Why we can’t give up on the ‘science’ of advertising

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Advertising has, historically, employed few scientists, but in spite of this it has also been an industry that has often used theories and ideas that have the appearance of science as part of its armoury of tools to impress clients and sell more ads.Today, every planner worth their salary is expected to have a point of view on Byron Sharp’s How Brands Grow; in my day it was Rosser Reeves’ Reality in Advertising. However, unlike science, which builds on and refines theories over time, advertising has a tendency to consign old theories to the dustbin. Who talks about Reeves these days?

Advertising has a troubled relationship with its own past, and in particular its past conceptions of itself. One of the better accounts of this is Paul Feldwick’s, in The Anatomy of Humbug. “Advertising people,” he says, “have created implicit narratives that give them permission not to think about the past.”

Building on theoretical knowledge

Anyone who has done any serious academic research into the history of advertising will notice that a body of work written in one era rarely makes reference to work done in prior eras. As a result, the idea of progress in our understanding of advertising and how it operates is problematic.

The question of progress isn’t addressed head-on in Feldwick’s book, but he seems sceptical about its prospects. Thinking about the idea of a science of advertising, he says: “The major contribution of science to our understanding of advertising since the late 20th century has been…to demonstrate that any dreams we might have had of reducing advertising to a set of rules or psychological principles that could be successfully applied by trained technicians, were illusory.”
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