Self-Evident Revelations Mar Dan Hill's 'About Face'

Left Hand's Nat Gutwirth Says Book's Insights Are Sound, but Familiar to Anyone in Marketing

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Nat Gutwirth
Nat Gutwirth

Imagine that in a gesture of interplanetary good citizenship, you have agreed to host a friendly Martian house guest for the next 10 days. Your new friend is polite, witty and well spoken; clearly a learned person by the standards of his world. He speaks flawless English with a barely detectable accent. All this you find charming and exotic. The hard part is listening to his laborious scientific explanations of things you already know.

This, as best I can describe, is how an advertising professional -- especially a creative one -- will feel when reading "About Face: The Secrets of Emotionally Effective Advertising." Dan Hill is a wise man, well known as a researcher specializing in the Brave New World of facial coding. He crafts a nice sentence (his Ph.D. is in creative writing). He cites a wide variety of credible sources on branding and advertising, leaning heavily on such venerable texts as "Positioning" by Trout and Ries, and Luke Sullivan's "Hey, Whipple, Squeeze This." He references dozens of authoritative studies to support his arguments. And he garnishes his assertions with nifty charts and tables. But like our well-meaning Martian, Hill seems largely unaware -- or unconcerned -- that many of his purported "findings" have already been found.

'About Face'
'About Face'

The trouble isn't that Hill doesn't have insight into his subject. He does. His central thesis, that brand relationships -- like all relationships -- have an emotional basis, is above reproach. And it's a truth that social scientists and researchers have long resisted in their efforts to "quantify" the "science" of persuasion. But for those of us in the business of crafting brand communications, many of Hill's revelations are fairly self-evident. Or should be.

Negative emotions, he tells us, generate negative responses. Happy people make people happy. Too much information is confusing. Price is not a positioning. People are more likely to remember things they care about. And it's never a good idea to make promises you can't keep. To call these statements of the obvious is, well, kind of a statement of the obvious, isn't it?

Of course the fault isn't with Hill's methods or intentions. It's with the basic irony of the exercise. He's trying to make a persuasive rational argument to prove that rational argument isn't the most persuasive form of communications. But analyzing the component parts of a successful ad is kind of like dissecting a frog. You'll learn a lot about the parts and pieces that make up a living organism, but no matter how skillfully you put them back together, you're not going to end up with a live frog.

A further complication is that not all of Hill's arguments are as clear as they could be. Some of his charts were incomprehensible to this Earthling (quick -- where would you place "conformity" on an axis that measures "Hope & Confidence" against "Fear & Desire?") And there is also a troubling lack of ambiguity in his approach. In his quest to establish the importance of emotion he minimizes -- even ridicules -- the value of rational arguments. But of course every decision is a conversation between our rational and emotional selves. Good advertising, as I'm sure Hill understands, should build a bridge between the two.

On the upside, Hill does have considerable insight into the fundamental shifts that interactive media have brought about and their impact on the future of commercial communications. He makes some sharp observations about the ways we learn and store information and the roles of hope and fear in our purchase decisions. He also cites eye-tracking research to illustrate his arguments about logo placement and scene changes that I can imagine causing heated arguments in editing suites.

But ultimately, reading "About Face" is like hailing a cab in Rome. You will end up in the right place. You may even enjoy the ride. But the route will confuse you. You will probably feel disoriented along the way. And you may end up wondering if you really got your money's worth.

Nat Gutwirth is partner-creative director at Left Hand in Philadelphia. Talk to him: