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Marketing Advertising Branding

Why do advertising people persist in believing impossible things?

By Paul Kitcatt and Michael Ellyatt, consultant chief creative officer and freelance planning directo

May 12, 2016 | 7 min read

Alice laughed. 'There's no use trying,' she said 'one can't believe impossible things'.

impossible things

'I daresay you haven't had much practice,' said the Queen. 'When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.

- 'Through The Looking Glass,' by Lewis Carroll

Alice wouldn't last long in advertising, but the White Queen could easily head up an agency, or a marketing department. The industry depends on believing impossible things. Saatchi & Saatchi even has the words 'Nothing is Impossible' carved into the steps leading up to its entrance. Permission to believe anything and everything you want.

When we worked in that very building, the then executive creative director of Digitas, Sav Evangelou, told us he spent most of his time trying to stop clients demanding banner ads. Like Alice, he couldn't make himself believe the impossible – that a digital display ad would produce any results worth having. The clients, however, believed they would, and insisted on buying them. They wouldn't get the microscopic response rates everyone else had to put up with, and when they did, they shrugged and said they believed it was all good for their brands. Somehow.

Now, in a perfect storm, we hear wailing and gnashing of teeth because everyone's fired up an ad blocker on their browsers, while over in the blue corner the head of a large media agency has come clean (anonymously, so not all that clean) and admitted the whole digital ad thing's a vast waste of money, and going programmatic is 'polishing a turd.'

OK then, let's just disable our ad blocker and poke our heads up out of our bunker into the post-apocalyptic world and see if advertisers have seen the light.

Yes! They've all stopped running super-annoying crap – oh wait, let's reload the page. Oh. No. Apparently, they still believe in digital display. Presumably for the brand benefits, right? It's definitely good for your brand to piss everyone off so much they do what we're going to do now – turn the bloody ad-blocker up to 11.

There's the first impossible thing ad people believe in. The power of digital display. But surely by now they've all switched to believing in social media. They've come to the light side. Because believing in that isn't believing in the impossible, is it? Remember the genius of the Oreo tweet, back in 2013? The single tweet that blew all other forms of advertising off the stage, proving for once and for all the power of social media.

You've seen it, haven't you? Well, perhaps not at the time it actually happened. Only 65,000 people followed Oreo back then, and only maybe 1,000 clicked through to see the 'dunk in the dark' ad. Which was, by the way, a very good piece of creative thinking.

Anyway, it got retweeted, and in the end about 0.02 per cent of Oreo's US market saw the tweet. These sums, by the way, were done by Professor Mark Ritson. Some 108 million people were watching the Super Bowl. A few of them saw the Oreo ad. No wonder it won all those awards. It was hailed as a triumph in the press everywhere. The death of conventional advertising was upon us.

No doubt it sold a lot of biscuits. What did the people at Oreo say about that? "There isn't a great way for us to directly link it." We think that means no.

We all believe, though, that TV is dead. What with Facebook, and YouTube, and all the various ways you can watch things on your various devices. Only a fool would put their faith in running ads on a dying medium. Sticking them on big old tellies, where nobody will ever see them.

Except according to a recent study, in the UK, the average person watches 18.5 minutes of video advertising a day. Between live broadcasts and DVR playback, television accounts for about 93 per cent of video advertising consumption. Online video, video-on-demand and cinema account for about 7 per cent combined. YouTube accounts for about half of one percent.

TV isn't quite dead, then. In fact, it seems to have been resuscitated by social media, tablets, phones etc because viewing time has actually risen since all these new media and devices came along. And most TV viewing by far is still done on a TV. Yes, because when it comes to screens, at least, size does matter.

Why do ad people persist in believing impossible things? If you want to be kind, you could say it's because we get over-excited about new stuff and want to share it. Exemplifying the kind of behaviour we so very much want punters to exhibit – 'Look! It's new, it's shiny, I want it.' Or maybe they're worried they may miss a trend, and let their clients or colleagues down.

Of course, we also get seduced by new things that work. The Oreo tweet was pretty clever. It was just vastly and ridiculously hyped. And everyone forgot it only made sense because Oreo had spent a lot of time and money (in so-called traditional media) associating its biscuit with dunking. If you didn't know that, the tweet might as well have been in Chinese.

Similarly, the 'Epic Split' Volvo trucks film managed to achieve the same kind of reach a TV ad usually does, but without the media spend (the cost of filming it looks comparable to regular TV). We're entitled to get excited about that. It was great work. But it doesn't mean the end of anything, or the start of something else.

What makes such things interesting and worth our attention is not the use of media but the quality of the creative ideas. As has always been the case. Good ideas work. Howard Gossage told us, "People read what interests them. Sometimes, it's an ad." Read, watch, even respond to. Please don't say 'engage with' though. It's a pile of marketing bollocks too far.

Talk of 'engagement' and 'relationships' with brands show there's some terrible confusion going on. We notice people suddenly finding all kinds of new ways to talk to each other, and we think, well, how wonderful – wouldn't they like to talk with our brands the same way? Because we've spent so long saying brands have personalities, we've come to believe they really do. Thus you can become friends with a brand, and 'engage' with it, just as if it were a human being.

It may be useful to talk about a brand's personality, and its tone of voice, but not if we get carried away with our own rhetoric and start to think brands, like Frankenstein's monster, can get up and walk around, and love us and be loved like humans made of flesh and blood.

When you attribute human emotions and responses to inanimate objects, in literature, it's called 'the pathetic fallacy.' Do it in advertising, with a brand, and it's also a fallacy. And pathetic.

Paul Kitcatt is a consultant chief creative officer and Michael Ellyatt is a freelance planning director

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