A couple of weeks ago I was invited to contribute to a panel discussion on the differences and respective strengths of art and science. The discussion itself wasn’t overly exciting but it made me, as DDB’s Scientist in Residence, think about where on the spectrum between arts and science advertising actually sits. How similar is advertising to art and what can it learn from science?

The panel discussion was organised around the performance of a modern piece of theatre funded by the Wellcome Trust, normally funding brain research and other hard-core neuroscience and the British Arts Council. On a meta-level the play Reykjavik (by Jonathan Young) was somehow centred around the questions of what memory actually is and how much we can trust it, how much our decisions in life are influenced by what we experienced before and so on. You can somehow see how the producers of the piece were able get funding from those two very different sponsors. But even if you couldn’t be bothered for any meta-level observations the play still worked via its main story, a reflection of a lost love an Englishman had experienced in Reykjavik some time ago (no, it wasn’t about his savings in an Icelandic bank, he was definitely talking about a woman). Adding to the play effectiveness and being a very contemporary piece of theatre, it used all the modern tricks to immerse the audience fully into the action: no stage, intense light- and sound effects, blindfolding the audience and making everyone interact with the story, etc.

So, really, Reykjavik was a piece of highly entertaining art and not a science lecture. But for the panel discussion I had to explain what good science is and how that would be different from good art. Well, much of good science is about objectivity in the sense that it is replicable. If anyone reads my scientific paper and then runs my experiment at the other end of the world using the same procedures and observing the same constraints then he or she should get the same result. Thus, in principle good science is not at all about the researcher running an experiment but about laying everything open that helped you to come to interesting results so that anyone can produce the same outcome. Also, a scientist is very aware of his/her audience, usually the peers in the same field. They need to be convinced and they need to take the new idea and results on board.

But the issue of subjectivity is completely different in the arts. With a painting or a piece of music we are actually looking for the individual and subjective expressions of a human being. And often, the more personal a piece of art is and the more the artist gives away of his ‘authentic’ personality the more it means something to an audience. (Of course, this is a very idealistic view of the world. Being a big name in your scientific discipline helps enormously on all levels. Similarly, there is a lot of art, especially at the pop end of the spectrum, that benefits from applying approved systematic procedures in its production process – think of the Motown Hit Factory in the 60s and 70s or the casting of boy and girl bands all around the world in the 90s.)

The funny thing is that advertising has really hijacked concepts from both, arts and science, very successfully, maybe without being completely aware of it. Just like in science, the creators of ads are largely invisible to the audience. No-one cares whether an ad was produced by Saatchi & Saatchi or DDB. And just like scientists, advertisers are very conscious of their audience. If the ad doesn’t work for the target audience then you are in trouble. But what an ads needs to be is credible, ‘authentic’ and many of the most successful ads make you empathise with very subjective feelings, e.g. The joy of cracking into a chocolate pudding, the exhilarating feeling of speeding along an empty coast-line road in a futuristic car, the satisfaction you get from putting on the right make-up or after shave. This capacity to make you feel and actually re-live (mainly positive) emotions is arguably the single-most important thing that advertising has learned from great art. Many great ads get under your skin and the art of advertising is to evoke emotions in 30 seconds while a great song takes 3 minutes and a film needs 90.

So, would you agree that is what advertising really is: The science and practice of emulating an authentic emotional experience that is normally reserved for the arts? (Let’s not talk about making people buy stuff. That would spoil the philosophical aura that I was trying to dignify advertising with.)