The real reality of advertising is you can't measure the Great Idea

By Published on .

The most appropriately named treatise in the history of advertising, albeit for less-than-obvious reasons, was "Reality in Advertising," by Rosser Reeves. The longtime chief of the Ted Bates Agency, Reeves is revered as the godfather of the Unique Selling Proposition-the hypothesis that every consumer brand (and every marketing campaign) needed to focus solely on a single, simple point of differentiating value.

While Reeves' model probably has solid grounding in psychology, "Reality in Advertising," published in 1961, is devoted only marginally to the USP and its scientific foundations. Instead, the reality it exposed was the deep-seated desire of agency executives to persuade their clients to spend more than necessary. Reeves' message is that advertisers should develop one campaign and pour money into it until fully 100% of the public is completely aware of the message-then continue the flood until confronted by real evidence of wear-out.

Naive marketers heeded Reeves' call, and the agency business has paid a price ever since. When his professional heir Robert Jacoby sold the Bates agency to Saatchi & Saatchi in 1986 and pocketed $110 million, it ignited a client rebellion against agency pricing that pressures the marketing-services industry to this day.

There are some very good books about reality in advertising, though, and one is worth placing on marketing's top shelf. It is "Strategy in Advertising," perhaps the best book ever written on marketing communications. First published in 1967, it was written not by a creative or an account handler, but by a market researcher, Leo Bogart, who served for many years as the executive vice president of the Newspaper Advertising Bureau.

Bogart's book is misnamed; strategy is only one of its many topics. It is a wide-ranging primer on the "articulated body of knowledge" that, I argued in my last column, all advertising professionals ought to know before they are allowed to practice. Unlike most advertising books, it promotes no single system, no right way of writing copy or analyzing consumers. It is a measured, thoughtful, rich guidebook by an academically astute sociologist for intelligent practitioners who would do business in an industry that Bogart-a believer in free minds and free markets who spent formative years among the pioneering social scientists who helped the Allies win World War II-knew had social, as well as economic, value.

For a scientist, Bogart proved surprisingly ecumenical in both his analyses and prescriptions. With marketers intent on identifying new psychographic targets for their products, he noted wryly that much consumer self-identification derives not from research but from accident; a radio station touting itself as "the voice of Lower Merion Valley" could be creating a market segment that didn't exist before it started broadcasting. Amid the raging debate between Reeves and his pseudo-science and creative gurus like Bill Bernbach, who argued "that persuasion is not a science, but an art," Bogart calmly proposed a more elegant formulation: that advertising is an artful science. "The Great Idea in advertising is far more than the sum of the recognition scores, the ratings, and all the other superficial indicators of its success," he wrote, invoking Jung. "It is in the realm of myth, to which measurements cannot apply."

In asserting that there is at least one area in advertising that had no metric, Bogart would have debated my assertion that everything could be measured. I'll never know. Leo Bogart died two weeks ago and reality in advertising lost one of its great champions.

Randall Rothenberg, an author and longtime journalist, is director of intellectual capital at consultancy Booz Allen Hamilton

In this article:
Most Popular