A selling tool is an instrument constructed for a single purpose: to sell. Accordingly, it must be judged by whether it succeeds in influencing prospective customers to choose the advertised brand. If it does so, fine. If it does not, it is useless.
A work of art, on the other hand, has no purpose outside itself. It is usually judged by critical acclaim. Does the public like it? Do the critics like it? Do a few like-minded artists like it? The artist may even decide that the only thing that matters is whether he himself likes it.
There are no hard rules. Who would dare denigrate James Joyce for having written "Finnegan's Wake," a work hardly anyone can read?
It should not come as a surprise, then, that the demands of selling and the demands of art pull in different directions.
The casual observer, unfamiliar with the nuances, is likely to assume that businesses run advertising for the purpose of making money, that the demands of the selling tool must be paramount, and that the ethos of art is irrelevant or at most incidental. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The fact is that advertising is dominated by "art." This is said without prejudice concerning the caliber of that art. It merely notes that the value structure, the ethos that drives advertising, is not the ethos of selling but the ethos of art.
This starts from the ground up, with the people engaged in making the advertising, and bubbles up from them throughout the entire system.
When a business needs sales people, it seeks people who are aggressive, persistent, persuasive and eager to influence others. But when the selling is to be accomplished on the printed page or on film, it seeks people with competence in those media: would-be poets, novelists, essayists, painters and filmmakers who happen to want to eat.
These people join the advertising agency but continue to pursue their calling. Characteristically, they refer to themselves as the "creative" people, and the departments in which they work as the "creative" departments.
Why creative? Why not the selling departments? Isn't their purpose to sell? Certainly lip service is paid to selling, which after all pays the bills, but fundamentally the creative people are in the business of "creating." They are in pursuit of the rewards of artistic excellence: critical acclaim from clients, from colleagues and from the critics of their craft, as manifested in art director awards, for the "best" commercial, etc.
POSING A QUESTION
In an effort to explore the implicit conflict between advertising as a selling tool and as art, I once posed the following question to the senior VP in charge of creative services of an advertising agency.
"Suppose you had to choose between two ads. Ad A is original, tasteful, beautifully crafted, but does not sell. Ad B is ordinary, vulgar, badly done, but does sell. Which one would you run?"
He replied, "I would try to make an ad that does both."
"But suppose you couldn't? After all, you would hardly be surprised to learn that more people read comic books than read Shakespeare. Suppose it turned out that no matter how hard you tried, the ordinary, vulgar ad always sold more than the original tasteful ad?"
We danced around this question for half an hour, but he refused to be drawn into the net and continued to insist that he would try to do both. Thus, he attempted to reconcile, somehow, the need to sell with the demands of "art."
As a member of the top management of an advertising agency, he could not say blatantly that he would run an ad he knew did not sell; but as the head of creative services, he could not bring himself to say that he would run an ad "only" because it sells.
This tendency to view advertising as art is not confined to those engaged in producing it. Up and down the ladder, no matter how low or lofty one's position, knowledgeable or not, we are all consumers of art. We are all critics. ("I may not know much about art, but I know what I like.")
RESPONDING AS ART CRITICS
And no matter how strong our resolve to maintain an objective frame of mind, our first impulse on seeing an ad or a commercial is to respond as art critics. "Did you see 'Gone with the Wind'? What did you think of it?" "Did you see that ad for Volkswagen? What did you think of it?" "And how about that commercial for Federal Express? What did you think of it?" In that mode, everyone is entitled to an opinion. Everyone, of course, includes the client organization, the brand managers, the VPs, the CEOs and all their uncles, cousins and aunts.
Say to the CEO of a company, "Here are two machines. Which one do you think we should buy?" He is likely to answer: "Run tests. Figure out which is more cost-effective." But say to him, "Here are two ads. Which one do you think we should run?" and he is likely to examine the ads and to reply, "I like this one better."
The very inquiry seduces him into abandoning his role as a businessman and causes him to lapse into the role of art critic. In that capacity, he can do no wrong. He can respond with certainty. Ad A appeals to him more than Ad B, and he loses sight of the fact that this is irrelevant.
In direct extension of this mechanism, executives at various levels of the organization, sometimes at the very top, become emotionally attached to particular advertising. Question the effective- ness of such advertising, and it amounts to a personal attack on them. And when the measurements happen to do that, there are only two options: scrap the advertising, or scrap the measurements. The latter decision is almost always shrouded in doubletalk.
The company that has the budget to run millions of dollars worth of potentially wasteful advertising can't "afford" to spend 1% or 2% to find out what, if anything, that advertising is producing. "We would be glad, indeed eager, to measure our advertising if we had more confidence in the instruments, if you could prove to us beyond a doubt that your measurements will always give the right answer . . ."
"We would love to measure our advertising if you could only persuade our advertising agency, which is, after all, our indispensable partner, to embrace the measurement." And so on.
I remember only a single instance in which the real problem was articulated explicitly. The man's title was advertising manager. He served a multibillion-dollar company. He subscribed to our service enthusiastically, but failed to renew the following year. When I went to see him, he did not put me off with the usual excuses. His words remain with me to the present day.
"Last year," he said, "I subscribed to your service. You demonstrated that our ads were not working, and I canceled them. I sincerely believe that I saved my company $5 million to $10 million, which went right to the bottom line." This, of course, was a lot more money in the early '60s than it is today.
"But," he continued, "my management was unhappy. They asked, 'What's the matter with you?' Now we've come up with a new campaign. The agency loves it and my management loves it. Everyone is happy. I would want to know. But as things stand, I don't want to know."
I thanked him and left. He was right. There was nothing I could or should have