Advertising

Can you sell the truth?

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Image: ajgelado

“There’s a mismatch between what science knows and what business does.”

Those are the words of Dan Pink in his wonderful TED talk on human motivation, where he makes the case that although scientists have long known that the carrot-and-stick approach to motivation increasingly works much worse than intrinsic motivators (a sense of purpose, autonomy, etc), most business people either have no idea or simply can’t be bothered. Mr Pink again: “Too many organizations are making their decisions based on assumptions that are outdated, unexamined and rooted more in folklore than in science”.

Outdated. Unexamined. Rooted in folklore. Sounds like the advertising business.

In fact, it’s a spot-on description of our industry, where we – clients and agencies alike – still base most of our decisions and work on foundations we take for granted but really have no clue where they come from. Or if  they’re even true. Let me just give you three very quick examples of what I’m talking about (there are many more):

  • It is still commonplace to assume that the audience will only take out one single message from a piece of advertising – hence the focus on a single proposition or “what is the message?” – even though there is no evidence for this whatsoever.
  • We still view advertising recall as a general proxy for effectiveness (some people are even dense enough to equate it with effectiveness) but there is no evidence for recall, or advertising stand-out, being a prerequisite for influencing people’s behavior.
  • Many people still see the AIDA model as valid even though it completely ignores the most important of all factors in human decision making, prior experience.

This raises two questions. One with a simple answer and one with a possibly depressing one.

The first is why. Why are most people in our industry still in a state of darkness? It’s not that there’s no science to learn from. Advertising has been extensively researched from Berkely to Bombay and there is no shortage of experiments, conclusions and facts to be enlightened by. However, there’s an obvious answer here: Most people aren’t really interested in hurting their brains. They’d rather carry on like they’ve always done than challenge their dogma. It’s only human.

The second question is much more disturbing: Is the truth even sellable? As consultants we are supposed to offer advice to our clients based on what would be best for their business and that in turn requires knowledge of, among other things, human behavior, decision making and how people are affected by advertising. In short, of the truth. And there we go again – most people aren’t interested in what’s true but in what’s convenient, remember? So trying to convince them of the truth is always hard work and often makes you unpopular.

So I’m thinking that maybe it would be best to give up seeking the truth and just sell that which encounters the least resistance, i.e. things that fit most clients’ established world view rather than oppose it.

See what I mean by depressing?

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