Reply inspired after reading post by GradyPhilpott
From one curmudgeon to another: kudos, Grady. I almost never see eye to eye with you on anything, but I've starred both your posts in this thread.
Before we proceed any further, my credentials: twenty years in the business, working in various parts of the world for industry giants like JWT, BBDO
and Y&R as copywriter, creative director and account planner. I'm out of advertising now, but I retain some connections with the industry and have
just been asked (puffs out chest) to sit on the panel of judges at next year's industry awards ceremony in my country.
I understand that the above CV probably makes me a 'disinfo agent' in the eyes of some. Be that as it may, I feel moved to add my two cents' worth
to this discussion, as I did to the previous one.
interest in and concern over this issue is creditable, but there really isn't much to worry about. In my professional opinion,
advertising does not even work the way it is touted, far less the way people who fear the 'hidden persuaders' think it does; it is much less
effective than advertising people like to make out. As Grady says,
the whole idea of advertising was to influence behavior, specifically consumer behavior
Precisely. But it's not very influential, and it's pretty easy to see that.
Simply consider: what is the best way you can think of to persuade somebody to do something? Surely it is to talk to him directly, man to man. But
this may not be possible. In that case, the next best thing would be to write him a personal letter, or make a phone call. Only in the last resort,
when you have no more direct way of exercising your communicative and persuasive arts, would you place an advertisement in the media.
Media advertising is, apart from propaganda, the most ineffective form of persuasion known to man
. This is not only obvious on reflection; the
content of ATS bears daily evidence of it. Only a fool, we read here day after day, believes what he sees in the media. And nearly everybody on the
is the real problem with advertising. People mistrust and disbelieve it. And that is a terrible problem because, as Grady asks,
Would industry sink billions into advertising, if there were not at least the reasonable expectation that people were being influenced at least
to consider a given product?
Well, of course they wouldn't. So admen and -women have spent a century trying to persuade industry that their ads do work*. To do it, they will
co-opt any likely-looking argument from psychology, sociology, communications theory, neuroscience and just about anywhere else if it will help create
a conceptual framework for what they do and thus help them sell their work.
In the old days, the black art of choice was psychology. Not 'subliminal advertising' - even advertising people aren't stupid enough to believe you
can make people buy things just by flashing a brandname at them too quickly to be seen - but other stuff: colour psychology, ocular-motion studies,
Freudian visual punnery and just about whatever happened to be fashionable that year. All codswallop, of course. JWT, where I worked for many years,
used to have a set of creative guidelines called the T-Plan which was based, in the loosest and most unscientific way possible, on sub-Pavlovian
stimulus-response theory. It was garbage, everybody except the greenhorns who'd joined the agency yesterday knew it was garbage, but no-one ever said
so, and the thing was invoked like Holy Writ every time we made a client pitch - to be instantly forgotten by us creative types when we sat down to
dream up the ads themselves. For all I know, though, they're still using it. The Ted Bates Agency, for which I worked briefly after its takeover by
Saatchi's, was still - in the 1990s! - billing itself as 'the USP agency' after a tired old industry trope, the 'unique selling proposition',
which had ceased to be relevant as long ago as 1965.
When it wasn't psychology, it was sociology. Where that came in useful was in its research techniques. The tools of market and consumer research are
mostly hand-me-downs from the social sciences. Unfortunately, their relevance in the real world, especially with the tiny sample sizes that is all
most research budgets will run to, is greatly limited.
Well, pyschology and sociology are old hat now. These days, social networking has replaced sociology and neuroscience has shoved old-school psychology
out of the lecture theatre. Advertising people, who are nothing if not trend-conscious, have spotted this and responded accordingly. Today, client
presentations include colourful MRI scans and tomographs, while media planners and researchers enthuse about web-use tracking software and the deals
they've made with social-networking sites. But is any of this going to turn advertising into an exact science, even as it turns you and me into
unthinking consumer zombies?
Forget it. Not a chance. And here's why.
The real persuasive power of advertising lies in the power of the creative work
. Sure, good media planning can ensure that the the ad gets to
the most responsive (you may prefer 'susceptible') consumer group; good strategic planning can ensure that it is 'on message' and that the message
is the most persuasive one; and good pre-testing can eliminate the negatives that turn members of the target consumer group off and even suggest what
creative elements might attract their attention or please them; but really, that is as far as it goes. In the end, whether the ad persuades you or not
is down to whether it moves you, and whether you identify with it. No insight from psychology, sociology or neuroscience is ever going to make that
What makes it happen is the same thing that makes great art happen: talented, ambitious people - writers, artists, filmmakers and a host of others -
who know from the inside what it is like to be human, and can win others over by expressing that understanding in relevant, appealing ways in the
medium of their choice. When advertising works at all, it works because of the artistic talent that created it.
The rest is just window-dressing.
* * *
Reply to nerbot
When I began a cereer in advertising... It was artistic, you know "paste-up" with a knife and "airbrushing"... The people were fun, the
ideas flowed and the business wasn't only about market share and profit.
Some years later, I had progressed (matter of opinion) into a company that produced packaging and marketing for leading brand names, but the
"industry" had changed.
Art was replaced with plaigerism, information was replaced with false statements and trust was replaced with a binding contract...
The industry didn't change. You just advanced along your career path.
The advertising business lives off the energy of ferociously talented, naive young people with big egos who get a rush out of doing great ads and
winning creative awards and don't give two hoots about whether the client's product succeeds or tanks in the market. That's where you started; in
the art studio. I started behind a cub copywriter's desk, pretty much the same as you.
Junior creative staff in ad agencies - the people, like you and I were, who actually think up and create the ads - are carefully protected from the
hardball realities of the business, because if they knew the truth they would get the hell out. The truth, let us remind ourselves, is all about
shifting numbers and grabbing the biggest possible share in viciously competitive markets worth millions and even billions of dollars. It is a very
tough, absolutely soulless business in which the only things that ever matter are the bottom line and the agency league tables. It is emphatically
about art or fun. It never was.
That's just a lie we tell the boys and girls down in the playpen.
You can rise to the post of creative group head (roughly equivalent to middle-management executive in a marketing firm) without grasping this
unpalatable truth. Or, if you stay in the small time, a provincial agency or a below-the-line house, you can hold onto it a bit longer, till you've
made creative director, perhaps. But if you are unfortunate enough to retain those illusions after you've made senior group head, copy chief or
creative director, the business will chew you up and spit you out like so much chaff.
Or else - as I suspect was the case with you - you will make your own moral decision and get out with your character and your illusions still
I didn't get out. I lost my illusions and hung on, moving from creative to strategy in the process. I like to think I retained some integrity, but
it's not for me to say, is it? Certainly I would have no qualms doing what
is so worried about. His or her company is trying to survive a
bad time and he or she is trying to stay employed. I don't see what's wrong with this. You're allowed to put the best face on the facts, even if
you know that you're not giving people the whole story. And that is all, really, that advertising ever does. I'm not saying advertisers wouldn't
lie outright if they could; but there are laws and rules that prevent them from doing so.
*Which they do, on balance, in that sales of just about anything would probably be lower without advertising. As a certain Lord Lever once said, 'I
don't know if last year's advertising worked; but I'm sure the last twenty years' has.'
[edit on 24-11-2008 by Astyanax]