Advertising Is… A Fat Man Reaching For A Cream Bun

People in advertising have a fatal flaw.

They have a habit of latching on to a popular theory and adopting it wholesale.

Then applying that to everything, without any assessment of how well it really applies to what they're working on.

Once upon a time it was the USP, then Brand Love, then Experiential Marketing, then Conversations, etc. etc... you get the picture.

Once they have bought into something, they have a bad habit of trying to make everything fit into that same shaped hole. Not only that, they will happy point and laugh like schoolchildren at those who suggest that it's worth keeping an open mind.

It's like Lord Of The Flies, with much poorer dialogue.

The latest thing to have advertising people all excited is the work of psychologist Daniel Kahneman.

Kahneman has been described as the world's most influential living psychologist, and with good reason. His work has won him the Nobel Prize, sold best-sellers, and virtually created the field of behavioural economics.

But the problem is that, like with all those other things before, not the thing or theory itself. It's that advertising people have swallowed whole, without chewing.

And then applied it straight to advertising, like a four-year-old child putting on his dad's suit jacket.

Because the thing is, there a nuances and challenges to what Kahneman talks about.

For example twice Pulitzer prize finalist Steven Pinker, psychology professor at Harvard University, describes himself as an optimist to Kahneman's pessimist. He thinks that Kahneman is right that human nature saddles us with some unfortunate limitations, but he asserts that we have the means to overcome them through education, institutions and enlightenment.

That's just one example. If you Google the phrase scientific challenges to Kahneman, you'll see there is a whole world of interesting nuance to this subject, all being put forward by respected scholars and scientists.

But advertising people don't care – they've read the book.

Many are now talking as if it is absolute fact that we make all of our purchase decisions in the irrational way that Kahneman describes in Thinking Fast And Slow. Even though Kahneman's work isn't really about purchase decisions.

But they have heard what they want to hear and screw anyone who dares to suggest that there are nuances or other points of view as to how advertising can use these findings to modify its approach, or how we can extrapolate them for purchase decisions, and what that might mean for advertising.

For example, perhaps the real useful role for some advertising is to educate customers so that they won't continue to make those bad, irrational decisions?

I'm not saying there definitely is, in all cases, just that there is a debate to be had, and nuances to how we make decisions in different categories.

Let's just quickly take an example. The most expensive purchase you will ever make, buying a house. Now, as everyone who has ever bought a house will tell you, when you walk in the house you just know it's the one for you. It feels right. That sounds like an emotional decision. But then you wouldn't have gone to see it if there wasn't the right number of bedrooms (or room to extend), or if it wasn't in the right catchment area. Those are very real, very rational judgements. In this case, houses only have the opportunity for you to emotionally choose them, once you've rationally accepted them as an option.

Let's take the opposite end of the scale. Buying a chocolate bar. It's probably fair to say that people don't spend as long pondering the choice of chocolate bar as they do selecting a home. But there are still nuances to that decision. You might gravitate to the one you usually buy (as some of Byron Sharp's work might suggest). You might be influenced by some advertising you recently saw. But also other things come into play, are you hungry, or just want a treat? Will it be a big bar, or something small and indulgent. Do you like peanuts? Do you want the taste of peanuts right now? Do you want something chewy or crunchy, one big bar or small pieces? There's a whole mixture of emotional and rational choices and decisions going on, probably in a split second, mostly subconsciously.

Those are simply two quick examples at the opposite ends of the purchase decision scale. And it's not hard to look at those and say the role for advertising in each is possibly different.

So there is an argument for looking at the problem you have in front of you and thinking about that, and working out from that.

Not trying to fit every problem into a hole shaped like Thinking Fast And Slow.

But advertising people don't find that interesting. They prefer a kind of blind absolutism, where an approach applies to everything, or nothing.

And it seems many have simply heard something they want to hear. They don't care about the nuances because they've grasped with both hands an excuse to write ads without the pesky product in it. And without having to worry about finding a good reason why people might actually choose that product. They have a book that gives them a reason to write the ads they wanted to make anyway.

Those people are like a fat man reaching for a cream bun. And as usual, they will swallow it whole without even thinking.


  1. Blind absolutism – excellent point. And I've personally witnessed, dozens of times in the last two years, the resulting "ignorance justification." The refusal of facts or truths that would prevent someone from doing exactly what they want to do anyway. Self-serving bullshit, every time. We're supposed to be working to help clients, not glorify ourselves.

  2. "So there is an argument for looking at the problem you have in front of you and thinking about that, and working out from that."

    Sorry to play the devil's advocate here, but isn't that a form of "latching on to a [...] theory and adopting it wholesale" ?

  3. Haha, only if that theory is not having a pre-determined theory.



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