Is Modern Advertising More Stupider Than It Thinks?

Fifty years ago advertising was incredibly simple.

A client would go to see some advertising people.
More often than not, he would be wanting to sell more of his product.
The advertising people would think about who buys the product, who might buy it, and if the people who already buy might be tempted to buy it more often.

They'd work out where they could best reach these potential buyers.
And then they'd look for things that might persuade the potential buyer to buy the product.

They'd find out as much as they could about the product, and the potential customer, and they'd keep thinking until they thought they might have some persuasive thoughts, or facts, or ideas.
Then they'd work out a way of putting that message across in way that would catch the attention of their potential customer, and communicate it to them in a way that suited the product.

If the advertising was successful, the potential customer might actually buy the product.
And if they were happy with the product, they might buy it again some time.
Heck, they might even tell a friend or relative about it.
Over time, if the product met their expectations, they might come to think of it, and the maker of it, as pretty good.
That's how most of the great products and brands we know today were built.

It all seems so simplistic, doesn't it?

How the modern advertising professional laughs at the very notion of such a basic and naive approach.

These days advertising is so much more sophisticated.
So much more clever.
Now we have brand marketing.

We have brand diagrams, some shaped like onions, others like pyramids.
These things are very sophisticated, because they've been considered long and hard by branding consultants and strategists.
They've been through three rounds of development, including one on an away day in Oxfordshire, with a pub lunch and free teas and coffees.

Then we have planning.
An entire whole new clever department was set up. Originally it had the simple and useful task of finding out more about the customer. But now planning is much, much more clever. It watches trends, it theorises about society, it taps into the zeitgeist.

And even better than that, it can create presentations that last for whole days on these subjects.
And it can write books, too. When you've spent that long thinking about things quite often you'll have enough things to fill a book. Or go on a speaking tour. Other planners will buy the book and go to see the tour.
This cycle continues until absolutely every planner knows absolutely everything there is to know.
Modern planning takes advertising to a whole new level of sophistication and cleverness.

So now the modern advertising person imagines what kind of relationship the customer might have with the product. What emotion they might associate with it.
Oh yes, also now the potential customer has a much more clever name, the target demographic.
How fucking clever is that?

And we don't really think of the product as a product anymore, that's simplistic thinking. The brand is what's important. What the brand has to say, what kind of conversation it might have with the target demographic. What emotions it would convey.
This is more sophisticated stuff.

When all of that has been decided upon, which of course can sometimes take a year, because of how incredibly clever and sophisticated it is, then it is time to unleash the modern advertising creative.

This sophisticated creature has a computer.
They know what a facebook is.
They have an amazing website called YouTube saved into their bookmarks.
They tweet, and they interact, which is a bit like talking, but without the boring old talking bit.

They watch a lot of new and clever techniques on their computers. Very clever things, animations and film techniques, photographic trickery.

They really do have their fingers on the pulse of what is new and sophisticated, and of course, clever.

So what happens next is that the sophisticated message that the planning people have worked out based on the sociological findings, trend-watching, and the brand onion, is made into a piece of communication by the advertising creatives using one of the clever techniques they have decided is appropriate.

The correct use of the latest technique can sometimes win the modern advertising creative a modern advertising award (these are very sought after).

Then, with almost absolute certainty, as a result of using the correct application of brand engineering, planning, social insight, the relevant emotional pulls and cues, and sophisticated creative communication techniques, the target demographic, enthralled by the conversation it is having with the brand, nips into tesco and buys the product.

Modern advertising is a highly evolved, highly sophisticated communication business.

Or is it?
Modern marketing and advertising professionals believe that the business has evolved into a much more sophisticated, more thought through, more professional and smarter business than it was say in the 1960s.

But how is it then that 99% of all advertising put in front of us is pretty much absolute shit?

Why do messages fall flat?
Why do they fail to connect with the man-on-the-street?
Why do people find advertising more annoying and less helpful than ever before?
Why does the advertising turn out to be so complicated that it is generally indecipherable, even if someone wanted to decipherable it.
Why, if advertising is so damn clever, is no one any the wiser as to whether a piece of advertising is actually going to work or not?
Why is a company that I know for a fact makes excellent, well engineered, well designed automobiles droning on at me about joy?
Why is a confectionary company trying to promise the very same thing, when all I really want from them is some delicious chocolate made from not-too-bad ingredients?

Why, if advertising is now so damn clever, is the stuff produced by modern ad agencies so consistently, terribly bad?

Could it be that advertising, in trying to become cleverer and cleverer, has actually completely forgotten what it is doing? That it has disappeared so far up its own sophisticated posterior that it can't even tell, as it gets even more and more complicated? That all of the systems, theories and approaches developed to make it more sophisticated, are actually the very things that are making it much less smart?

Will the modern, sophisticated version of advertising ever be a match for the simple discipline of smart, talented people in a room coming up with smart ideas to sell products?

The modern advertising business is locked in an irreversible cycle of nonsense.
It's actually incredibly stupid compared to the business fifty years ago.
But it will never realise it.


  1. Something to think about... interesting and controversial thought. Thanks

  2. You know what has changed - creatives no longer have mini-bars in their offices and drink all day to inspire great advertising like they do on Mad Men :)

  3. Bit depressing but sounds about right. 'Cherchez le Planneur', as the French say.

  4. I have to confess to mainly skipping through the ads on Sky plus, but when I do catch them I've noticed that afterwards I can remember bits of the ads, but very rarely the products.

    For example - I drink Evian on a daily basis and I saw the roller booting babies ad loads of times, but it was only when I saw said roller-booting baby on my bottle that I realised the ad had been for Evian - the product had totally passed me by.

    The ads themselves are becoming so complex that very few have product impact.

  5. There is nothing controversial whatsoever in this post. Everything you say is absolutely true. I think what happened is Marketing Directors got in there, too. These MBA boys who all spout the same jargon-babble to sound important and who don't have a clue about being creative or advertising in general. Plus, I think the guys in the fifties and sixties who made great advertising had an inherent ability and intuition that was basically good common sense. I, for one, am hereby dedicated to speak in simple, clear terms, and create advertising that is simple, to the point, that gives people a reason to buy a PRODUCT, not love the brand. Like Hoffman says, change the behavior, not the attitude. And my new agency is attempting to erase 2 decades of stupidity that has become the art of advertising. Join me!

  6. Erm, can someone please point me to a good 50s or 60s ad because I can't find one

  7. Anon 17.40
    To be honest I can't put my finger on any great ads from the 50's. However there's an agency called Doyle Dane Bernbach who revolutionised advertising in the 60's who might be worth checking out. They did a couple if half decent ads. As did that Ogilvy bloke.
    Imagine if they had Twitter or some other social media dogshit to amplify the power of the campaigns. You might have remembered them then eh?

  8. Someone help out poor old anon 17:40, the poor dear is in the dark.

  9. Neat post. Sooooooo depressingly true. Where next for our once wonderful business? Back to basics or will we continue to drown in a cesspool of nonsense? Hopefully the latter. My career's riding on it.

  10. O.K., maybe not as early as the fifties--you got me on that one. But the sixties notched it up. For all the youngsters:
    VW ads that I think were from Doyle Bernbach that sold millions of Bugs. Alka Seltzer: remember pop pop fizz fizz? The Jolly Green Giant; Palmolive: You're soaking in it! The Marlboro Man; I'd rather fight than switch; Maidenform bra ads (I dreamed). Benson & Hedges. PF Flyers... O.K. Some were not what you would call cutting-edge creative by today's standards (which frequently means cool, funny or quirky but I can't remember the product), but they moved product by the boatload. And made the companies selling the product millions. Hey, even Burma Shave is better than what we have today. And all created by guys who simply placed themselves in the consumer's shoes and figured out was important to them as individuals. Remember, the consumer isn't an idiot; she's your wife.

  11. I'll throw you this to be getting on with, anon 17.40:

  12. Fuckers. I have been writing a series of posts for next week called "The Age of the Complicator" and you've gone and anticipated everyfuckingthing I was going to say. I'll get you for this.

  13. Ha, well that's very flattering coming from you Bob. Look forward to reading yours.

  14. Herr Marketing Manager is well and truly in there.

    I remember Tim Bell once saying that Mrs. Thatcher was a fantstic client because she trusted people to do their jobs. Tell me what to do and I'll do it. You know best, kinda thing. Nowdays, the Marketing Manager, his wife, his daughter, dogs, the CEO (whose son will be wanting a work placement) and his best friends all want to tell you what they want - everyone steps on eachother's toes. It's like a lairy stag party turning up at The Ivy and demanding a curry. And some fishfingers on the side. But Terry just wants toast. Have you got any beans?

    You. Can't. Please. All. The. People. All. The. Time.

  15. This is Anon 17.40
    Thanks for the suggestions.
    The point I was trying to make (in an admittedly elliptical way) is that advertising in the 50s and 60s was not necessarily better. All the examples mentioned are good, but there were also a lot of shit, hard-sell ads. The ones that we remember are the more sophisticated ones. But wait! The same can be said for today!
    So, rather than romanticising the past, just get on with your work. And remember, simple is the most complicated thing.

  16. Hello again anonymous person. I did wonder if you were trying to make a point of some kind.

    It’s plainly obvious that there has been both very good and excruciatingly bad advertising in every decade.

    The point of the post wasn’t the romanticise the past at all, but rather to compare the process of making advertising now, with a time when things were done a lot more simply. And to make the point that all of the complication and added ‘sophistication’ these days does not seem to have helped, actually quite the opposite.

    It seems to have knocked people off track, creating confusion and lack of clarity. Resulting in a lot stuff that is meaningless and overcomplicated. Even if you look at what is touted as the best advertising of today (in the UK at least), it’s bland or over-executed, or technique without substance, or just piece of entertainment based on a generic premise.

    Rest assured anonymous person, we are always ‘getting on with our work’ – it’s what we love doing. But occasionally we like to write a blog post, too. Thanks for your rather teacherly tone there, I feel like the kid at school who asked the difficult question. Maybe we should just not make a fuss eh? On that note, I’ll point you in the direction of earlier post:


  17. Well, John 09:52 (not a bible passage), hit the nail on the head for me.


    We in the ad industry are supposed to be experts ( I say supposed because I live in an ideal world).

    But I think I've only ever worked with perhaps two clients who actually trusted us to tell them what the right thing to do was.


  18. i have thankfully avoided the evils of planning over the course of my career.

    advertising just isn't that complicated:create something that moves people closer to buying what you're selling.

    if it's a puzzle to you then you're in the wrong business.

    advertising really only gets tricky when you're selling something nobody gives a shit about. like chewing gum. that's hard.

    and all this digital malarkey is turning out to be more of a distraction than it is useful.

  19. I agree with the post in the points that it should be all about the teaching the customer about the qualities of the product.
    All the trends and such are definitely shit. Ad awards don't keep clients selling.
    However, I think that branding is important. Not as important as selling the product, but branding helps the customer to make a clearer decision for themselves.
    Branding is so remarkable that even our friend Rob Hatfield pointed out a great example of brand image of the 60's: Marlboro Man. Not Marlboro, but Marlboro Man.
    But why not make branding be about the qualities of the product, instead of the "feelings" attached to it?
    Like Dave Chapelle said: " Did anybody noticed but advertisement has nothing to do with what they are selling?"

  20. Hi Anon 17.40,
    I don't think it's about romanticising the past.
    The general standard of ads now is a lot better than the general standard of ads was then.
    But if you just compare the top (say) 5%, the best then was more powerful, more memorable than the best now.
    I think that's exactly because of the point you make in the last line of your comment, simplicity.
    It's all wa-ay too complicated.
    More isn't better.
    We have a department and an award for each individual tree, and no one even sees, much less cares about, the forest.

  21. "But why not make branding be about the qualities of the product, instead of the "feelings" attached to it?" Because quality is no longer such an important issue, as the manufacturing process has become over-techologized, and quality is now an imperative, and not something a brand should only aspire to. Brands create needs that they try to satisfy afterwords. I totally recommend you reading Martin Lindstrom if you're interested in this type of things.

  22. Couldn't agree more, but I think much of it is people covering their arses and making sure their little bit appears indispensable.

    The industry doesn't need this many people, but this many people need money and are happy to obfuscate with bullshit in order to get it.

  23. 50 years ago I would have probably had a very happy and successful career in the advertising industry. This AMAZINGLY insightful post highlights the deep malaise it is now suffering from - suffocating in its own B.S.

  24. It's also sucked all the fun out of a job in advertising. Too much time pontificating and not enough time bonking on the boardroom table at the Christmas party.


Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.