We live in complicated times. And in complicated times, simple solutions become seductive.
Especially those that hark back to a bygone era – coincidentally, the era before the complications began.
It’s true in politics, and it’s true in advertising.
Donald Trump has taken the complexities of America’s 21st century immigration issues and come up with a three-word solution: “Build a wall.”
On trade and foreign policy, four words – “Make America great again.”
Aside from the fact that there’s nothing behind Trump’s soundbites, the reality is that fixing difficult problems is rarely a simple process.
As Obama put it: “Sometimes there are simple solutions out there, but I’ve been president for seven-and-a-half years, and it turns out that’s pretty rare.”
A fascinating recent article in The Atlantic called ‘The Tyranny of Simple Explanations’ discusses how even in a field as objective as physics, scientists can be seduced by the elegance of simple solutions. But these solutions often turn out to be wrong, because reality is more messy than we’d like it to be.
So it’s no surprise that we see the same phenomenon in a business as subjective as advertising.
One of the great demagogues of our field, The Ad Contrarian, has become ‘online famous’ by writing multiple variations on the theme that, as far as online advertising goes, “Agencies have sold their clients a truck load of baloney.”
He is quite right to point out the issues we have with online advertising, such as click fraud, and lack of transparency around viewability metrics.
But the central appeal of his argument is that it harks back to a simpler time – when TV was king, and the far more complex medium of the internet had not been invented.
He’s a great writer. “The marketing and advertising industries are marooned on some distant planet and are still yapping about the death of TV,” he says.
But he constantly over-simplifies. For example, no one is saying “TV is dead.” The truth, as we all know, is surely more complex – the internet won’t kill TV, just as TV didn’t kill radio, and radio didn’t kill print. All will co-exist. Nothing will get neater, only messier. And the ad tech that he just wishes would go away, won’t.
Another ad guru loves to trot out the fact that “89% of advertising isn’t noticed or remembered.”
I won’t name him because he’s a good friend, and an awesome person… but he’s not right about everything.
The appeal of his argument is, once again, seductively simple: all we need to do is create ads with impact. We should dramatise facts. Write slogans, maybe jingles. Like in the good old days.
But it ignores the evidence, which shows that the majority of human information-gathering and decision-making takes place at an unconscious level.
Impact isn’t everything.
“Simple is smart, complicated is stupid,” this guru tweeted, only yesterday.
Hate to say it, but I disagree.
‘Solutions’ that sound simple have an intrinsic appeal, but the reality is usually more complex.
Both in advertising, and in politics.