Advertising: the $600 billion mystery

Hardly anyone believes that advertising influences them; yet globally advertisers will spend about $600 billion in hopes of proving them wrong.

Curiously, the fact that hardly anyone believes that advertising works on them doesn’t preclude them from having strong opinions about how it works on other, presumably less intelligent, people.

In fact, pretty much everybody has opinions about how advertising works or how it ought to work.

But… very few of those people have actually done advertising for a living.

That might sound like a damning comment, but it really isn’t. Many of the people who have actually done advertising are delusional about how much they can impact human behavior.

I’ve been in and around the advertising business since I was 17 years old and will happily concede that there’s a lot about it that remains sort of a mystery. But with that said, here are a few things I’ve learned that you may find useful.

  1. Most of the time, human beings are not consumers and certainly not an advertising audience.

They are just human beings, and most of their thinking — to the extent that thinking happens at all — is astonishingly basic.

The majority of brain traffic consists of things like, “I’m hungry”; “Damn, I forgot to do that thing again”; and “Other people are annoying me”.

2) Most purchases are habitual. Human beings buy the same brand of toothpaste (or CRM software, or supply chain SaaS solutions, or anything else) over and over again not so much out of hard-won loyalty as pure sloth.

3) Decision-making has never happened in a “marketing funnel”. In most cases, it happens in something like a pinball machine. Our attention bounces all over the place until suddenly our wallets pop out and we find we have bought a Darth Vader humidifier.

4) The real function of most advertising is like bumpers in that pinball machine: we’re hoping people will bounce off it and their coins will ricochet into the cash register. It doesn’t work reliably. But it does work.

You can spend a quarter of a million dollars or so to attend a university which will earnestly teach you how and why it works. Or not. Either way, you will know about as much about it as there is to know.

5) Most of the time as consumers don’t know what we want, and when we do know what we want we don’t generally know why we wanted it. Anybody who has ever moved from one home to another has donated at least 750 pounds of “I don’t remember buying this, and what the hell was I thinking?” merchandise to charity.

6) To borrow a phrase from Elvis Costello (or someone else), “Getting really deeply thoughtful about advertising is like dancing about architecture — it’s a really stupid thing to want to do.”

7) All of the above is not to say that ad tech is stupid. It’s now essential if we ever hope to push the right random stimulation to a human being to get them to buy what we’re selling. Without it, there’s too much guesswork about where their attention might be.

8) Most of the effort expended on advertising is like primitive people doing a rain dance. There is a ludicrous emphasis on diagnosing what went wrong when it failed (“your elbow was too high, no WONDER it didn’t rain!”) and an equally ludicrous round of naive self-congratulation when it goes right (“We’ve cracked the code at last! Now we can make it rain at will!”).

Nobody dares acknowledge that if you’re out there dancing every day it will probably rain eventually. And nobody dares acknowledge that a lot of the effort that goes into advertising would be more soundly invested in making better products or services in the first place.

9) Which is not to say that all effort is wasted. Occasionally we actually do learn stuff that is meaningful and useful. But a lot of the time we don’t.

So it goes.

10) Any list about advertising must contain ten things. This is the tenth thing.

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated Tom Cunniff’s story.