December 15, 2014
Advertising's Arrow Of Progress
One of the interesting aspects of advertising that we have explored from time to time is whether we should think of it more as art or science.
With the growth in the use of mathematics, metrics, and data, it certainly appears like certain aspects of advertising are becoming more "scientific."
However, I am not convinced that advertising as a whole is any more scientific than ever.
From a practical standpoint, there is one factor that clearly differentiates art from science. In science, there is an "arrow of progress." By this I mean, science points in a direction and progresses toward that end.
If you have high blood pressure today, you are more likely to be successfully treated for it than you were 50 years ago.
If you buy a new car, it is more likely to last longer, be safer, work more reliably, and be more efficient than it was 50 years ago.
If you have a personal computer, it can do more things, more effectively, more quickly and more reliably than it did 50...wait a minute. We didn't have personal computers 50 years ago.
The point is, science provides us with technological progress by degrees that builds on itself and improves stuff.
Art, on the other hand, does not have an "arrow of progress." It's not supposed to. Art is about human interpretation -- emotions and aesthetics -- not ongoing improvements. You want to improve on the Mona Lisa? Good luck.
There is no way to talk about whether the work of Roy Lichtenstein represents "progress" from DaVinci. You may prefer one to the other, but to speak about progress is meaningless.
Similarly, is there an arrow of progress from Beethoven to Gershwin? Or Shakespeare to Updike? One may certainly have influenced the other, and styles certainly change, but talking about "improvement" is moot.
That doesn't mean art isn't inventive or innovative. Or that older forms don't influence newer forms. It just means that art moves unsystematically and, unlike science, we don't judge new art based on having "improved upon" old art.
So the question of whether advertising should be considered more science than art rests on answering this question: Is there an arrow of progress? In other words, is advertising more effective than it used to be?
If advertising contains a growing body of useful knowledge that has lead it to become more effective, it should be considered a science. If effectiveness has not improved over time, than it is probably more an art than a science.
Exploring the literature of advertising over the past ten years, one would have to conclude that advertising is less effective, not more. The literature is rife with assertions and research that conclude that advertising effectiveness has diminished over time.
There are certain elements of advertising that seem to utilize scientific principles more regularly -- direct response advertising, media planning -- but there isn't much in the way of conclusive evidence that there is an arrow of progress.
In fact, despite all the hoo-hah over the precision targeting of online advertising, behavioral targeting seems to be only marginally more effective than no targeting at all. And it is not at all clear that this marginal effect is even due to targeting. It may well be that the reason precision targeting appears to be more effective is that the people who are being targeted have been so carefully selected that they are the most natural candidates for buying the product, regardless of advertising.
But even if we stipulate that certain aspects of advertising have become more scientific, I would still contend that the overarching goal of advertising -- the creation of successful brands -- is no nearer to a scientific practice than it was when I entered the advertising business 40 years ago.
Some would contend that the emergence of interactive media, i.e., the web, has led us to a new understanding of brand building that requires electronic co-creating and community building with consumers. The problem with this argument is that a stroll through any supermarket in the country fails to uncover any significant brand of anything that has been built through either online advertising or social media.
From what I can see, despite all the technology we have applied and all the words that have been written, we have uncovered no new generally accepted principles about the nature of brand building or consumer behavior.
Most marketers are still thrashing around in the dark trying to either build a brand or maintain one.
Regardless of the growing veneer of scientific processes, there is no arrow of progress that has helped us understand how to create more successful advertising.