February 23, 2008

Research Shows…

Spurred on by a recent posting on That Convoluted Marketing Romance I finally got around to reading David Ogilvy's "Ogilvy On Advertising" the other day (yes, it's another of those "I can't believe I haven't actually read this book" books).

Like its author, the book unwittingly evokes a disappearing Jet Age (of both Western culture and advertising in particular) with nearly every word or picture, and does so in a jaunty patrician tone that won't suit everyone. It's a book that famously starts:
"I do not regard advertising as entertainment or an art form, but as a medium of information. When I write an advertisement, I don't want you to tell me that you find it 'creative'. I want you to find it so interesting that you buy the product. When Aeschines spoke, they said, 'How well he speaks.' But when Demosthenes spoke, they said, 'Let us march against Philip.'"
Begin as you would go on, I guess — this is not a book that's going to spend much time on self-reflection or deconstructing the ad industry, but I think we already knew that.

Just look at that paragraph — a classic Ogilvy sleight of hand: he uses the word "information" when he means "rhetoric" or "disinformation", just as he uses "interesting" when he means "persuasive". Advertising isn't about product information in any way we lay people might recognise; it's primarily about consumer information; and the medium involved is increasingly mostly about getting information from you or about you as the target of a particular ad rather than getting information to you about specific products (which is why consumer tracking technologies like Web 2.0 are such a godsend for advertisers). A good advertising man like Ogilvy will not release pure unedited and unmediated information about the product to the potential consumer, especially if that product is more of a lifestyle or image (it would be a typical Ogilvyism to deliberately conflate "image" and "information"). And since Ogilvy's product in this book is advertising itself (and himself, of course — pity the title "Advertisements For Myself" was already taken…), what else would you expect? He's trying to sell advertising as a business, a concept, and if that means "informing" with Doublespeak, well, you've been warned, you know the territory. As Ms Natividad puts it, Ogilvy's got "a PhD in elegant bullshit, braced by decidedly supple morals." In other words, he'd like us to think that he's unashamedly and unapologetically an advertising man (in the Jet Age sense), but he can't publicly articulate what that means without resorting to, well, bullshit.

He adopts what I suspect is supposed to feel like a no-nonsense conversational tone in a lot of the writing, but that's as much a front as the rest of it. Large parts of the book also seem to be written in a rather self-satisfied and slightly arch way that can't quite hide the insecurity and combative self-pity that seems behind some of it (what is it with ad execs and design creatives wanting to be Bad Boys up against all those Nasty Left Wing Academics or politicians and do-gooders who doubtless held them back so long from greater glories, anyway?).

What I do like about the book, though, are the bits on the thinking behind and / or effects of a lot of (sometimes dated) "timeless" ads (many, but not all, of them his), and the sound (or, at least, sound-sounding) and reasonable advice on everything from getting a job to what makes a successful ad (and what "successful" might actually mean in this context — he's big on "research", without always being able to either define it or to do more than wave his hands distractedly with another flourish of his "research shows…" mantra). But it's difficult to take even this discussion at face value: the man's constructing a story to go along with the image, after all, and since the image is always infinitely more important than unmediated information, well, the narrative might have to bridge a few factual swamps or detour smoothly around inconvenient truths here and there, no? And a lot of the example ads are famous for being, well, famous, but did they sell the associated product well? "Research shows" that research on such things is typically either inconclusive or anecdotal, I'd guess, especially reading between the deliberately deflective lines in this book.

But as I said earlier, the book's really an artefact of, and a bible or manual for, the fast-disappearing Jet Age of advertising (and Western culture in general), and taken on its own terms, it's actually a lot of fun to read and contains enough wisdom and quotable quotes to make it a classic.

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