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What would aliens learn from our advertising industry?

Opinion, 18 December 2015

In this guest post Eaon Pritchard argues that if the advertising industry is ‘on the verge of irrelevance’ it is because of our misguided obsession with technology over ideas.

If some band of galaxy-wandering aliens should indeed stumble upon this planet earth, our species has one thing worthy of their attention and study.

And it’s not our science and technology, as you might immediately imagine.

Yes, we’re the only species to have achieved civilization on this planet - so far - but we would have nothing to teach them about technology.

The mere presence of these extraterrestrial visitors proves that our technology must be vastly inferior. Or else it would be us visiting them.

So what would aliens learn from us that has any value to them?

The biologist and author EO Wilson poses the above questions the in his tome The Meaning Of Human Existence.

Professor Wilson is Emeritus in Entomology for the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University - amongst other chairs - the world’s leading expert on ants and generally regarded as the ‘godfather’ of sociobiology (a close cousin of evolutionary psychology).

Wilson argues that the only thing humans have that would interest the little green men is the humanities.

Our history, philosophy and politics. Our languages, literature and other creative arts like drama, painting and music. Our design, architecture, our media, communications and other cultural products. Strapping on our guitars and playing rock’n’roll. Human creativity.

Oh yeah, and our advertising.

These same products of human popular culture are to present-day anthropologists and psychologists what fossils and skeletal remains represent to paleontologists. Although human minds do not fossilise, the cultural products created by human minds do.

Even so, most scientists would agree that the total sum of everything that humans know about (or can meaningfully, label) science is less than five hundred years old and as perhaps our major cultural/technological achievement to date - the internet - has only existed for around 20 years then it’s safe to say that it’s early days in the era of science and technology on this soggy planet.

‘Theoretical physics consists of a small number of laws and a great many accidents’, according to particle physicist Murray Gell-Mann.

As a planner, and one who subscribes to the evidence-based approach, of course I lean on science heavily to shape the development of strategy. But - similarly to theoretical physics – the very best work done in advertising and marketing has always been based on a small number of laws and a great many accidents.

The cultural fossils of advertising have been, and always will be, the creative ideas and executions.

If this all sounds misty-eyed for advertising’s past, maybe it is.

However it’s worth noting that much of the cultural fossils produced by the likes of, say, Gossage and Ogilvy in the 50s and 60s, stand head and shoulders about most of what passes for branded communications today.

If that sounds argumentum ad antiquitatem to some I’d say go look at the work and read Gossage. Many of his ideas took 40 years to permeate.

Yet I would challenge a large chunk of the marketing world in 2015 with argumentum ad novitatem. Routinely and repeatedly overestimating the new and modern, prematurely and without investigation.

At this time of year we are traditionally dumped upon with the predictions around which ‘game-changing revolutions’ we should expect in the next 12 months. These predictions are typically prefaced with some variant of ‘technology is disrupting everything rapidly, and as a marketer, you need to be one step ahead. Or die’.

(Less headline-worthy but more accurate would be to predict that 2016 will be very similar to 2015 with the only changes being so small you’ll barely notice.)

Having said that, if any little green men had landed in 2014 or 2015 then one doubts they would have been particularly impressed with how we’d been handling the business of brand building on this planet of late.

In particular our misguided obsession with technology over ideas.

Let’s hope that one small shift in 2016 is that we re-straighten our heads around the false dawn of adtech. It’s a long long way from idea-rich ‘For Mash Get Smash’ to the idea-void of tracking pixels, adfraud and data leakage.

No doubt any intergalactic visitors would chuckle at our marketing automation systems in a similar way that those Smash celetoid alien robots did at our rudimentary potato mashers.

The rise and imminent fall of the current version of adtech positively correlates with the false belief that communications can succeed through technology alone. This has never and will never be the case.

There are certain web companies and (nefarious) adtech and data companies who would prefer it to not be so. I’m reminded of this bold statement from former four-term Louisiana Governor Edwin Edwards at the Montreal Enlightenment Conference last year. He could just as easily be talking about our revered Silicone Valley one-percenters.

"Without the humanities to teach us how history has succeeded or failed in directing the fruits of technology and science to the betterment of our tribe of homo sapiens, without the humanities to teach us how to frame the discussion and to properly debate the uses-and the costs-of technology, without the humanities to teach us how to safely debate how to create a more just society with our fellow man and woman, technology and science would eventually default to the ownership of-and misuse by-the most influential, the most powerful, the most feared among us."

The ongoing search to unravel the human condition is based on uncovering and analyzing the products of human creativity. In the advertising/marketing/content business, this is the stuff we produce.

The cultural fossils that future generations – and perhaps visiting aliens – will discover.

It needs to be great and creative because it’s a reflection of us.

"Stranger from another planet welcome to our hole Just strap on your guitar and we'll play some rock 'n roll, But the money's no good, Just get a grip on yourself"

The Stranglers' (Get a) Grip (On Yourself) 1976

About the author

Eaon Pritchard is Head of Strategy - Government Services, Dentsu Aegis Network, Australia.