeers at 0.05% and says, “What about a 5% response rate? What about 25%? Wouldn’t that be something? You know what, to get a 50% response rate you’d have to do something no one has ever done before. Isn’t that exciting?”

Left-brain says, “Calm down, dear. It’s only an advert.”

Author, ethnologist and former colleague Dr. Sean O’Neill has written that there is a “drastic asymmetry” in marketing communications beyond the current imbalance between algorithm and creativity.  “It is this: right-brained people understand left-brained people better than vice-versa. So the efficiency experts think that creative people are on another planet whilst the creatives must make it their business to know the whole board game thoroughly on both sides.”

Right-brained Sturgeon was talking the language of the left-brained. In applying numbers to it, he was trying to make creativity seem logical. And achievable. Whereas, in truth, it is incredibly, almost impossibly difficult to write a best-seller, get to Number One in the charts or win a Lion at Cannes.

My point (got to it at last) is that Sturgeon’s Law is not even a rule of thumb. It’s a fiction. But a fiction that suits the left-brains to talk about creativity and pretend it’s important. And it suits the creatives because it gives them hope.

What Dave is angry about is that he may have wasted his life.