September 09, 2013

Is It Art Or Science?

We're going to get a little philosophical here today my friends, so hold on tight.

The question before us is, is advertising an art or a science? This may seem to have no relevance to you if you're busy on your 8th version of a deck about Big Save's giant Halloween sale. But bear with me, I think it will be interesting.

There are aspects of advertising that are artistic and aspects that are scientific. For example, we spend untold hours lighting scenes for TV commercials simply for the artistic benefit of having them look good. We also do post-analyses of media buys for the scientific benefit of understanding how much money we pissed away.

However, our journey today is not to examine discrete aspects of advertising, but advertising as a whole. Has it, thus far in its existence, been primarily an art or a science?

Before we get bogged down in semantics, I am going to propose a simple definition for what it means to be a science. A science is a body of knowledge that progressively helps us understand how things work.

For example, biology is a science. At one time we knew nothing about how disease was caused. But through the study of biology we have progressively learned that diseases are caused by bacteria, and viruses, and other environmental and genetic agents. We have built on that knowledge to create preventive measures and cures for diseases that are demonstrably effective. This is why, when we have an infection, we take antibiotics, not bacon.

Fine art, on the other hand, may be more emotionally pleasing than biology, but it is hard to demonstrate that it has made progress toward helping us understand how the world works. We may prefer Rothko's #14 to the Mona Lisa, but you'd have a hard time convincing anyone (outside of the Upper West Side) that it represents progress toward a deeper understanding of the world. Similarly, it would be hard to maintain that Spamalot (while brilliant in its own way) helps us understand the world more than Hamlet.

This is why #14 and Spamalot and Mona Lisa and Hamlet are art, not science.

Still with me?

Okay, now let's get to advertising. What do we know about advertising as a whole that we didn't know 50 years ago? It is my contention that we have made very little progress toward a deeper understanding of how it works.
  • We know that companies that advertise tend to be more successful than those that don't
  • We know that a substantial part of what we spend on advertising is wasted
  • We know that people tend to prefer brands whose advertising they like
  • We know that advertising that speaks to a need tends to be more effective than that which doesn't
  • We know that advertising that attracts attention tends to be more successful than that which doesn't
And that's about what we know. If you went back and looked at the literature, I think you'd find that we knew most of that stuff 50 years ago, and that we really haven't made much progress in understanding the deep truths about advertising. In other words, I don't think we have made much, if any, progress toward making advertising more effective.

We certainly have more precise tests, and more precise data, and more precise measurements. We use the language, the methods, and the tools of science. But have we made advertising work better? Not that I can see.

Advertising in some ways feels like philosophy. Do philosophers today have any better ideas about the nature of reality than they did 2,500 years ago? What arguments about the nature of Truth, Beauty, Reality, and Goodness have been settled since Plato, Aristotle and the other classical philosphers argued about them?

To my mind, philosophy also may use the language, the methods, and the tools of science, but it is really an art because we haven't actually settled anything. All we have are more modern descriptions of the same stuff.

Ditto for advertising. We delude ourselves into thinking that by employing the methods, language, and tools of science we are making progress. Sure, there has been scientific progress in some of the aspects of advertising (media buying in particular.) But what arguments about the nature of good advertising have we settled? Sit in an ad agency for 30 minutes and you'll probably hear the same disputes about what is good advertising and what isn't that you would have heard 50 years ago, albeit with a new vocabulary.

I contend that we haven't really made much progress toward understanding the fundamentals of how and why advertising works. Consequently, contemporary advertising -- like Rothko and Spamalot -- is different from the past, but it's not necessarily better.

Like a lot of art, there are those who would argue it's actually worse.


Neil Charles said...

I think you're broadly right. The list of what we know is much longer than five points, but it doesn't change the conclusion.

I'm convinced that this is because advertising doesn't pay attention to cognitive science. The odd piece of research is borrowed, over-hyped and then discarded - usually via a Malcolm Gladwell book - but we don't systematically learn from proper scientific studies.

Reading "You are not so smart" recently ( it was striking how many of the processes it describes are essentially 'branding', but with different labels. Yes, it's a pop psychology book, but it explains though relatively recent discoveries, how a lot of the memory, affinity and branding processes that we speculate about, really work.

This research doesn't happen in advertising because nobody is incentivised to do the work. Agencies work brand-by-brand rather than on broad scientific discovery, while psychologists work to understand human behaviour as a whole. Although they may produce studies that are interesting to advertisers, we aren't the key audience.

Where advertising is downright lazy, is in knowing about the cutting edge of research on human behaviour and psychology. Beyond the odd Gladwell reference anyway.

Cecil B. DeMille said...

If good advertising is an art, it's rapidly becoming a lost one. Mainly because of science.

tim said...

Hey! Don't mess with my man, Rothko.

Casper Pesky said...

More importantly - don't disrespect bacon.

bob hoffman said...

Nice analysis, Neil


timorr said...

I agree wholeheartedly, Neil! Colin Wheildon's book, "Type and Layout" has been around since 1984, but I have yet to meet an art director who has heard of it, much less read it. And certainly none who use it for guidance. With apologies to Santayana, advertising seems to be a trade that doesn't just fail to learn the lessons of history, it refuses to study them at all. And for that reason (not because advertising isn't susceptible to scientific investigation), advertising probably will NEVER be a science.

Nuanced Media said...

Compelling article. I agree that the major factors in advertising hasn't changed since 50 years ago; however, the medium has changed. This is very similar to the philosophy argument but advertising may of changed more significantly because the feedback loop is more established and isn't top down like it was in the 50s.


Anna said...

i think philosophy would disagree that they don't have any better ideas about the nature of reality than they did 2,500 years ago - but they may take 200 years to craft their response

ByronSharp said...

Science is the study of the real world. Advertising is in the real world.

Advertising practice is (should be) informed by this study, in the same way that architecture works within the laws of physics. Still creative, but working within the real world.

You are right there is lots of pseudoscience - dressing in white coats, using algebra and so on. This isn't science.

bob hoffman said...

Thanks Byron. I loved your book and steal from it shamelessly