October 23, 2014

The Human Factor

Today is the final part of a 3-part series in which I attempted to derive a theory about how consumer behavior works and how that might affect the creation of advertising.

The first part dealt with the duality of consumer behavior. In the second part I tried to develop some principles related to the uncertainty of consumer behavior. And today we're going to talk about what all this theorizing means to the people who create advertising, if anything.

Despite all the bullshit about digital technology changing everything, a TV spot today looks frighteningly like a TV spot of 20 years ago. A radio spot of today is not much different from a radio spot of 20 years ago, and a print ad... you get the point.

Digital has changed delivery systems -- pipes -- but it hasn't changed what's going through the pipes.

All the palaver about "interactivity" between consumer and advertiser has turned out to be hogwash, with consumers showing no interest at all in interacting with "interactive" advertising.

More than ever, we are locked into a way of thinking that slices and dices people into cubby-holes of age, supposed psychological profiles, and presumed areas of interest. I think it was Don Marti who said "targeting to demographics, psychographics or stated interests (as Facebook does) works marginally better than not targeting at all."

The addiction to targeting, which digital technology has only amplified, has derailed the advertising industry from concentrating on its real job -- creating interesting messages.

We have made no progress that I can see from the decades-old push-pull of emotion vs. logic in the strategic approach to the messages we create.

If my musings this week about highfalutin stuff like "behavior-plasticity" and "quantum advertising" have any value, they ought to lead us to some way of thinking about creating more effective messages.

A few months ago, I wrote the following:
Great advertising transcends strategy. It's great for all the wrong reasons -- the reasons we never talk about in new business pitches, or mention at client meetings, or have break-out sessions about at advertising conferences. It's great because it's great. Period. 
It doesn't matter if it differentiates the brand, or delivers a benefit, or has a call to action. 
Good ads need strategy and benefits and differentiation. Great ads don't need any of that. They appeal to us as humans, not consumers.
When we're writing for "consumers" we act reflexively. We shoehorn in our benefits and we show scenes of Timmy and grandpa going fishing. In other words, we default to the cliches of the logic/emotion framework.

But if we don't start with logic vs. emotion as a foundation -- if we start with "let's try to sound human and talk human" -- and treat logic and emotion as byproducts of an interesting message, we will be far more successful.

The problem is this -- writing advertising that sounds human, and not like advertising, is really hard. It's not difficult to write logically. It's not difficult to write emotionally. But there are very few copywriters who can make advertising sound human.

I've come a long way around to discover something I think I've always known. The best advertising will be great because of an indefinable quality that communicates with us as humans, not consumers.

One of the things I especially like about this "quantum" theory of advertising is that it recognizes the mystery of the "human" factor. The fact that we cannot define it is not  ignorance, it is an inescapable condition of the probabilistic and contradictory nature of human behavior.

This is what makes creating advertising an interesting, fascinating -- and frustrating -- occupation.


MPeretti said...

This is all great, Bob, but couldn't we simply stick with earlier thinking you have proposed: good advertising gets noticed and is memorable? Whether people will remember this emotionally or rationally, even whether they will like it or not is less important. As long as the response is strong enough (people notice it against that busy backdrop of everyday life and remember it when it matters), emotional or rational, we've done our jobs.

I would only add that it needs to be correctly attributed. People need to remember the ad AND the brand it was for.

That would also agree with Byron Sharp's point about salience.

CRL said...

Some examples?

Cecil B. DeMille said...

Lemon ( the VW ad) comes to mind.

Cecil B. DeMille said...

Remember the old Far Side cartoon of the man at the blackboard doing a complex math problem. In the middle of all the numbers and formulae is written, "A Miracle Occurs."

It feels like that's how you're defining advertising. Two parts stuff we can understand, one part stuff that defies understanding. And that may very well be accurate. Maybe understand is the wrong word. Quantify? Identify? I'm not sure. All I know is that any theory, however daft, is better than the shit we're forced to work with now.

And I honestly think there are a lot of copywriters out there who can make it human. They just stand alone when they fight for it. And they lose. Often. I know I have.

Brian Jacobs said...

I have the original of that cartoon...it was on the wall of a guy who was CEO at a marketing science company called MMA who used to use it to explain what they did to customers. 'And then a miracle occurred'. When we (I was at Aegis at the time) bought the business they gave me the cartoon.

Jeff Spicoli said...

So, similar to light as the constant in Einstein's equation, the constant in the "quantum theory of advertising" is that people are human.

I know that when I'm watching TV, reading a newspaper, listening to the radio, etc., I'm always observing things as a human, but not often as a consumer. So I think it's easy for even a well-crafted ad that is targeting the consumer in me to not have any impact.

But target me with things that appeal to me as a human and at least the odds that I'll have tuned you out before you even get to the message will be much lower.

dmarti said...

Facebook ads are worth about 1/8th as much per user minute as newspaper ads: http://zgp.org/~dmarti/business/newspaper-dollars-facebook-dimes/

People in the USA (on average) spend about twice as much time on Facebook as they do reading the printed newspaper. Although the minutes spent on print keeps coming down, on a per minute basis print advertising is consistently keeping its price premium over digital.

dmarti said...

Facebook advertising is 1/8 as valuable, per user minute, to advertisers as print newspapers: http://zgp.org/~dmarti/business/newspaper-dollars-facebook-dimes/ Even as print's share of user minutes goes down, it keeps a price premium on a per-minute basis.

Cecil B. DeMille said...


Chuck Nyren said...

It all started with that sad joke WOMM - and devolved into whatever silliness they call it today.

From 2006:


Murtaz Jadoon said...

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Timm said...

Bob, I'm not in advertising; I'm a graphic designer, but I have a real interest in the ad business, and your blog in particular. I've read your three posts individually and again, in one hit, just to make sure I get what you're saying. But since reading your theory, something has started to grow in my head. It's an uncomfortable thought and I don't even like to verbalise it, but aren't you suggesting that the ads that shift product do so because of some kind of luck, rather than judgement?

timorr said...

The direct people say, "The only mail you receive that is 'junk' is the mail that doesn't interest you. That same piece of mail may be of immense interest to your next-door neighbor." And even that is subject to change (when I'm looking for a car or a house, to take but two examples).

shedpal said...

As in all industries (mine - journalism - included), advertising insiders tend to over-complicate what they do. The public want to be informed or entertaIned or both.

Max said...

Bob, I'd really love to hear your take on this. I was waiting to the joke at the end of it, but it never came...

TC said...

It is not only terribly hard to write and art direct an ad that touches us an humans. The only people who can do that are people with great talent. They are artists. Nothing less. Talent can not be taught, just sharpened.
Big data won't sharpen talent that's for sure. The importance of the true artist has been buried under a heap of processes and procedures and decks and meetings and everything else we've done to try to look responsible and professional. It's probably one reason why award shows have become the only outlet for artistry. Talent wasted all too often in the world of scam ads and marginal campaigs,

Mark Pilipczuk said...

The best direct marketing advertising sounds like the writer is murmuring in the ear of the recipient. I don't recall who originally said that, but classics in advertising like the Wall Street Journal's 25-year control letter "Two Young Men" definitely sounds like the writer is speaking directly to me.

You can't murmur into the ear of a true consumer: insects, mold and fungi. But you can talk to a human and convince them through emotion and logic that what you have to offer is worthwhile.

lbarr said...

People buy from people/companies/ads they like.
You advertizing people stopped listening to sales people a long time ago but perhaps you should post that golden rule right over your desks, beds and bathroom sinks. It's an art that metrics and big data choose to ignore because it isn't quantifiable, can't be controlled and can't be driven by a marketing department full of social media addled 25 year olds trying to convince their bosses that they are driving business in a "new world of work".
Right now I am working with another rep to clean up a marketing department dictated customer facing document with endless repetition, mindless babble and instructions that aren't even in grammatically correct English. Don't even get me started on the spelling mistakes. But hey, the metrics can be massaged to make it look good.

Sheriff Shooter said...

as always, ADC... you're just too good, i've been following you for the past several years now, and you seem to be on a surge ever since you retired. it's like a new lease of life. don't stop. don't stop.

Joeseph said...

I read all three posts in this series. Bob, I think you need to take your own advice. You used many words and complex concepts and analogies to convey a simple thought:

People are complex and are motivated by many factors which are often times unknown and unmeasurable. In light of all this uncertainty what is the best way to communicate effectively (in advertising or any other mode)? Communicate without artifice, excessive ego or unnecessary complexity. Speak the truth. In spite of all of our differences, we're not all that different from one another so let's have our language reflect that.