IS ADVERTISING A SCIENCE OR AN ART?
by Dennis Bruce

 

The debate has raged back and forth for decades. The champions of each view stand on opposite sides of a divide. Any acknowledgment that the other side might have a point is seen as weakness, worse, as heresy.

On the side of science stand John Caples and a horde of researchers and advertising technicians. On the side of art stand Bill Bernbach and a host of copywriters and art directors.

Before he became a famous copywriter, John Caples was an engineer. His training predisposed him to an analytical approach to advertising. He believed that advertising could be broken down into its constitutive parts and evaluated. Caples wrote the book, "Tested Advertising Methods." It's a classic "how to" book, detailing his methods for creating more effective advertising. He claimed to have seen one ad sell 19 1/2 times more goods than another of the same size, run in the same publication. He also wrote some classic ads that got him inducted into the Copywriters Hall of Fame including, "They Laughed When I Sat Down at the Piano - But When I Started to Play."

Bill Bernbach started his agency in 1949 and is credited, by many, with changing the history of advertising. His campaigns have become advertising standards. At least one of his ads is in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York - the Volkswagen ad, "Think Small." It's the ad that started the Volkswagen beetle campaign which, many believe, has never been equalled in the annals of advertising. Bernbach also occupies a place in the Copywriters Hall of Fame.

John Caples - the advertising scientist. Bill Bernbach - the advertising artist. Who is right?

Bernbach was critical of advertising as science. "Advertising is full of people, " he said, "who believe it is a science. But advertising is persuasion and persuasion is an art."

The world has changed dramatically in the past two decades. Today we live in almost total media immersion. The line between the fantasy of the media and the reality of life has all but disappeared. In fact, it's true to say, McLuhanistically, that the media have become the reality; they don't simply reflect the modern world, they shape it.

So, is advertising a science or an art? I think it has to be both. What kind of waffling, middle of the road position it that? Please bear with me.

I've said before, in this column, that I believe advertising is in crisis. Most consumers say they hate it, that it insults their intelligence. And the average CEO in Canada doubts that it contributes anything to the bottom line. Over the past 20 years, ad budgets have been slashed in favour of promotions. Today, the effectiveness of advertising as a brand building tool is being questioned as never before.

The only way out of this quagmire would be to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that advertising works, that it's worth investing in. But as soon as you set about proving something, you enter the domain of science. That entails setting up an experiment, taking note of all the variables, carefully monitoring the results, then repeating the experiment several times to be sure your results hold up - science.

The trouble is, when we create advertising, proof is not much help. What is needed is insight, intuition, hunch, a feeling for things, a rooting around at the margins, a flash, a surge of passion, an idea - art.

Is it possible to bring science and art together, or are they mutually exclusive, two different and incompatible world views each committed to the destruction of the other? This is, perhaps, the greatest challenge in marketing and advertising today. We need both disciplines; art to create and science to validate. But will the scientist learn to respect the artist and allow the necessary freedom for self-expression? And will the artist sit still long enough to listen to what the scientist has to say?

Enter the account planner. Or should I say the creative planner. Bridging the gap between both disciplines is part of the job description. A good planner must, on the one hand, be able to deal with the researchers and scientists, and, on the other hand, be sensitive to the needs of creative people. The planner must be able to interpret the one to the other. More than that, the planner must be able to bring the two together and demolish the walls of mistrust and hostility that have, for so long, existed in our industry.

In the final analysis, advertising is about stimulus and response. When we create an ad, we create a stimulus to which we expect a response from the consumer. The extent to which we correctly predict that response, is the extent to which we are successful as communicators. It is here that science and art must bury the hatchet and join hands. Failure to do so, could well spell the demise of advertising.




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