Advertising effectiveness 1: the dilemma

We all know it’s difficult to measure the effectiveness of advertising (and all the content that ordinary people also call advertising).  There’s a fundamental conundrum in it.

To evaluate marketing, you have to have an influence model.  Mostly this takes the form of something like a sales funnel.  A bit like this: you create awareness, leading to an attitude shift, greater brand consideration and ultimately purchases.  Sounds perfectly sensible.  This has been the prevailing wisdom since the twenties when Starch and Gallup started researching these things.

The problem is that’s not what happens.

Neuroscience tells us that brand decisions are made instinctively in the reptilian brain or by using heuristics.  We simply don’t go through that deliberative process the sales funnel describes, to learn the messages being communicated.  When did you last spend some quality time considering the competing claims of two brands in a category you don’t care about?

Behavioural economics demonstrates that we make our choices on all kinds of irrational grounds.  Future outcomes are discounted.  Loss aversion takes priority over likely gain.  Choices are dependent on how they’re framed.  It’s all very different to the straight line thinking that traditional economics and the sales funnel assumes.

So traditional methods are dodgy at best.  But they have what Charles Channon, many years ago, termed ‘organisational validity’.  Which means they hold sway with your boss even though they’re pants.

Neuroscience has thrown up some interesting research methods which short=circuit this imaginary reasoning process, so there’s some hope for improvement, but it tends to be used as an interesting add-on to existing approaches.  In the future, someone may make this work.

Until then there’s a choice between no explanation at all or one we know is wrong.  That’s the dilemma.

Barbie, bollocks and the life of Brian

Bollocks, Barbie and the Life of Brian

In his book ‘Bad Science’ Ben Goldacre does a good job of drawing attention to what I’m going to call ‘science bollocks’.

He tells us that cosmetics companies making pseudoscientific claims are not entirely harmless.  For one thing, they sell the idea that science is incomprehensible, and they sell this idea mainly to attractive young women who are disappointingly underrepresented in the sciences.  This seems a bit self-serving, but I do like the example he gives:

Mattel’s Teen Talk Barbie had a sweet voice circuit so she could say things like “math class is tough”, “I love shopping” and “will we ever have enough clothes?”  In December 1992 the Barbie Liberation organisation (I’m so happy this body even exists, it has made my day) switched the voice circuits in hundreds Teen Talk Barbies and GI Joe dolls in American shops.  On Christmas Day, Barbie said “Dead men tell no lies” in a nice assertive voice, and the boys got soldiers under the tree telling them “math class is tough” and “wanna go shopping?”

The work of the BLO is not yet done.

For some reason I am left with a mental picture of Eric Idle saying “From now on, I want you all to call me Loretta”

Great Brand


Personally I never touch the stuff.  But Red Bull is rapidly becoming the new model for best practice in brand building.

Red Bull Stratos was the biggest, most high profile example.  Felix Baumgartner’s jump was watched by millions of people and the earned media was extraordinary – equivalent to £100 million, according to the folks who tell us these things.  8 million watched live on YouTube.   Felix represented half of all trending topics worldwide on Twitter.  The Facebook photo had 216,000 likes, 10,000 comments and 29,000 shares within 40 minutes.  It elevated the brand (arf) to the nth degree

Red Bull has become a master curator of content. … gives you wings is just the tip of the iceberg.  The Red Bull Content Pool is a gateway to the Red Bull world.

More fundamentally, the brand has a point of view, it stands for endurance, endeavour, energy and going for it.  It has what we used to call a proposition and a brand personality.  What’s more that essence has been consistent from the early days, when budgets were small and they would cherry pick a few local extreme sports events  and buy the naming rights.

In these days of disparate, multi-channel platforms, there’s an important lesson in that.  Own something clear and simple and stick with it.

This is great advertising

When this appeared the US auto industry was in crisis and Chrysler was the sickest of all. It was forced to revamp its product line and its business.
This commercial was a defiant statement of bold intent – it broke the mould of clever, witty car ads, taking a full break in the Super Bowl with a celebration of the motor city itself. Creatively it turns perception on its head. Weakness is turned into strength. The gritty reality of Detroit is at the core of the brand and the US motor industry. It has rediscovered its essence. It has integrity. It is real.
The theme of light patriotism is a thread we see elsewhere too.
I could nit-pick. That choir is a bit iffy and the whole thing is a bit too polished, but this is fundamentally what advertising is all about. a big brand idea rooted in a brand truth.
More please.

Bad research

Conducting market research is a dying art, it seems.  I’ve seen a lot of really bad research recently and it worries me.  I’m a bit sad like that.

Here are just a couple of examples of questions from surveys commissioned by significant clients who probably should know better from significant research companies who definitely should know better.  I have loads more.  I’ve been collecting them.  There, I told you I was sad.

What’s wrong with this one?bad question 1

Just try answering it.  You can’t possibly know this information without having kept a diary on the subject for the 30 days in question (which would be a better way to get the information, no?)

What about this one?

bad question 2

This one’s a bit more insidious, because you might be tempted to have a stab.  But it’s obvious we don’t know how far we are influenced by these things.  Imagining we do is a bit worrying.  Any worthwhile basic training in research would tell you that very early on.

In real life, respondents will do their best to answer, but the data will be nonsense.  It will be used as though it were the truth.  Oh dear.

The problem is that marketers in some companies have seemingly lost the instinct for research. Like understanding that it’s more about designing experiments than it is about asking questions.  It seems the modern way is to write down what question we need to answer – like what influences our target audience – and simply ask them.

Come on chaps.  We can do better than this.

Brazil 2014: exactly one year to go


Are you looking forward to the World Cup?  Not yet?  Not even with the qualifiers going on?

In Britain, we seem to be getting a bit more realistic in our expectations for the national team.  When ex-Arsenal Brazilian Gilberto Silva said yesterday that England are candidates to win the tournament, the response was … how shall I put it? Sceptical.  Ditto the other home nations.

And the enthusiasm following the path to the finals has been muted all round.

But it’s in Brazil where the alarm bells are ringing loudly.  And in FIFA too, despite the confident public face.

At an organisational level, there’s concern.  At the outset there was controversy over spending millions on stadiums while the desperate poverty evident around them appeared to be ignored or brushed under the carpet.

And once construction began, it soon fell behind schedule.  Typically, England’s recent friendly at the Maracana stadium was dogged with reports that the area was still a building site.  And that’s an existing stadium being improved.  The new ones are much further behind.

More generally, the Brazilian football authorities have been criticised for being one of the last bastions of corruption and nepotism.

Brazilian football is awash with money after benefiting from a new TV deal, but, attendances are down, in part due to spiralling inter-fan violence.

And the current Brazilian team is commonly regarded as one of the worst in their history.  As Brazil legend Zico said recently “The group of players we have now look unlikely to win the world Cup, even with home support” Ouch.  This, when people are desperate for success to avenge the last time Brazil hosted World Cup in 1950 – they lost to Uruguay in the final.

London 2012 showed us how a successful event and a successful home team go hand in hand.  Or not as the case may be.

Oblique Strategies


My heroes David Bowie and Brian Eno were hugely experimental.  They tried all sorts of offbeat stuff to inspire them to be creative.  One of their favourites was to consult ‘oblique strategies’ cards, which provoked them with weird or contradictory messages and stimuli.  Bowie observed that panic and time deadlines caused people to revert to straight line solutions which were “ordinary but unexceptional”.  Obliqueness was the antidote to this mediocrity.  It is said they were influenced in this by Marshall McLuhan but it’s equally likely they had jumped forward in time and listened to Paul Feldwick.

This oblique approach is a lesson that advertisers have sadly forgotten.  We used to talk of ‘stimulus and response’.  Don’t tell people what you want them to think (an assertion).  Give them a stimulus – an idea, some entertaining content – which allows them to reach the conclusion you envisaged for themselves.

“Don’t tell them you’re funny, tell them a joke”.  Don’t say “this man is dishonest”.  Say “Would you buy a used car from this man?” (Kennedy’s poster impugning Nixon in the 1960 US Presidential election campaign).

Yep, obliqueness, hatstand, kerching

System One and the swill bucket


“The public are swine.  Advertising is the rattling of a stick inside a swill bucket.”

So George Orwell wrote in ‘Keep the Aspidistra Flying’.  So that’s a bad thing right?

The book is largely about Orwell’s hatred of the way capitalism defines us and ultimately enslaves us in a kind of inhuman worship of ‘the money god’.

And yet, his description is oddly prescient of the current thinking around System 1 (intuitive) and System 2 (reasoning) processing. The pigs’ response to the rattling of the stick is Pavlovian – surely the clearest possible example of a System 1 response.  And the current vogue has it that brands exist in a similar mode.  Our response to brands is intuitive, rather than involving conscious reasoning.  So Orwell was right.  If maybe a bit harsh.

In fact I would argue it’s slightly different.  Most of the  responses we point to in System 1 processing are to do with primeval survival instincts.  Proper life and death stuff, or at least distant echoes of them as they apply in the modern world.  Brands on the other hand, are largely about avoiding having to think.  In part because the subject matter is too trivial (there, I’ve said it).  If we had to go through conscious processing of all the daily trivia in modern living, it would be all-consuming.  So we need short-cuts (or heuristics, as we now know them).  That’s what brands mostly are.  We mostly choose a brand we trust, to avoid having to waste valuable mind energy thinking about trivia.  So in a way, we’ve made System 1 work for us.

Not quite what Orwell meant, but, like capitalism generally, he intuitively got it.


I’m thinking back to a piece on BBC radio a little while ago.  They were profiling ‘Great Elizabethans’ i.e. prominent folks from the last fifty years.  On this occasion, it was comedian and actor Tony Hancock, who killed himself aged 44 after rising to become one of the first celebrities from the world of comedy.

Hancock epitomised many of the characteristics that define Britishness to this day.  The profile was packed with words like ‘bafflement’ ‘angst’ and fatalism’ which are a good description of the human condition as experienced by your average Brit.  And lugubrious.

Sad that he was, in real life, just as despairing and helpless as the characters he played on TV and radio.  Interviewed at the peak of his fame, he was asked if he was happy.  He replied “I don’t expect to be happy”.  We know what he means, but we don’t all reach his high standards.

The business case for sustainability

Making the case for sustainability to financial managers is tough.  It’s one of the significant obstacles to making our businesses more sustainable.  So Forum for the Future ran a seminar to describe some of their learning on the subject.  they have worked with many businesses on exactly this and researched many more.

The summary can be described like this:


A set of neat issues and guidelines emerged from the seminar to expand these:

1.  See the whole picture (it’s a case of knowing where the impacts are and working back to address them)

2. Data collection (auditing and monitoring early and continuously)

3. Knowing your audience (High up in the company?  On the ground?  In the middle?) and using the right cues for them (for example some have outlawed the word ‘ sustainability’)

4. Leverage assets from different parts of the business

5. Collaborate with peers or compete with them?  It depends

6. use existing tools where possible

7.  Make the issue immediate (what we really need is a crisis to focus the mind)

Too much good stuff to capture here, so go to Forum for the Future for more.