How to use Aristotle’s four causes to write a kickass product description

Edit: the draft of this article served as basis for my speech at SEOday 2020. In that event I expand this idea further, you can find the video here. It’s the second time I talk about Aristotle on the blog, even though previously it was about my Post-aristotelian view of a site’s structure. Enjoy!

In marketing, we often talk about quality right? Obtain high-quality backlinks, choose a good technology for your website, write great content.

I often think about quality: it’s an unidentifiable characteristic that belongs to something: most of the times we all can recognise it; seldom can we explain what it is.

This is a problem with ancient roots, humans have been thinking about it for millennia. What is good? What is bad? So what I want to do today is try to take some thoughts that some guy had over two thousand years ago, and imagine what he’d do in a modern situation:

this is Aristotle writing a product page.

Who’s the man?

I don’t want to detail too much who Aristotle was: 1) he’s done way too many different things and 2) I am not nearly as knowledgeable enough on the subject. I’ll just wrap it up in one single line: Aristotle was a philosopher who lived in Greece in the fourth century BC, and is one of the most influential thinkers of all times. He developed an interest in several topics, and went as far as pretty much single-handedly inventing entire fields of study. Quoting Wikipedia “His writings cover many subjects including physics, biology, zoology, metaphysics, logic, ethics, aesthetics, poetry, theatre, music, rhetoric, psychology, linguistics, economics, politics, and government”. Not too bad.

Aristotle and his buddy Plato out for a beer in Athens, coloured

Just to put it in perspective real quick: he created entire fields of study.

Among these, our guy had some strong opinions on metaphysics, that is the study of ” being as such”. What is to be? What is the cause of being? And such menial questions. Again, for perspective: the term metaphysics itself was created, centuries later, by people studying our Big Boy.

He maintained that every existing thing has got four causes: Material, Formal, Efficient, and Final. Might it make sense to apply these to a product description? Let’s Try!

The four causes

Let’s start with a brief description of the four causes:

Material cause: the answer to the question ‘what is it made of?’ What’s the material(-s). This is quite straightforward, and is often (not always, tho 🤷‍♂️) a concept that’s present on most descriptions of objects and services. A shoe’s made of rubber, leather, cotton; a concert is made of the bands it’s featuring.

Formal cause: the shape, inner abilities and character, place in the universe. This is the (in-)famous idea that there’s a shoeness to a shoe, a catness to a cat, a humanness to a human, that make it so that we all recognise them for what they are. If this was the only cause, I argue that Magritte’s “La Trahison des images” would really, in fact, be a pipe.

La Trahison des images – René Magritte, 1929

Efficient cause: this is something that must exist in time and create the item we are talking about. I won’t dwell in the prime mover idea because this is not what I’m looking at in this writing, and it’s 7am and my moca espresso still needs to kick in. But anyway, it’s the creator: the brand of a given thing, the parents and the reproductive system of mammals and their gene pool for a person, stuff like that. The whole idea of brand/branding is huge in marketing, and the establishment of a successful brand is a little bit of a Holy Grail. Indeed, it is my (debatable) idea that the number one ranking factor for SEO is brand. Change my mind.

Hidden meaning of 11 world's most famous logos - Nike | The Economic Times

No need to even write it here is there

Final cause: this is a very interesting concept, hugely influential among philosophers but fascinating also for normal people 😜

My man Big A called it Telos, that is the purpose of a thing, the destination and destiny it aims towards. The reason to fulfill which one exists. So what does this thing do? Look at how beautifully Apple talks about their products on their website: it’s not a phone to call. It’s not a computer to compute. It changes reality. It gives you power. It transforms your dreams in reality. The purpose of a sneaker is not to cover your foot: it’s to look the coolest! A ticket is not a piece of paper: it’s a dream come true!

From the talker’s perspective, to the listener’s

So these four ideas, according to Killer A, are necessarily attributable to every piece of reality. How is this important though? Well, the point is that it is not only the only complete way to describe a thing, but it will also necessarily include each and every way a person (ie the audience) will search for any given idea, online or off-.

If you sell shoes, your audience will use one of these four types of modifier to describe what they need. In their mind, one of these four patterns will naturally occur when thinking of the shoe they want. Hence, when we are describing our fabulous shoes, using these four will consider all possible combinations of [shoes + whatever idea]. It’s the long-tail baby. No one searches for “shoes’: we all search for [shoes + whatever idea].

Soundtrack: A day at the beach by Airbag