Tuesday 26 October 2010

infinite dreams....

OK. That's it. I can't bite my lip any longer. I have to speak out.

You know that advert with the monkeys attempting to make coffee? It's got Bill Nighy doing what is apparently his first ever commercial voiceover. He shouldn't have bothered: I hate it.

Why get upset about an advert, I hear you cry. Why waste your energy? Well, for one thing, it's already been criticised by animal welfare organisations:

The advert uses 16 individuals from five species from around the world and shows them climbing over the machines and breaking crockery in a brightly-lit studio. Five animal welfare organisations have come together to formally oppose the ad, and suggest that the use of nonhuman primate “actors” could even be in contravention of the law, dependent on views on the correct interpretation of Section 9 of the Animal Welfare Act 2006

Said Rachel Hevesi of Wild Futures:

“With the release of this new advert, we feel the need to reiterate our long-held concerns on the use of wild animals in entertainment. Whilst they are used in this way their welfare is severely compromised, and it has a knock-on effect to the trade in the primates as pets in this country.

We are appealing to COSTA to pull the advert and reconsider its stance on the use of wild animals in future campaigns. What sits particularly uncomfortably with us is that COSTA is one of the coffee companies whose products are endorsed by Rainforest Alliance. To carry this well-respected accreditation and then to exploit rainforest animals in the sale of its products is an issue that we have raised with Rainforest Alliance directly. We are awaiting a formal response”.

If it's true that they've been mistreating animals, then obviously that's bad. It is not, however, what upsets me. It's the tone:

Cut to a load of monkeys climbing over coffee machines:

"It is said, that if you give a room full of monkeys a typewriter each, then, in time, they will write the entire works of Shakespeare....so if we gave the monkeys coffee machines instead, would they come up with the perfect cup of coffee?"

Cue scenes of monkeys smashing up the coffee machines and generally making a mess.

"No.  Because great coffee isn't born of luck, it takes time and training to be an expert barista.  Not all coffees are created equal"....blah, blah, blah.

Right. First of all, it's not a room of monkeys given time, it's a single monkey given INFINITE time.

The infinite monkey theorem states that "a monkey hitting keys at random on a typewriter keyboard for an infinite amount of time will almost surely type a given text, such as the complete works of William Shakespeare".

That infinity is important: the theorem illustrates the perils of reasoning about infinity by imagining a vast but finite number, and vice versa. The probability of a monkey exactly typing a complete work such as Shakespeare's Hamlet is so tiny that the chance of it occurring during a period of time of the order of the age of the universe is minuscule, but not zero. Having a roomful of monkeys at keyboards rather than just one does not improve your chances over an infinite amount of time, even if it makes for a better visual for your commercial, as the infinity renders the actual number meaningless.

Secondly - and more importantly - what part of the theorem do you not understand if you think that our monkeys could not, over the course of time, come up with the perfect cup of coffee? That somehow the perfect cup of coffee isn't down to luck.  Is it easier or harder to write the entire works of Shakespeare by chance than it is to make a cup of coffee, would you say? (even if you aren't providing the monkeys with Nespresso machines....) Actually, over infinity the chances of both happening are exactly the same, but both will definitely happen... although I'm betting that the perfect (now there's a subjective measure. Who decides what that constitutes? What qualifies them to decide?) cup of coffee is made before the complete works of Shakespeare are replicated. Can you imagine being the monkey who types the complete works perfectly bar one typo on the last page? "The Edn". D'oh! Close but no cigar, my friend. How about a consolatory cup of coffee?

So the advert is stupid and it annoys me. It's trying to be clever and I think it misses the mark. How do you think Costa staff feel about an advert that is essentially saying "drink coffee here, our staff are better at making it than monkeys". That's not exactly a ringing endorsement, is it? For starters, it invites an easy gag.... if you pay peanuts.... etc. Have you even ever had a better than mediocre cup of coffee in a Costas anyway?


Inevitably, someone has actually tried to replicate the infinite monkey theorem using real monkeys (but presumably not infinity). Their conclusion?

"Not only did the monkeys produce nothing but five pages consisting largely of the letter S, the lead male began by bashing the keyboard with a stone, and the monkeys continued by urinating and defecating on it."

Given that we usually don't have an infinite amount of time to wait, let's hope that our baristas are at least a little more sophisticated than that in their attempts to make our coffee.

...And don't even get me started on the Curry's advert currently on the air featuring R2D2 and C3PO.  Why George?  Why?


  1. I can't answer your infinite monkeys conundrum (is that really Bib N's first voiceover?) but your final question is a doddle: because they paid him lots of money. Why else does George Lucas do ANYTHING these days?

  2. Hold on [checks facts]. Ah. It's costa's 1st ever uk TV commercial and is voiced by Bill Nighy. Not, as anyone with half a brain might realise, Nighy's first commercial VoiceOver. Thanks Rol!