Last week I wrote a post that posed the question, "Is Creative Advertising Really More Effective?"
As someone who has been a lifelong advocate for the power of creativity in advertising, I admitted that while I believe the answer is a resounding "yes," I don't know of any rigorous studies that could prove it to a scrupulously scientific skeptic.
The post elicited a healthy conversation on Twitter and LinkedIn. Here is a recap of some of the comments, and my reaction to them.
- Several people pointed me to studies that they believe prove the case. The ironic thing is that these are studies I myself have used to argue in favor of the proposition. But in trying to be intellectually honest with myself, while I personally believe the findings of the studies, I see imperfections in the methodologies that, in my opinion, would disqualify these studies as rigorous science to a meticulous researcher.
Principal among the imperfections is the assessment of creativity. In order to get a scientifically valid understanding of the effect of creativity on effectiveness we need to start with a pure assessment of creativity. Awards or other forms of industry recognition do not meet my standard of scientific validity. Here's why. Let's assume, as the awards shows do, for the sake of argument that it is possible for experts to competently assign assessments of creativity. In many, if not most cases, the people involved in evaluating creativity may have been exposed to the advertising and, directly or indirectly, to commentary about the advertising for a year or more. They also may have knowledge of the agencies or individuals who are responsible for the advertising and the creative reputations of these agencies or individuals. If this is the case, their evaluation of creativity may have been contaminated by cultural expectations or knowledge of, or inferences about, the effectiveness of the advertising.
If we are to be rigorous in our assessment of creativity our methodology needs to adhere to the accepted standards for all other types of rigorous research. In which case the experts assigned to assessing creativity should be required to do so blind. They should do so without knowing the following:
- Who created the advertising
- Any commentary on the advertising
- Any knowledge of the success or failure of the brand in question
This is the only way we can get a pure assessment of creativity without the unconscious contamination of outside influences or a priori inferences of success by the judges.
Once we have a rigorous, uncontaminated assessment of creativity, we can compare that to business results and get an unambiguous answer to our question (at least in my opinion.)
- Several people commented that the only criterion for creativity in advertising is sales success. I reject this out of hand. Without getting into a deep philosophical discussion, let me give three simple reasons why this is not acceptable to me.
First, I would point to the argument made by Byron Sharp in "How Brands Grow" that one of advertising's primary functions is not necessarily to grow sales, but to maintain sales and market share. Or as he says, keep the airplane at 35,000 feet. In a highly competitive world, it can take an effective advertising effort just to keep many high-flying brands aloft. This is rarely taken into account in most analyses of ad effectiveness.
Second, I would argue that the long-term effect of advertising on brand success is very hard to tease out of sales results that are calculated on shorter time scales.
Sales effectiveness over the course of the time periods taken into account by awards shows is not necessarily indicative of the big picture effectiveness of the advertising in question. I will once again defer to Prof. Sharp as well as Mark Ritson and Binet and Field who all make a compelling case for assessing the effectiveness of advertising over years (by the way, if you want to hear a so-called marketing expert who seems to be completely ignorant of these effects, listen to this idiot explain why TV advertising doesn't work.)
Third, one of the things that makes advertising a fascinating subject (and a frustrating one to practitioners) is the role of probability. While I firmly believe that creativity in advertising is a massive advantage over banality, I also recognize that advertising I deem highly creative has an inconvenient record of failure. In advertising there are no alwayses or nevers, only likelihoods and probabilities. I think I can safely predict that when the day comes that I am satisfied I have seen a scientifically valid description of the relationship between creativity and effectiveness, creativity will be found to be not a guarantee of advertising success, just a more likely outcome.
Furthermore, and perhaps most important of all, if you assert that the only criterion for creativity is effectiveness, then you are trapped in a tautology: Creative advertising is more effective because effective advertising is, by definition, more creative.
- Inevitably, there were the dreary semantic arguments. What do we mean by "creative?" What do we mean by "effective." I don't want to go down that rabbit hole because there is no way out. Let me just assert (without an ounce of proof) that competent ad people know what we mean by "creative" and competent business people know what we mean by "effective." Let's leave it at that.
Just as in any form of art or craft, creativity is often experienced subjectively. But that doesn't mean it has no objective reality. To define creativity strictly as a function of sales success is to reject creativity as an objective reality. To do so in advertising is no different from repudiating it in all forms of art, music, and literature. Advertising may not have the same goals or gravitas as art, music, or literature, but it can still be measured by the same standards of excellence. It also can be subject to the same pitfalls. Creativity without purpose can soon become indistinguishable from self-indulgence.
Let me repeat what I said last week. I am not a scholar on the subject of advertising research and I am not aware of all the literature on it. Maybe there exists a study I am not aware of that proves the case and would meet my personal standard of scientific rigor. In fact, I hope that somewhere there is.
Until then I will be stuck in my personal predicament. Do I believe creative advertising is really more effective than mundane advertising? Without question. Can I prove it to you? Not exactly.