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Book Review: The Secret of Successful Advertising?

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I must admit to being slightly addicted to books about how people are persuaded to buy things. Yet the very preponderance of such books indicates that there are very many competing opinions and theories of 'How we decide’ (also the title of one of my favourites, by Jonah Lehrer). 

Thanks to Amazon’s algorithm I've ploughed through dozens of titles in the same genre, including the seminal ‘Thinking Fast & Slow’ (Daniel Kahneman), ‘The Storytelling Animal' (Jonathan Gotschall), ‘Predictably Irrational’ (Dan Ariely) and of course the new bible of Marketing thinking: ‘How Brands Grow’ (Lord Byron Sharp). 

‘The Anatomy of Humbug’ by Paul Feldwick is a welcome addition to this illustrious list. The rather cryptic title doesn’t reveal much about the content, but it’s a concise summary of six different ways in which advertising has been claimed to work. The genius of the book is that Feldwick doesn’t come to a conclusion about which one is right, but invites the reader to take something from all of them. He also manages this feat without showing a single actual advertisement. 

Better still, he convinces us that there is no ‘right’ way to explain how advertising works, because, as he puts it on page 115: ‘The mysterious and perhaps infinite ways in which one published utterance in any medium may influence one person’s choice behaviour can involve everything we know, everything we don’t know and perhaps will never know, about how we make choices, how we perceive things, what motivates us, how memory works, how we construct reality, Ok, life, the universe and everything.' 

That’s probably the longest sentence in the book (perhaps in any book!), but what it boils down to is that an evidence-based, rationally-deduced model of how to create perfect advertising can never exist. There are just too many highly successful campaigns that don’t conform to any particular school of constructing the ‘utterance’, often breaking a fundamental premise of one or more of them such as: ‘an ad must contain a single unique proposition’. In practice ads with several propositions and ads with none have both proved highly successful at boosting sales in specific cases, so there goes another ‘law'.

Byron Sharp’s evidence-based assertion that ‘advertising does not create meaningful differentiation between brands, but meaningless distinctiveness’, is acknowledged as highly valuable when compared with many other approaches that ‘try to be too clever or too anxious about getting it wrong’. These often produce campaigns that are ‘inconsistent, timid, over-analysed and under-resourced’, and will always be beaten by Sharp’s strategy for brand growth.

But this approach is also criticised as ‘just too simple on its own’, a comment that chimes with my own belief that there is clearly a huge component of ‘meaning' in the communication, branding and design of all successful brands. Feldwick’s multiplicity of ways of seeing offers powerful arguments for advertising as ‘Salesmanship, Seduction, Salience, Social Connection, Spin and Showbiz, with no one approach (Sharp’s is ‘Salience’ of course) winning or being absolutely right. In fact, he muses that ‘most ads, perhaps even all ads, can be interpreted through the lens of more than one way of thinking, and quite possibly all six’.

The Author does a great job of analysing the lifelong tension between Clients’ search for certainty, proof, and accurate models of how the world works, with Agencies’ steadfast belief (at least in the Creative department) that truly memorable and brand-building communication 'leans heavily on such (barely measurable) psychological processes as suggestion, association, repetition, identification, fantasy, etc.’

Feldwick places great emphasis on the storm created by the publication of Vance Packard’s ‘The Hidden Persuaders’ in 1957, which caused most Advertising Agencies to play down the importance of emotion or non-verbal, unconscious communication in their work, for fear of being accused of ‘evil manipulation’. This eventually led to a ‘benign conspiracy’ which allowed ‘clients, suits and planners to argue about target audiences, propositions and so forth’, whilst the creative department could ‘on a good day - do something utterly unexpected and intuitive that might or might not bear any relationship to the brief - and with a following wind it would run and achieve brilliant results for reasons that had nothing to do with the proposition or the functional benefit.’

With recent advances in neuroscience there is now broad acknowledgement of what one side of the benign conspiracy has always known: ‘that human decision-making is strongly influenced or even dominated by subconscious needs, processes and associations, and that most techniques for influencing behaviour depend on these’. 

I was gratified to see much of my own reading reflected in the Author’s references on page 128, but even more pleased to read that we both find ‘one particular theme especially useful… the idea of associations.’ This is the very stuff of branding (and packaging), so it allowed me to deepen my conviction about how we produce the ‘distinctive assets’ that Byron Sharp’s saliency model relies on. 

Knowing that ‘our perceptions and our responses to stimuli are continually being influenced by the patterns of associations we have already laid down’, makes the task of the brand designer clear. As I read recently in a Semiotics Ph.D thesis: Advertising (or Branding, or Packaging) must ‘raid existing systems of meaning to quicken communication'. In doing so it attracts the attention it requires to even begin to operate. 

Evoking the familiar, in constantly unfamiliar ways, is what makes our profession challenging and rewarding in equal measure.

This article first appeared on my Linked In profile.

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