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.

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1 Comment

  1. Jason H

     /  April 29, 2012

    Another great post. And oh so very true.
    How many times have I had a client be extremely pleased with a piece of writing or a headline that, through rounds of ministrations, bears no resemblance to the one submitted.
    Creativity is by definition the process of creating. Testing and analysis are, by necessity, acts of dissection–acts of destruction. Although looking at the bits that result can yield some insights, it cannot account for the effect of the original creative whole.
    Let’s leave pseudoscience exactly where it should be: somewhere neither right-brained or left-brained. And well outside of advertising.


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