Faith, Reason, and Advertising

For thousands of years, the tension between science and religion has created conflict in the world, so it’s only natural that this same conflict would pop up in the world of advertising. In this article, I’ll discuss how this conflict arose, the issues underlying it, and what can be done to restore harmony to advertising’s realm.

The “advertising is science” camp

The “science” camp is populated by people otherwise known as direct response marketers. Frugal, rational empiricists to the core, DR marketers won’t spend a penny before establishing that such an expenditure will result in a knowable, measurable, positive result.

The recent rise of search engine marketing has been celebrated by DR marketers, because SEM is so inherently complex. This complexity provides a nearly infinite number of variables for the DR marketer to experiment with in his quest to engineer a perfectly optimized ad campaign. As search engines and other targeted media claim bigger slices of the overall ad pie, the central teachings of DR marketers about efficiency, transparency and accountability have become more widely distributed, increasing the influence of this group.

And yet DR marketers, who have always represented a significant part of the advertising world, are a group whose influence has been easy for the mainstream world of advertising to ignore. DR marketers are easy for Madison Avenue to marginalize because of their historical association with cheesy, low-rent forms of advertising created for fly-by-night merchants. But DR marketers also tend to marginalize themselves. Like the quiet scientists whose methods they emulate, a typical DR marketer would rather spend a Saturday night conducting multivariate landing page tests in his lab than cha-cha dancing with buxom TV celebrities on the stage at Radio City, which he’d consider to be “a complete waste of time and money.”

The “advertising is religion” camp

In the “religion” camp, we find those folks otherwise known as brand marketers. These people, who have traditionally dominated advertising, view those in the “science” camp as obsessive number-crunching nerds so focused on the minutia of media buying that they ignore the “awesome power of advertising to create unforgettable brand experiences that last a lifetime.”

When challenged (often by a client) to produce evidence that such an “unforgettable brand experience” has actually occurred, a brand marketer will often dodge the question by quoting an aphorism by David Ogilvy, Bill Bernbach, George Lois, or another old-line prophet to whom advertising’s mystical secrets were revealed back in the 1960’s. He will then produce a Nielsen/Arbitron report, which at first blush looks authoritative. Once examined under a microscope, however, this report reveals that nobody – not the agency, not the network, and not even the Ratings firm – knows whether anyone actually watched the $1 million 30-second spot aired by the client, much less whether this spot sold enough cars, diapers, or shaving cream to represent a prudent investment.

Many brand marketers are aware that their age-old view of the advertising cosmos, in which everything revolves around the brand, is under assault by those in the “science” camp. But instead of opening the door to a dialogue with the “science” camp, their response has been to circle the wagons and batten down the hatches. From their burnished pulpits at advertising trade shows, brand marketers continue to preach that only they can “capture the hearts and minds of the people” and dismiss any claim that their free-spending approach is rooted in superstition and dogma

The great conflict

As advertisers continue to shift dollars from untargeted, unaccountable media channels toward the Internet, the tension between advertising’s two camps continues to grow, occasionally becoming very ugly. Brand marketers lately have been attempting to poke holes in the whole notion that modern advertising is in fact scientific, citing click fraud and cookie erosion among the flaws in the “advertising is science” idea. In response, DR marketers have accused brand marketers of being technologically illiterate troglodytes whose opposition to reform is rooted in greed and sloth.

In truth, each warring camp possesses a half-truth, and my hope is that that these half-truths will eventually be reconciled. DR marketers are absolutely correct when they insist that accountability, measurability, and transparency are advertising’s new Holy Trinity, but they overstate their case when they insist that the new advertising models they espouse are perfect embodiments of this ideal. Until such time that Big Brother, or perhaps Google, surgically implants a device in all of us that can measure emotional responses to marketing messages, as well as purchasing behavior directly attributable to advertising exposure, there will be questions about advertising’s effectiveness that will remain unanswerable.

For their part, brand marketers need to free themselves of the musty ideas that have dominated advertising since its inception. Sacred icons such as the 30-second spot and the full-page newspaper ad don’t need to be smashed on the alter, but they need to be retired as primary tools as the world moves to a distributed, on-demand media model. They need to stop resisting the assault of the number-crunchers, and join forces with those in the “science” camp to reform the way that the industry measures advertising’s effectiveness, which remains ridiculously antiquated. They also need to abandon the absurd rites that have dominated advertising, including the upfronts, which have no place in today’s media landscape, as well as the expensive, self-congratulatory Cannes Awards, which are just exercises in self-worship.

Science and religion don’t have to war on each other in advertising or in the larger world of inquiry. Albert Einstein, the 20th Century’s greatest scientist, clearly appreciated that both faith and reason represent alternative, but not necessarily conflicting views of the phenomenal world, which can be reconciled if one remains open to the valid insights of each camp.

Old Al would have made a great marketer.

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