Malcolm White looks back ... at Rosser Reeves' legacy, not just his fallacy.
Rosser Reeves is infamous for proposing, more than half a century ago, that a good way of proving the effect of advertising was to compare the brand scores of ad recognisers with the brand scores of non-recognisers. He claimed that a correlation between high recognition and strong brand scores should be regarded as causal - when of course it shouldn't: people who already know and like a brand will tend to notice the same brand's advertising. This flawed logic is what became known as the Rosser Reeves Fallacy and it has cast a shadow over Reeves' reputation.
Today, Rosser Reeves and his fallacy is a ghost story told to frighten careless researchers and opportunistic advertising people about the dangers of assuming that correlation is causation. But the real-life story of Rosser Reeves is about much more than his fallacy and deserves to be better known, not just to rehabilitate his reputation, but also because so much of what he proposed underpins our practice more than 50 years later.
Rosser Reeves (1910-1984) was Ted Bates' creative partner in the American advertising agency Ted Bates & Co. between 1940 and his retirement in 1965. He was famous for memorable slogans such as 'M&M's melt in your mouth, not in your hand', and for Eisenhower's successful 1952 election campaign. In 1961, he wrote a book called Reality in Advertising, heralded by many as advertising's first bestseller back then, but seldom read today.
Now that I've read the book, rather than just relying on hearsay about it, I'm surprised that Reeves is remembered mostly for his Fallacy, because only one chapter out of 36 refers to this flawed thinking, namely Chapter Five, pages 18-24. Unfortunately, in terms of his later reputation, Chapter One is called' A Common Fallacy' although, ironically, that chapter has nothing to do with the Fallacy we now know him by. What Reeves described in this first chapter is the temptation of ascribing all good or bad sales effects entirely to advertising. As he says: "The product may be wrong. Price may be at fault. Distribution may be poor. A better product may be sweeping the market. A competitor may be outwitting you with strong deals. There are many variables. And when a wheel has many spokes, who can say which spoke is supporting the wheel." I'd call this the Rosser Reeves Reminder (of context), which sets a challenge just as relevant to communication evaluation today as it was yesterday.
Rosser Reeves is also to be admired for his quite proper insistence on the commercial role of communications:" A campaign is not for the individual expression of... ego. It is actually a tool", he says. This is Rosser Reeves' Reality Check, which we ignore at our peril.
Rosser Reeves espoused rigour, too. Ahead of his time, he called for 'scientific' awards, beyond 'opinion, supposition and aesthetics', pre-empting the Effies and the UK's IPA Effectiveness Awards.
But the real legacy of Rosser Reeves, and what reality in advertising is actually about, is a theory of communication which he invented. Reeves called his theory the Unique Selling Proposition (USP) and he defined it as follows:
"1. Each ad must make a proposition to the consumer ... 'Buy this product, and you will get this specific benefit'.
2. The proposition must be one that the competition either cannot, or does not, offer."
In their brilliant paper 'Fifty years using the wrong model of advertising' (Admap, March 2007), Dr Robert Heath and Paul Feldwick describe the way that the USP has achieved its vice-like hold over modern marketing communication thinking and practice.
The USP is central to what they call the Information Processing (IP) model that has dominated marketing communications for the past 50 years. Heath and Feldwick describe the reasons for this dominance in quite some detail:"[The IP model] has retained its dominance because it makes the advertising process verbal, rational, measurable and subject to conscious control." Can you think of any conversation you've had about strategy that isn't framed in the USP way?
I can't help thinking that an additional reason for the success of Rosser Reeves' USP comes down to his brilliance as a copywriter. The Unique Selling Proposition is a great piece of copy every bit as powerful and memorable as his line about the non-melting properties of M&M's. We'd do well to spend time considering how theories like the USP thrive and become part of the culture, especially while we gather more empirical evidence about the power of alternative approaches like the Emotional Processing Model. Perhaps this is what the real Rosser Reeves story teaches us: even communication theories need great branding.