Advertising: Ambiguous and Loving it

[January 14, 2011]

Even though everyone’s talking about the recent sea change in advertising,  two delusions about the field persist. That’s because they still satisfy deep-seated desires. One, to see advertising as a quantifiable science, the other, to see it as an art form.

Press a follower of that advertising-as-science creed and you’ll find the definition of “quantifiable results” is remarkably fluid. If their monetary goal can’t be met, there’s a drawerful of ready-made substitutes: awareness, word of mouth, conversation density…and so on into the wee hours of the morning.

Now, given the global economic outlook, it’s easy to understand why brands demand a Day of Reckoning for every campaign. Trouble is, audience response is much easier to analyze than predict.

That leads a large contingent of marketing professionals to insist on a narrow, rules-based, approach derived from “scientifically-tested techniques.” And yet, after years of using the same scientific methodology, you can still hear Direct Marketing experts salivate over conversion rates in the 2–5% range.

Lately, many results-seekers have shifted their quest to the pages of social networking sites. The assumption is, any incursion into the realm of technoconnection will instantly validate their product, service, identity, authenticity, etc., etc.

“Whew,” says the middle manager, fearing replacement by a digital native, “We’re part of The Conversation now.”

This is a result?
Well, it’s better than admitting you don’t know what to say to your audience. That’s the flaw with the ROI delusion: It confuses motivating communication with the execution of programs, technologies and strategies.

Great, you texted every phone in America, added an ugly LIKE button to your Facebook hub, started your CEO on a Twitter rampage, stuffed mailboxes, plastered billboards, ran a TV spot featuring yesterday’s sitcom stars and blew your budget on a giant flat screen POP display.

But did you manage to say something useful, valuable and emotionally satisfying?

Which brings me to the second persistent delusion: That advertising is an art form. To get to the heart of this delusion, you have to understand the difference between art and craft—a thorny topic in its own right. As I see it, art grows out of inner necessity, the pressure a creative imagination feels to make a statement about the human condition for its own sake.

A craft, no matter how “artful,” exists to solve a problem. The works of your favorite artist don’t do anything except, presumably, inspire you. That lovely ceramic sugar bowl you bought at a crafts fair last summer? It holds sugar. And yet, it gives you a smile every time you use it.

Ambiguous, no? That’s where the confusion lies. Because no matter how clever, ingenious, inventive or even moving an ad campaign can be—it only exists to get something done. It’s a craft.

Embracing ambiguity.
As a craft, advertising is ambiguous. You can’t define its impact any more than you can define why that sugar bowl makes you smile, or quantify the compliments it gets from your friends. Yes, like any craft object, the sugar bowl is functional—but it adds value to your life in ways impossible to measure. What metric can predict what other household object will evoke the same emotion, have the same perceived value?

Can’t be done. Functionality, craftsmanship and a modest amount of data analysis have simply come together. Would you recommend the crafts fair you attended? Would you recommend the potter? That might count as ROI. But how did the potter and the crafts fair achieve that effect?

It was, I believe, a melding of science and craft: the former with its eye on function, the latter with an ear for the music of cultural iconography. You can’t have one without the other. A vase by Picasso might still hold flowers, but you wouldn’t acquire it just to stuff it full of gladiolas.

On the other hand, you can’t interest me in the vase currently on sale at KMart. While the latter is a paragon of “smart pricing ” and “targeted product development,” you’d have to pay me to buy it.


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Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY




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