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In search of the 10%. Is Sturgeon's Law the alarming truth?

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by Magnus Shaw.

 

Theodore Sturgeon was an American science fiction writer. A popular author, he is more widely known for his 'revelation' or law. It's a simple proposition which Sturgeon devised after spending years defending science fiction novels by other authors, which he didn't really believe were much good. His actual words were: "Ninety percent of science fiction is crap; but then, ninety percent of everything is crap."

Was he right? Not particularly about science fiction, but about creative endeavours in general? It's not a straightforward question. What is 'quality' and what is 'crap' is highly subjective. I dislike milk puddings, and therefore may consider them 'crap'. You, on the other hand, may think semolina is the height of good taste. So it's safe to say that, at any given moment, at least 90% of all endeavours are thought of as crap by somebody. Probably more.

So what happens when we apply Sturgeon's Law to advertising? Again subjectivity has to be considered, but advertising carries a facet missing from other creative works. It can be measured. In terms of recall, recognition, appreciation, uptake and return on investment, advertising is measurable. But many clients never take the trouble to do the measuring - or to ask their agency to do it - but if they did, they may start to believe in Sturgeon's Law.

Henry Ford said "I know only half of my advertising works. I just don't know which half." In other words, one of history's great entrepreneurs was aware at least 50% of his marketing was ... well ... crap. Sturgeon and Ford could argue the numbers, but with so much at stake, how can advertisers be so accepting of such a precarious position?

The fact is, advertising isn't an exact science. When planning and creating a campaign, certain factors can be considered - the nature of the audience, the reach of the media and the appropriateness of the creative work. However, there are myriad variables which simply cannot be predicted. Trends change almost overnight, news events suddenly place products or services in a negative light, consumers often react in unexpected ways  - all of which can easily sabotage a campaign which looked promising in the meeting room.

Could it really be true that the majority of the advertising released is actually rubbish? Ninety percent might be pitching it a bit high, but we can be almost certain a huge amount of the corporate world's marketing budget is squandered. And sometimes this is because agencies and clients conspire to build campaigns which are doomed to be ineffective. There's a hidden in truth in advertising: the pressure isn't to be bold and adventurous, it's to be safe and conservative.

It's not unusual for a client to be convinced their competitor has the whole advertising thing completely nailed and, as a result, asks the agency to provide something very similar. If the agency resists, the client may well insist. As they are paying the bill, the agency may well acquiesce. But merely copying a competitor will never achieve an impressive result. Particularly if the competitor is also lost. But that's how easily poor advertising finds its way onto screens and pages.

Of course, there are many magnificent campaigns which outperform all expectations and deliver exceptional returns on investment, but if anyone knew how to guarantee that result, every advertising project would be a sensation. And that is an impossibility. Advertisements, by their nature, compete with one another - which means some have to lose for others to succeed. More than that, it means that crappy advertising is a necessity.

Ultimately, it is impossible to change the uncomfortable fact of Sturgeon's Law. The percentage may vary, but the underlying message will always stand. As creatives and clients, all we can do is be awake to this dilemma and be brave enough, smart enough and strong enough to insist we're part of the glorious exception rather than the miserable rule.

Magnus Shaw is a copywriter, blogger and consultant.
www.magnusshaw.co.uk

A collection of Magnus Shaw's columns is now available as a Kindle book.

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