The data tell the story, reckons Google. We’re not persuaded
The danger of becoming immersed in the craft of advertising is that it’s easy to fall in love with the process and begin to think the process is the purpose—as though making love was being in love. Hence advertising’s fascination with creativity.
Who doesn’t enjoy beautifully crafted ads? A clever concept with sensational execution can be as hypnotic as shouty desperate ads are stupefying.
Advertising, at its best, has always engaged top craftspeople in film, photography, illustration, typography and music. The ad industry places a heavy emphasis on winning awards. Glamour creative teams in agencies consistently win international awards and the Axis awards here at home. There are annual award rankings of agencies and personnel. The best in the business obsess about these things.
Amidst the razzle-dazzle, the bright lights, the free-flowing champagne, adoring fans and rivalry there is the small, sometimes forgotten, matter of the whole point of advertising. It’s not just a fun job. Advertising has a job to do.
Advertising must persuade people to change their behaviour. Persuasion is the cornerstone. Ads must go beyond simply communicating a message. To be worthwhile, ads must convince you to buy, to be willing to buy, to persuade another person to buy a product or service, or to buy into an idea. (I include the latter because the New Zealand Government spends monumental amounts attempting to convince you to hate your neighbours: they drink too much, they drive drunk and wallop their loved ones; if they have depression they are really cool, unless they use P or drink too much, etcetera.)
The social science of persuasion isn’t taught in any of the courses on offer from universities, polytechs or private training courses for advertising and design. The emphasis is on execution and ‘ideas’.
“Amidst the razzle-dazzle, the bright lights, the free-flowing champagne, adoring fans and rivalry there is the small, sometimes forgotten, matter of the whole point of advertising. It’s not just a fun job. Advertising has a job to do”
It may sound as though I am reiterating the dogma of the direct marketing industry, which has banged on noisily since the early 90s along similar lines. Maybe so. But there is an elephant in the room that might disturb both direct marketers and advertising agencies in equal measure: Google.
Google has become a dominant player in marketing communications. Its AdWords product generates hundreds of millions of dollars for its bottom line. Google doesn’t employ any creative people to deliver that result. In fact, creativity and persuasion have zip to do with it—algorithms and computer codes simply translate relevant terms, and display links to advertisers who have paid for the corresponding terms.
And it recently announced an online booking and buying and reporting service for TV advertising.
Google chief executive Eric Schmidt told a recent Advertising Age conference that the future of advertising lies in measurement. But, to quote the genius campaign for Toyota’s Signature range of imported used cars: they would say that.
It would be easy to assume that Google is utterly unbiased—the numbers don’t lie, after all. But data (gathered after the event) doesn’t necessarily amount to intelligence.
If Google is right we will have gone from one extreme to the other. Rampant idealism meets bloodless statistics.
Persuasion requires some understanding of human behaviour. Sometimes advertising will not deliver an immediate response—in fact, it usually will not. People are not always ready, willing and able to buy right now. It’s neurotic to expect otherwise.
Sometimes numbers can’t tell the full story. Large amounts of data lack nuance. That is why smart researchers and planners discern more from well-facilitated focus groups than anyone ever will from a census.
In uncertain times, beware of clinging to certainty. In marketing, as in life, nothing is certain.
Painting by numbers has never produced anything other that a rote, amateur result. Marketing is a competitive activity. The best marketers have a profound understanding of the market, they have intuition about where it is heading and the courage to take risks rather than seek the comfort of historical data alone. The best make history. They don’t just read it.