This is a true fact. It was reported in the Sept. 3 issue of Science, the weekly journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. According to the magazine, an independent panel judged advertisements generated by a computerized algorithm more or less as good as work that had won awards in creativity competitions and ads that had appeared in leading international magazines.
The news is not all bad, though. The scientists found the frequent management complaint that its great aunt in Pittsburgh can do better headlines than the average copywriter to be utterly false. On the other hand, they only tested ads for appliances, cars, alcoholic beverages and food products. A toothpaste account comes along, she might wanna dust off her resume.
The researchers-two business school professors and one in the physics department at Jerusalem's Hebrew University-did not set out to study advertising per se, but the process of invention. They wanted to test whether people produce more creative and original ideas when they are given complete freedom or when subjected to certain constraints. Advertising proved a fine field for investigation because so many ads-89%, to be exact-follow one of six "creativity templates."
That made it easy for the researchers to develop a program that could generate ads consistent with one such template, called "Replacement," in which an unexpected object is used to represent a key quality of an advertised product. (By way of example, they cite a Bally footwear ad that features an island shaped like a shoe-a symbol of freedom.)
Replacement ads spit out by the computer consistently scored just as well as templated ads forged by copywriters and art directors over long lunches at Smith & Wollensky. And they far outperformed ads developed by people encouraged to go out and do something original, edgy, out of the box, no holds barred-like you were, by the client, just last week.
For example, told to develop an ad for a World Cup Tennis match in Jerusalem, the human creatives pictured the ancient city's walls plastered with tournament posters. The computer showed a grand mosque, with a tennis ball in place of the dome.
Repercussions from the study have been swift. Microsoft has been invited to pitch the Kia account; New York's Euro RSCG affiliate changed its name to Messner Vetere Berger McNamee Schmetterer Hal; and Susan Friedman is repping the Israeli computer.
Leo Burnett replaced its creative department with a Palm V. Intel is rumored to be developing a Pentium-powered Pytka.
McCann fired the monkeys it had writing GM copy.
That constraints prove an aid to creativity shouldn't be any more surprising than a Shakespearean sonnet with an ababcdcdefefgg rhyme scheme. Indeed, years ago I asked a young woman named Charlotte Moore, then a valued and articulate art director on the Nike account at Wieden & Kennedy, about why advertising so interested her.
"I loved writing sonnets in high school," she answered. "I loved solving puzzles. I loved getting books of 'Russian puzzles'-you know, a missionary, a cannibal and a cossack are on one side of the river, and a tiger on the other, how do you get them across? Advertising, right now for me, is more fulfilling than going home and painting pictures. I don't have disdain for market research. I don't have disdain for focus groups. I think of that as the framework, the pattern of the sonnet. How creative can you be within these bounds? How can you create and still do 'A/B, A/B'?"
Of more moment in the ad world should be the Israelis' finding that the vast majority of ads adhere so closely to such a small set of formulas-and that ad professionals judge ads based on their performance within these tight boundaries. A full quarter of all ads, they discovered, fall into the "Replacement" category. Which helps explain why even One Show winners look so distressingly similar-and why "breakthrough" work is so rare-that even the pros look down on it!
But creatives, take heart. In advertising, as in life, no barrier is insurmountable-not Starch scores, not government-mandated annual account reviews, not even the client's wife. There's a defense against this new assault on your efficacy, a way to defeat even a concept-generating, art-directing, copy-disgorging computer.
It's called Y2K.
So head over to Smith & Wollensky and take a very long lunch.