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How does advertising actually work?

News, 12 March 2015

LONDON: There are many theories of advertising, none of which are wholly right or wrong, so it's best to understand them all, or at least the six main ones, a leading ex-planner has said.

Writing in the current issue of Admap, Paul Feldwick, a planner at BMP/DDB for 30 years, argued that "each theory, considered as a metaphor, image or 'way of seeing' could be useful – just as each, taken too dogmatically as 'truth', could become a limitation".

He accepted that people will disagree with his "taxonomy of ideas" but maintained that "we will understand advertising better if we start by accepting that we will never fully understand it".

In that spirit he offered Admap readers his six ways of thinking about advertising, which form the basis of his book, The Anatomy of Humbug: How to Think Differently About Advertising. These include advertising as salesmanship, as seduction, as salience, as social connection, as spin and as showmanship.

The contradictions are immediately apparent. The salesmanship model contains many key ideas, from getting attention to factual persuasion and a proposition to the consumer, while the seduction model works at the subconscious level and is driven by non-verbal, emotional associations.

Recent work by the likes of Daniel Kahneman and Robert Heath make it hard to argue against the latter view, Feldwick said, but he added that "it's more arguable whether our scientific understanding of this is enough to create successful campaigns, which still depend in practice on intuition, human sensitivity and luck".

Salience is simply getting a brand in front of the consumer – "mere publicity" – and while it doesn't explain everything, Feldwick suggested that "many advertisers could get better value from their advertising if they focused on this simple principle".

Social connection highlights the need to entertain consumers: communication is not just about mere exchange of content but forms the basis of how people construct and maintain relationships.

Spin enters PR territory – "the product must appear to be desirable as if without the prod of salesmanship" and advertising can often achieve this too.

Finally, Feldwick looked at the life of P.T. Barnum and concluded that advertising may not be an art or a science but mostly showmanship.

"At any rate," he observed, "it's the theory that perhaps makes the best sense of dancing ponies, singing cats, or a strong man doing the splits between two lorries."

Data sourced from Admap