Alex Steer

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Bad theory in advertising

868 words | ~4 min

My post on 'advertising after messaging' is on the Futures Company blog at the moment. It's not perfect, but the gist is that a lot of the rubric about advertising shifting to ongoing brand engagement is wrong, because it under-prices people's attention. (To their huge credit, Influx Insights summarizes my post better than I did.)

Bad insights and bad ideas get a lot of stick for generating bad advertising, which is fair enough. A planner will typically tell you your insight is awful, and a creative will lay into your idea. But I don't think enough blame gets laid at the door of bad theory: faulty ideas about how and why advertising has effect.

Marketers, to their credit, tend to have pretty robust ideas about the contribution of advertising. This isn't surprising, as their jobs/bonuses/reputations are rather pinned to the business success of whatever marketing activities they do (or pay for). The problem is, and this is a huge generalization, marketing theories of advertising effect tend to focus on the different kinds of effect advertising can have, rather than on how advertising achieves those effects.

That kind of theory could be - and often is - within the domain of planning. That doesn't mean it has to be done by planners. (At best, I tend to think, planners are the people who make sure planning happens, not merely the people who do planning.) Where it's there, it can be an effective check and balance against faddish thinking. Those checks and balances can be very old: it's fashionable to knock the idea of the USP, and it's not always right for every product, brand or campaign - but bearing it in mind can help guard against producing campaign that are laden with insights and glinting with ideas but are nonetheless ships in the night and pass unnoticed. They can also be very new. Even if it contributes nothing more, a lot of the research from behavioural economics is reminding advertisers of the heuristics and biases in how people pay attention and how they decide.

A campaign needs insights and ideas, but it also needs theory, even though theory is not terribly fashionable among planners. Maybe this is because it reeks of grand theory, some all-encompassing, intricate, mad model of reality - like those Afghanistan war PowerPoint slides - that can clutter up a campaign brief, never translate into an idea and not sell a thing. But I'm not talking about cultural or critical theory (which I'm sure many planners schooled in the humanities are better versed in than they'd like to admit), I'm talking about communications theory - a point of view on how you get attention, how you get remembered, and how you get people to act on those memories when it comes to parting with their money.

The short version of the above is: if you want to sell something, you need to know how to sell it. (Sometimes theories can be obvious.)

Each campaign needs its own theory of advertising wired into it, like the detonator in a plastic explosive. Everything else can be shaped around it, but without it you're in dereliction of duty, however many insights or ideas you might have. The theory won't always be the same - it needs to be built on a specific business challenge, after all. But with a theory in place, you can stop bad insights at the gate.

One of the pleasures of working in trends and futures consulting this year has been finding concise ways to express big social changes. But trend insights, however neatly put, can generate either great advertising or terrible advertising - so for a consultant, seeing an ad that's clearly based on a trend insight is a game of chance. It's a flip of the coin whether the ad will be good or terrible. Before you even get to judging creative, what sets the 'good ads with good insights' apart from the 'bad ads with good insights' is the presence of a theory of advertising.

Without one, it's easy to make your trend insight the grounding of your campaign, and then just ladder it up to abstraction. Insights, like genes, are selfish - they want to be the centre of attention. So you have an insight that says 'older people have more money and are healthier...', and you ladder it up to 'older people want to live life to the full...' and then, 'the most important thing to our target market of older people is being in control of their destiny...' and you end up with a soaring, lofty campaign about destiny which sells none of the tins of Premium Spam that your clients asked you to shift off the shelves. If you'd stayed grounded, and built in a theory of how advertising catches the eye in the moment and the memory on the shop floor,  you could have made something that would have had the spam aisle looking bare in a week.

# Alex Steer (15/07/2011)