We're going to get a little philosophical here today my friends, so hold on tight.
The question before us is, is advertising an art or a science? This may seem to have no relevance to you if you're busy on your 8th version of a deck about Big Save's giant Halloween sale. But bear with me, I think it will be interesting.
There are aspects of advertising that are artistic and aspects that are scientific. For example, we spend untold hours lighting scenes for TV commercials simply for the artistic benefit of having them look good. We also do post-analyses of media buys for the scientific benefit of understanding how much money we pissed away.
However, our journey today is not to examine discrete aspects of advertising, but advertising as a whole. Has it, thus far in its existence, been primarily an art or a science?
Before we get bogged down in semantics, I am going to propose a simple definition for what it means to be a science. A science is a body of knowledge that progressively helps us understand how things work.
For example, biology is a science. At one time we knew nothing about how disease was caused. But through the study of biology we have progressively learned that diseases are caused by bacteria, and viruses, and other environmental and genetic agents. We have built on that knowledge to create preventive measures and cures for diseases that are demonstrably effective. This is why, when we have an infection, we take antibiotics, not bacon.
Fine art, on the other hand, may be more emotionally pleasing than biology, but it is hard to demonstrate that it has made progress toward helping us understand how the world works. We may prefer Rothko's #14 to the Mona Lisa, but you'd have a hard time convincing anyone (outside of the Upper West Side) that it represents progress toward a deeper understanding of the world. Similarly, it would be hard to maintain that Spamalot (while brilliant in its own way) helps us understand the world more than Hamlet.
This is why #14 and Spamalot and Mona Lisa and Hamlet are art, not science.
Still with me?
Okay, now let's get to advertising. What do we know about advertising as a whole that we didn't know 50 years ago? It is my contention that we have made very little progress toward a deeper understanding of how it works.
- We know that companies that advertise tend to be more successful than those that don't
- We know that a substantial part of what we spend on advertising is wasted
- We know that people tend to prefer brands whose advertising they like
- We know that advertising that speaks to a need tends to be more effective than that which doesn't
- We know that advertising that attracts attention tends to be more successful than that which doesn't
We certainly have more precise tests, and more precise data, and more precise measurements. We use the language, the methods, and the tools of science. But have we made advertising work better? Not that I can see.
Advertising in some ways feels like philosophy. Do philosophers today have any better ideas about the nature of reality than they did 2,500 years ago? What arguments about the nature of Truth, Beauty, Reality, and Goodness have been settled since Plato, Aristotle and the other classical philosphers argued about them?
To my mind, philosophy also may use the language, the methods, and the tools of science, but it is really an art because we haven't actually settled anything. All we have are more modern descriptions of the same stuff.
Ditto for advertising. We delude ourselves into thinking that by employing the methods, language, and tools of science we are making progress. Sure, there has been scientific progress in some of the aspects of advertising (media buying in particular.) But what arguments about the nature of good advertising have we settled? Sit in an ad agency for 30 minutes and you'll probably hear the same disputes about what is good advertising and what isn't that you would have heard 50 years ago, albeit with a new vocabulary.
I contend that we haven't really made much progress toward understanding the fundamentals of how and why advertising works. Consequently, contemporary advertising -- like Rothko and Spamalot -- is different from the past, but it's not necessarily better.
Like a lot of art, there are those who would argue it's actually worse.