July 11, 2011

Order And Chaos In Advertising

We exist in a world of delusions.

Our delusions live inside us and color everything we do. They infect our opinions of who we are. They distort our place in the world, twist our behaviors, and warp our sense of reality.

Like the proverbial fish in the ocean, we are so immersed in delusions we can't even sense they are there.

An article in last week's New York Times reminds us that we are very good at filtering out information that does not fit neatly into our vision of the world. “We can’t cope otherwise,” says James Glieck, author of books about chaos theory (and the famous "butterfly effect") and biographies of Newton and Feynman.

The business of advertising is particularly rife with delusions. We think we know how advertising works. We think we know what will motivate people and what will not. And yet, every day we unconsciously filter out compelling evidence that what we think we know is terribly flawed.

After months of "research" and "testing" we create TV spots that have no effect. After hundreds of thousand of dollars in development we launch websites and online campaigns that no one ever sees. And yet we continue.

We go into new business presentations and make bold, cocksure statements about our own particular brand of delusional advertising philosophy. And we never have the guts or self-assurance to tell the truth -- that all our posturing is just an estimate of likelihoods and a speculation on probabilities.

Part of it is our fault. We are not willfully deceitful. We just find it very hard to admit that we are devoting so much of our energy and our soul to something about which we really understand so little.

Part of it is the environment. Our clients want results. They don't want to hear that they are spending millions of dollars on likelihoods and probabilities.

Advertising is chock full of contingencies and unintended effects. There are a multitude of critical steps in the development of strategy, creative concepts, media plans, and spending alternatives. None of which assures success. Every one of which can foreshadow failure.

Something as routine as the casting of a photo shoot or TV spot can have an enormous effect on the success or failure of a campaign. And that is just one of a thousand equally weighty variables. We cannot possibly assess all the variables in a methodical way. So we fall back on our prejudices and our mathematical models of how advertising works. In other words, we call forth our delusions.

The workings of the real world are impossibly complex and messy. And in advertising, as in every other human endeavor, we "prefer to turn a blind eye to reality’s messiness."

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