Against Creative Testing: The Need for an Erotics of Advertising

Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” – David Hume


Harry Holland – Falling, 2008

It is the bitter old debate whether the advertising trade is one of science or one of art. For we still hold on to the idea we are in the creative industry, as we are, both the client and agency strategy side has become one of justifying, examining and confirming too narrowly creative executions, rather than developing and steering conditions so creativity can flourish to unforeseen territories. The science of marketing strategy has infiltrated in advertising planning too much; and while both territories are closely related and overlap in many areas, a rational strategic methodology can not and should not be applied in validating the quality of creativity.

In the development of creative concepts, ideas, and executions, it has become self-evident that each step of the process is being measured, analysed and validated; mostly with only a handful of carefully chosen (and often paid or incentified) participants. These are mostly people who know nothing about marketing or advertising, let alone how great influential and creative ideas work. They are brought together to voice their opinion and that’s exactly what they will be doing, even if it’s just for the sake of it.

Judging a piece of creative should never be done in the laboratorium or the boardroom. For the internal and external conditions in receiving this piece of work are completely divergent.

In her essay ‘Against Interpretation’ (1964), the art critic and writer Susan Sontag argues art and creative work should not fall in the trap of rational analysis. For art is not created for post logical deduction, it is created to make you experience it in a certain way. She argues that in this new approach to aesthetics the transcendent importance of art has been replaced by the emphasis on the intellect, rather than recognizing great creative works as possible sources of intensity. She writes:

“Interpretation takes the sensory experience of the work of art for granted, and proceeds from there. This cannot be taken for granted, now. Think of the sheer manipulation of works of art available to every one of us, superadded to the conflicting tastes and odors and sights of the urban environment that bombard our senses. Ours is a culture based on excess, on overproduction; the result is a steady loss of sharpness in our sensory experience. All the conditions of modern life – its material plentitude, its sheer crowdedness – conjoin to dull our sensory faculties […] What is important now is to recover our senses. We must learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more.”

Brought to my attention by Martin Weigel (Wieden & Kennedy), the market researcher and consultant Alan Hedges argues in ‘Testing to Destruction’ (1972) that the role of advertising research should be there to research early in the process, research late, and never research in the midst of the advertising or campaign development. Researching early, to get to the proper business and comms objectives, to find an interesting angle (insight) to talk about, to understand the marketplace and the consumer context long before you start developing anything creatively and get into logistics. Researching late, because advertising should establish and be able to proof the long-term effects on sales, brand recall, awareness, fame, changed brand perception, or even behaviour. These things often adapt slowly and should therefore be given enough time to manifest any significant long-term changes. But, as he argues, you can’t research the effects in the middle. You can’t research and quantify the ‘why’ behind a creative idea; why exactly it made people tick and change in a certain direction. And therefore research should let go and not interfere during this vital stage of exposing your creative work to the outside world. That is the “magic of creativity” you need to trust in and can’t control.

This magic is the reason why we all hate and never remember any of those product messages that look all the same, and are not unique or original in any way. And this magic is the reason why a drumming gorilla sold plenty of chocolate, colourful balls down the San Francisco streets sold plenty of TVs, and one penguin pet sold plenty of home decorations and household goods.

There are two reasons why testing and analysing creative work is one of the dumbests things to do.

Firstly, this focus group or quantitative testing always involves people who have no or little understanding of how (commercial) creativity works. They often don’t understand that it’s about simplifying and entertaining rather than informing and selling directly to the viewer; that it often involves a long-term process of building a brand step by step consistently; that sometimes things don’t have to make sense from the very first time; that it’s always more important to be interesting, memorable and distinctive, than to deliver the ‘right’ message; that the devil is in the details and with one piece of the work missing (e.g. the right music), the entire experience can be lost.

I am fairly confident that Nike’s tagline ‘Just Do It’ would have gotten the reactions and feedback the creatives should emphasise and clarify more the sporting part; that ‘Just Do It’ doesn’t really made sense (“do what exactly?”) without a proper context and further explanations. Nor would anybody in the room have agreed that a consumer electronics company with big and serious ambitions should name itself after an ordinary everyday piece of fruit. A perfect example for all of this is Apple’s ‘1984’ Super Bowl commercial, often voted as one of the best TV commercials that has ever been made. When shown in front of focus groups, all rejected the work and advised not to go forward with this piece of creative. It was said to be too dark and grim; that it didn’t made sense for not showing the product or brand; as well as the suggestion was made of having dancing robots.

If we as an industry are to live up our expertise and status, and take our creative consulting role seriously, we should leave these justifications and viewpoints to our own professional opinions. In the end, we can only hope that’s the reason why clients are paying and trusting us.

The second reason why money and resources should never be wasted on creative testing is a more sophisticated and serious argument. In ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’ (2011), Daniel Kahneman has introduced the wider world with the System 1 – System 2 framework. While System 2 is the self-conscious, explicit and slow agent of our decision-making process, System 1 is the implicit and effortless one. System 1 is responsible for almost all of our day-to-day routine decisions, while System 2 is the one that switches on when presented with a more effortful choice such a maths problem, what time your taxi should pick you up or what the most reliable insurer on the market is at the moment. People who learn how to drive rely almost completely on System 2 in the first hours and days, while bit by bit System 1 takes over when they have become experienced drivers and can do it “automatically”.

Why this model is so valuable for advertising is that it shows people are operating, making decisions and processing information in two very different mindsets. For people are much more likely to be in a System 1 context when they are exposed to an advertisement (in between TV shows, whilst driving, evening grocery shopping, browsing Facebook …) they will receive and process this work much more implicitly. The problem with focus groups and creative testing is that it requires all participants to be in a System 2 mindset. It urges people to focus, analysis and rationalise. To think through and to interpret. Everybody is mentally available; nobody is in a rush, hungry, distracted or having their thoughts on something else. Nobody has System 1 taken over impulsively and intuitively.

Alan Hedges sums up perfectly why testing a creative idea in the boardroom or laboratorium is never appropriate:

“There is no way of ‘testing’ an advertisement in advance of market place exposure which gives you a simple yet reliable guide to the effectiveness of the advertisement in question. The tools of measurement are too crude and of too uncertain relevance; the laboratory situation is too little like the real-life one; the factors which may affect success or failure are too many and too complex; the ways in which different campaigns work are too varied; and the competitive circumstances in which the advertising must work are too unpredictable.”

We need to let go. We need to let professional creatives do their thing and put it out in the world without strategic and research methodologies trying to define and design its quality & rationale, and its direct explicit impact; especially by people who enjoy no creative or commercial understanding. We again need to appeal to the senses, the intrinsic emotions and passions. We need to spend all our time to make something simple, beautiful and touching without interference of any rational interpretation, deduction and analysis. We need to aim for sharpening the sensory experiences and to aim for intensity. We need to grab, tick and move people, even if they don’t realise exactly why and how. Even if we don’t realise exactly why and how.

In her acclaimed essay Susan Sontag concludes:

“From now to the end of consciousness, we are stuck with the task of defending art. We can only quarrel with one or another means of defense. Indeed, we have an obligation to overthrow any means of defending and justifying art which becomes particularly obtuse or onerous or insensitive to contemporary needs and practice.”

and ends her paper with the brilliant words:

“… in place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art.”

Against Creative Testing: The Need for an Erotics of Advertising

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