The great contrarian San Francisco adman, Howard Gossage, wrote that ‘The buying of time or space is not the taking out of a hunting license on someone’s private preserve, but the renting of a stage on which we may perform.’ The latest report from Thinkbox shows that, despite rumours to the contrary, the stage called TV advertising is still very much available to advertisers, and not likely to disappear any time soon. Which leaves only the question: having rented the stage, what kind of a show are we going to put on?
I use the language of shows and performances because the way we professionally talk about advertising has always been dominated by ideas of selling – the sales pitch, the selling proposition, consumer benefits and reasons why. From this perspective, entertainment is suspect, even a dirty word. ‘Don’t sing your sales message’, wrote David Ogilvy, ‘Selling is a serious business.’ More recently, Sergio Zyman asserted that ‘Advertising that only entertains does not work.’ Under the stern gaze of such authorities, there’s always been a strong pressure to fill those precious thirty seconds with factual claims and information.
Yet there’s another side to how advertising works, and it may after all prove to be the more important. It’s a tradition that dates back, not just to generations of TV commercials that have successfully used song and dance, humour, sentimental drama, cartoons and talking animals to build brands, but to the travelling medicine shows, the exhibitions and spectacles of P.T. Barnum, and even the medieval pedlar. This long history demonstrates that people aren’t only influenced by facts and arguments – in many ways, they are more susceptible to performances that make them smile, attract not just their attention but their participation, and create a relationship in which the closing of a sale becomes easier and more pleasurable.
We now have evidence and theories to explain why the apparently trivial tropes of showbusiness can in fact be powerful means to building profitable brands. The Ehrenberg-Bass institute have shown the central importance of mental availability to brand growth; they’ve also demonstrated the crucial role distinctive brand assets play in this process. We don’t make many brand choices by weighing up facts and figures with our System 2 minds, but more usually plump for what comes to mind first, what feels familiar and comfortable, what we associate with some kind of pleasure rather than aversion. And all the networks of mental associations that lead to these choices are created by experiences that engage our feelings, lodge in our memories, and become part of our social exchanges – the kind of experiences that advertising can offer when it concentrates on putting on a show rather than a sales pitch.
I concluded my 2015 book The Anatomy of Humbug by suggesting that advertising was much more like showbusiness than we usually allow it to be. In my new book, Why Does the Pedlar Sing? I explore this train of thought in much greater depth. I argue that advertising should be proud of its antecedents among the mountebanks and showmen of the past, that it should never be ashamed of being entertaining, and that above all, it must aim to be popular.
And I fear that today the word ‘creativity’ has been hijacked to mean whatever pleases the advertising village itself, which is often not popular at all. If today’s advertising is less effective than it ought to be, it’s not because the media options are less attractive, not because ‘the consumer is more sceptical’, not because ‘TV no longer works’ – it will be because ad agencies are no longer as good as they used to be at producing work that is genuinely popular, entertaining, distinctive and famous. Yet that’s a problem that can surely be solved. And I modestly hope that Why Does the Pedlar Sing? may help point in the direction of a solution.
Why Does the Pedlar Sing? What Creativity Really Means in Advertising. By Paul Feldwick
Published by Matador as paperback, ebook, and audiobook.
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