Advertising Pseudoscience

I’m reading Carl Sagan’s wonderful The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark.  He writes, “At the heart of some pseudoscience is the idea that wishing makes it so. How seductive this notion is, especially when compared with the hard work and good luck usually required to achieve our hopes.”  Sagan is writing about the dangers of not knowing, or rejecting as the creationists do, the wonders of science in favor of ignorance, misinformation and certain religious belief systems.  How many more people can discuss with assurance the allegedly lost continent of Atlantis, for which no scientific evidence has been found, than able to discuss basic laws of quantum physics, or natural selection, or how viruses spread?

Pseudoscience prevails in advertising, too.  I’m thinking specifically of the pseudoscience of quantitative copy testing, but let’s face it, wishing and hoping things to be a certain way play an active role across the board.

Creative copy testing has had a long and disputed history.  From the now discredited Burke Day-After-Recall tests, to questionable Millward-Brown LINK tests, to account planning qualitative small group interrogation, the methods and “belief systems” are legion.  While all creative people hate copy testing, the majority of clients rely on quantitative results to aid, or in many cases, substitute, their own judgments.

I recently had a heated discussion with a client over “testing” to determine emotional content in television ads.  The methodology was Millward-Brown’s LINK tests.  Ignoring my opinion that all LINK test results are artificially derived under abnormal viewing conditions, and therefore of limited value in assessing true market place performance, my point was that if a person can’t tell something is emotional, then it probably isn’t.  And the converse is true: we know a commercial is emotional when we see it–when, after viewing it, we feel happy, sad, unnerved, elated, disgusted, moved to tears or laughter.  No one needed to test Apple’s famous “Think Different” TV work to know how emotional this combination of words and pictures was.  It still makes me tear up.  Or last year’s “Imported From Detroit” ad with Eminem to launch the Chrysler 300.  Or FedX’s hilarious “When It Absolutely, Positively Has Yo Be There Overnight” campaign.  Remember DDB’s classic “Spicy Meatball” commercial for Alka-Selzter?  Did you laugh out loud?  Did MVBMS’s “Survivors” campaign for Volvo stir strong emotions?  No one needed an unseen respondent to click a mouse when he or she felt “emotion.”  The emotion was there.

Conversely, creative advertising people aren’t immune from hope, from wishing things to have the impact they intend.  Often judgement is undermined by ego.  Passion and risk-taking have their place in ad development, when grounded in insight and reasoned, collective opinion.  Yet sometimes entire agencies get caught up in the novelty of an idea for the sake of its novelty.  This is often the case in new business pitches, when an all or nothing enthusiasm takes grip.  These pitches invariably fail.

Malcolm Gladwell describes in The Tipping Point the quixotic and serendipitous process by which the long ignored Hush Puppy shoes regained popularity.  Would Hush Puppy have uncovered this remarkable resurgence by testing ads for potential marketplace sales prior to these real life events unfolding?  Not likely.

More often than not, the purveyors of advertising testing market their methods as “scientific.”  No well trained scientist would assert this.  It would be better for these companies to define their strengths (if they have any) and limitations in realistic ways, rather than in dogmatic, deterministic language.  Clients could use this information as possibly providing one piece of the evaluation puzzle, not the entire picture.

One last observation: the most talented copy writer I know recently wrote a radio ad for a well-known product.  This copy went through no fewer than forty-five client requested revisions, that in the end removed nearly every word of the original language (excepting “and” and “the.”)  My copy writer friend called the finished ad the single worst radio ad ever produced.  Nevertheless, this was the only ad the agency ever created that received written commendation from the client CEO.  At the end of the day, it’s our job to make clients happy.  So goes life in advertising.

One Stroke of an Oar

Last Wednesday I had lunch with my friend Roz Savage.  Roz is an ocean rower.  She’s rowed the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans—solo.  Roz rows to raise awareness for the environment and cleaner oceans.  After Oxford she was a management consultant in London, when she decided her way of life wasn’t contributing to the well being of the planet or to her own soul.  She asked herself, “How can one person change the world?”  The answer was one stroke of an oar at a time.

It’s impossible to conclude anything other than the oceans are beyond real repair.  The rate of pollution, from garbage to chemicals, to thermal warming, combined with environmental abominations such as Japanese bottom scraping or BP oil rigs or the Exxon Valdez, all vastly outstrip the oceans’ ability to heal themselves.

Roz has rowed to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, an area estimated to be twice the size of Hawaii with a weight of 100 million tons.  The Patch consists of submerged plastics, chemical sludge and debris trapped in the currents of the North Pacific.  The issue isn’t whether this vast area can ever be cleaned up—it can’t; the issue is what changes must occur in the commercial world to stop the proliferation of these pollutants in the first place. (We could elect more Republicans and hasten the dying process.)

What I find so depressing, and where marketing plays a significant role, is that for every one Roz Savage, there’s Exxon, P&G, Dow, BHP…the global list goes on and on.  Think for a moment about the amount of garbage, apart from recycling, the average household accumulates every day of the year. Think of entire industries such as cosmetics where packaging far exceeds product size.  Packaging that goes straight from the shelf to the garbage bin.   Happy Meal toys that capture a child’s attention for about fifteen minutes and have life spans of centuries.  Old tires, broken surfboards, dolls, nylon stockings, condoms.  They’ll be with us forever.

We live in a commercial, materialistic society.  Status is mostly pegged on things we own.  It’s too late to change this.   Entire industries are built on this premise.  Entire industries support the industries that build the products that we crave: law, accounting, consulting, advertising, marketing.  Everyone is responsible.

So where does charge start?  Do we need individually wrapped slices of the most ordinary cheese?  Do we boycott Kraft?  Do we stop shopping at Safeway?  Do we opt out of consumer society?

The most pervasive criticism of advertising is that it’s created to sell unneeded products to unsuspecting people.  Elementary school students are taught to distrust what they hear in ads.  Proponents argue that consumers are free to buy or not buy whatever they choose.  Advertising only makes people aware of a product’s existence and availability.  Yet any practitioner knows that this is only a partial truth.  The objective of advertising is to persuade someone to do something through a variety of tried and true creative means: emotion, sex, status markers, hope.  Elaborate methodologies have been developed to evaluate advertising effectiveness, down to analyzing second by second every word in a television commercial or tracking click-through, bounce rates, site navigation among many web metrics.   We know an awful lot about what motivates a consumer to make a particular purchase.

How many of us can become another Roz Savage?  Become a crusader for the environment, for the planet?  Probably not very many of us.  But what if everyone did just one thing every day to take a stand: chose an unpackaged brand over a packaged one; printed two-sided copies (or never print at all); took public transportation to work; let manufacturers know that their practices are unacceptable; let advertisers know that their ads are false, misleading or ethically questionable when they are.  Buy products from environmentally committed companies such as Seventh Generation.

Those of us who get paid to create the marketing strategies and advertising and social media campaigns need to apply our own personal standards to our professional activity.  This could mean fewer, or different, clients; less money.  My own standards might have been necessarily low by my career choice, but only once—my first account assignment– did I feel compromised by working to support a highly questionable product: cholesterol-free New Age Cheese from Anderson-Clayton Foods.  Coming in four “flavors,” these slices lacked any semblance of taste, were filled with artificial ingredients and when melted shrunk down to the size of a postage stamp.  In this case, consumers voted with their feet and the product failed.  So there is hope yet.  I should add, however, that my second account assignment was as the Assistant AE on P&G’s blockbuster product, Rely Tampons–of Toxic Shock Syndrome fame.  You heard right.

Meanwhile, we can all make a difference and support Roz’s mission for a cleaner environment and maybe help save the oceans of the world.  Check out her site:

And bring your own bag the next time you go to the grocery store.

Social Choice

I recently attended a panel discussion at CNET/CBS, moderated by my friend Paul Sloan. The topic was start-up funding.  The panel consisted of Naval Ravikant, Dave McClure and George Zachary.  The audience was mostly guys (few women) either in the early stages of a start-up, or hopefully launching an idea into a reality.  The best answer I heard to the many questions about how seed funding decisions get made was Naval’s “Surprise me.”

The discussion inevitably turned to Facebook’s IPO.  The consensus was that a rising tide lifts all ships, with the result that the hype and capital infusion would stimulate more start-up investment.  Then, Naval R remarked, “who really uses Facebook anymore?”  Serious people have moved on to Twitter and Pinterest, leaving Facebook for kids, housewives, and, by implication, the non-serious.  While I’m sure this would be a surprise to Mr. Zuckerberg and his investors–no doubt adding millions of users around the globe as this panel discussion progressed–I wonder if there isn’t some truth to what Naval had to say.  Natural selection is relentless.

Look at the trouble Groupon is in.  It seems like only months ago the site was the darling of the web, ushering in an entirely new platform for promotion and commerce.  It may now fall by the wayside, and I for one won’t miss it.  The promise of engendering repeat purchase and long term customer loyalty was always a false, untested proposition.  Rapaciously marketed to small and medium businesses, it proved to be a money loser at best and often a death knell.

I bought a Groupon once, an offer to get $60.00 of merchandise for $20.00 at a single proprietor, high end pharmacy in my neighborhood.  The place sells expensive European products.  I figured how could I go wrong, so with my offer I went in, selected my purchases and paid with the Groupon.  I asked the woman at the counter, who turned out to be the owner, how this deal was working for her.  She said, “It’s the worst business decision I’ve ever made.  I’ve lost so much money and haven’t ever seen anyone return to the shop.”  It’s a common story.  How rueful Groupon’s founders must be for not having accepted Google’s offer (and how happy Google must be that they didn’t.)

All of the social platforms we use today will be replaced in time, some sooner than later.

Despite the many frustrations, and often against my private instincts, I engage because part of being alive is to live on the wave, not be stuck on some retaining wall.  Yes, privacy is sacrificed; hacking is a nuisance; our keystrokes are aggregated and repackaged for marketing initiatives; the government conducts surveillance; Big Brother is watching.  But what, today, is the alternative?  I have a young friend, a college student, who is mortally against all forms of online sharing: no Facebook, no Twitter, no use of Google search, no downloading, no YouTube, no Netflix…  Gmail is a necessary evil.  He wears a specially protected wallet to prevent possible RFID scans.  He also attends Defcon and supports Julian Assauge.  His seemingly contradictory career goal is to work at Twitter in their security department.  To me, he has narrowed his worldview to a degree I find depressing and ultimately uninteresting.  Maybe he’ll turn out to be right and I will be on the losing side of the battle for personal integrity and privacy.  When “they” come, they’ll get me long before him.

In the meantime, we’re here to explore and evolve. And not be fearful of unknown destinations.  There’s too much uncertainly even to hope of controlling outcomes.

I come back again and again to the final passage of Michael Frayn’s play Copenhagen.  I’ve quoted this before.

Margrethe And sooner or later there will come a time when all our children are laid to dust, and all our children’s children.

Bohr When no more decisions, great or small, are ever made again. When there’s no more uncertainty, because there’s no more knowledge.

Margrethe And when all our eyes are closed, when even the ghosts have gone, what will be left of our beloved world? Our ruined and dishonoured and beloved world?

Heisenberg But in the meanwhile, in this most precious meanwhile, there it is. The trees in Faelled Park. Gammertingen and Biberach and Mindelheim. Our children and our children’s children. Preserved, just possibly, by that one short moment in Copenhagen. By some event that will never quite be located or defined. By that final core of uncertainty at the heart of things.

I read this and think about my sons and the world they’re inheriting.  They have a lot more optimism than I do, believing that when the really bad times come, there will be a solution.  Science has saved the human race before and will again.  No doubt rational forces will eventually win out in this country to replace the bigotry, self-delusion in the name of faith, anti-science, anti-women, anti-education populist beliefs that seem to be sweeping much of the nation.  After all, National Socialism had its downfall.

Many believe, Malcolm Gladwell notwithstanding, that social media has played a role in advancing social change.  Like wildfire, people get connected, informed, mobilized and united in common cause.  In retaliation, repressive regimes shut down social media portals, as has recently been the case in China.  The power of social platforms, such as Twitter, is recognized, understood and feared.  Just as marketing has shifted from the hands of manufacturers to the hands, and opinions, of consumers, politics is shifting from centralized control to decentralized communities of citizens.

Would we rather be part of these movements, or isolated in our own fears of lack of privacy and personal control?  “With Privilege Comes Responsibility.”  There will always be the irresponsible, the hackers of the free world.  And there will be those irresponsible to the status quo who will carry huge responsibility.  (Wikileaks may be one.)

Fear versus potential.  You’ve got to choose.