Interview with Professor Chris Hackley (Professor of Marketing, Royal Holloway, University of London) on the past, present and future of advertising and marketing

Interviewed by Thomas Bohm (User Design, Illustration and Typesetting). Published on the 23rd November 2020.

Street photograph of a man walking along the pavement in a city, just before the new kiosk A1 InLink advertising units
Figure 1. New double sided BT InLinkUK units throughout UK cities. InLinkUK is a new communications service that will replace over 1,000 payphones in major cities across the UK, with new structures called InLinks.

Brief outline

This interview seeks to analyse and explore current issues in the effectiveness of advertising on TV, by brands in print and electronic medias, and in the public domain.

Keywords

Marketing, advertising, effectiveness, electronic advertising, ethics, consumers, social media.

About Chris Hackley

I’ve been a professor of marketing in the school of management at Royal Holloway, University of London, U.K., for 15 years. I teach, research and supervise studies in advertising and what I call critical marketing, that is, marketing studies which aren’t just about how to sell more stuff.

I was the 1st professor of marketing ever appointed at Royal Holloway, which is the 5th largest college of the 17 institutions of the University of London. I started the marketing subject group there, and now we have six full professors of marketing and 14 associate/assistant professors.

I left school at 16, to become an apprentice moulder in an iron foundry, but then spent 10 years of alternatively studying and doing random things, including manual jobs, training in advertising, working as a cook, and as a salesman, busking in Amsterdam, and working for the BBC as a clerk.

Eventually I took a job as a further education lecturer in Crewe U.K. and continued to study part-time. I hold Bachelor’s degrees in psychology and business studies, a Master’s in Marketing, and a PhD, which I earned at the Department of Marketing of Strathclyde University in Glasgow, Scotland, by hanging around in London advertising agencies to look at how they developed adverts.

Before joining Royal Holloway University of London, I taught at several other universities, including the university of Birmingham and Aston Business School, both in nthe U.K. I’ve also taught psychology for the Open University, been a visiting professor of marketing at the University of Greenwich and a visiting scholar at the University of California, Irvine, U.S.A.

I’m mainly interested in the creative and communicative aspects of marketing. Of the many books and research papers I’ve written, my favourite ones have used ideas from literary studies such as discourse studies, paratextuality, rhetoric and ideology, symbolism, reader response theory, Bakhtinian criticism and others. My favourite book was one called Marketing in context: Setting the scene (Chris Hackley, 2013), in which I tried to develop an idea from film studies, the mise-en-scène, into a theory of marketing. I failed, but it was fun trying.

The thing I probably enjoy most about my job, apart from just being involved in ideas, writing and communication, are being asked to write short comment pieces for magazines or being asked to go on the radio and TV to talk about marketing. I’ve been fortunate that the research I’ve been involved with, into alcohol and public policy, and into TV advertising regulation, has resulted in a fair bit of telly and writing commissions. I like to communicate to wider audiences than just other academic specialists.

Quick facts

Current job

Professor of Marketing, Royal Holloway, University of London, U.K.

Education

HND, BA (Hons), BSc (Hons), MSc, PhD, PGDip, PGCE.

Years in the field

First teaching job 1986, so around 34 years. Bits of sales and advertising work before then too.

Interview

Thomas: When TV adverts first arrived in the 1950s, they were very successful, people queued up outside shops because people had never seen TV adverts and it was a new thing. Does advertising actually work anymore, do people look and react as intended to advertisements, whether that be a static advertisement on a billboard driving in a car, an advertisement at a bus stop, or even adverts on TV?

Chris: Advertising has changed very much because of digital communication and, especially, social media. TV and print advertising is still important, but now Google and Facebook between them take about a third of global advertising revenue, so the logic of advertising has shifted from gaining passive eyeballs, to trying to activate consumers to create engagement. The notion of advertising has turned into ‘content’, that is, any kind of media content that can in some way be linked with what is being promoted. It is now impossible really to separate the editorial content of the internet, from commercial interests. Advertisers reach us on the internet by blurring this distinction, so that social media posts, news articles, movies, any kind of content, could have a promotional strategy behind it.

I do tell my students though, that the traditional craft skills of advertising are still important. Algorithms have their limitations and there is still room for ingenious and captivating creativity in advertising, especially as a clever piece of content can be shared millions of times, to generate vast amounts of free publicity.

Thomas: I suspect I am subject to at least 45 minutes of TV adverts per day. Over the last 10 years, I have only ever bought 1 thing from seeing it advertised on TV, this is not a great success ratio… or am I a singular case?

Chris: In my opinion, it is a widely held misconception, that advertising sells stuff in the same way as a personal salesperson sells stuff. Rather, adverts serve many purposes that are intermediate to selling, such as keeping brands in our minds, so that when we are in a position to buy something, we choose something we’ve heard of. Humans have a powerful urge toward cognitive economy, we like to save energy for thinking about important things and advertising and branding help us buy stuff, without having to think about it too hard. We have a short-term memory capacity of about 7 items, at most, so the brands that tend to have the biggest market share, are those that we remember, and the ones we remember, tend to be the ones that spend most on advertising. Also, a lot of advertising is not about selling, but about reassuring consumers that the brand they buy, remains current and relevant. It doesn’t necessarily matter too much what the advert looked like — all the marketing director knows is that if their brand drops their advertising spend 3% below that of their main rival, then next year they’ll have lost 3% market share. That’s an over simple example of course, but the logic of advertising can be as mundane as competitive paranoia, just having to keep up with the adspend of competitors.

Thomas: I have actually noticed that the time given to TV adverts is so long, that once it returns to the TV programme I was watching, after many minutes of adverts, I cannot remember what was going on in the actual TV programme or what I was even watching... The adverts have distracted me and diluted my concentration. Do you think that some kind of advert blocker or redirector built into TVs might be introduced at some stage in the future?

Chris: There’s no need, because real-time TV viewing has collapsed all over the world and most visual entertainment is watched via streaming, download and/or recording, so people can avoid or fast forward through the adverts. We hate our screen-time being interrupted by adverts, so we’ll go to lengths to avoid them.

When I was growing up, the most watched U.K. TV shows (such as the Morecambe and Wise Christmas Special) reached an estimated 30 million viewers, that was about half the entire population. Today, the most watched U.K. shows rarely get 10 million, and many of those are watching on record, so they can avoid the adverts. The fact that global TV adspend has held up so well, is a bit of a mystery, but it still seems to create some presence for the brands. I think in some cases it is an easy option for advertisers — doing something different would mean thinking differently about their strategy, and that takes time and investment. In many cases, now, TV adverts are merely one part of integrated campaigns, that also use many other media channels, so the TV advert is kind of a platform for all that other activity that links to it.

Thomas: I spoke with a friend of mine some years back about advertising and we came to the point that: if advertising does not make us buy anything or do anything, what does it do? The best we could come up with is that it leads to some kind of awareness. So for example: I want to buy a computer, I could go to Currys/PC World in the U.K. because I know they sell computers, because I have seen it on the TV adverts. There is also another website for a computer maker and seller, which I have seen advertised on TV, but I cannot remember the name or website address, so I may try and look into and find out about that. Adverts create awareness of brands, what they do and offer, what they are like, and they put information in our heads, but there is no guarantee that they will make us do anything.

Chris: Refer to my point previously. The idea that advertising is ‘salesmanship in print’ has been around or almost 100 years and still persists, but I think it’s never really been correct. Part of the reason why this idea persists, I think, is that it connects to advertising’s big public relations problem. Vance Packard wrote The Hidden Persuaders in 1957 (Packard, 1957) and it crystallised the public’s deep suspicion of, and cynicism towards marketers and their sinister methods of persuasion. If we cleave to the idea that marketing uses our rationality to persuade us to buy, rather than using our psychology, our subconscious or our emotions, that gets marketing off the hook somewhat. We can still claim that we are not affected by marketing, and marketers can still claim that they are honest traders who don’t use sinister methods.

If we accept that as consumers, we are not very rational, and also that marketers use their methods to persuade us by exploiting our unconscious drives and impulses, then the world of consumption and marketing becomes more fascinating, but far murkier. This is the world that fascinates me, and also alarms me. Packard’s (Packard, 1957) worst vision of marketing, has its apotheosis in the world of social media, in which our every desire, fantasy and impulse is tracked, recorded and logged by social media platforms, who use that knowledge to exploit those impulses. Scary.

Thomas: Are younger people, or any other age ranges more influenced than normal by advertising?

Chris: There is a demographic divide between over 40s, who still use traditional mass media and have an idea that editorial and advertising should be clearly separated, and the under 40s (or perhaps under 35s) who access all their news, information and entertainment via a wi-fi enabled screen, and who assume that there is a commercial dimension to almost every piece of that media content.

Movie product placement in movies, is a good example of how this divide has changed the mentality, it has been around since the silent movies but it was largely a dirty secret, because audiences would be shocked to learn that the creative integrity of the movie has been commercially corrupted. Today, there is no shock left, and movies often boast about their placement contracts to generate advance publicity.

Thomas: David Sless of the Communication Research Institute (Sless, 2004) mentions: ‘It is a matter of common experience in our time that we are all routinely confronted by more information than we can absorb. As a consequence, many of us have developed information avoidance strategies’. Do you have anything to say about this?

Chris: Yes, advert avoidance is very common, as I mentioned previously. Therefore, the advertisers embed their brands into our news and information (via sponsorship, native advertising, brand blogs, for example), and entertainment (via product placement, sponsored Tweets, Instagram influencers, and so on).

Thomas: Alison Morehead and Robyn Penman (Morehead & Penman, 2001) say in the report Federal government information campaigns: A critical review ‘Evaluation should not be something that is done when the campaign staff have the time and if there is sufficient money in the budget. It should be an integral aspect of every campaign. In fact, we would dare to go as far as to say, that campaigns should not even be run if they cannot be evaluated’. Do you have anything to say this, and on measuring advertising or any subsequent results from it?

Chris: The most effective advertising campaigns have clear and achievable objectives, and where this is the case, the campaign effectiveness can be measured by various means as the campaign runs. However, a lot of advertising, as I said, has a more vague motivation, such as spending the budget to keep up with competitors, and/or maintaining or growing market share, in which case, the measurement of its success, is a far longer-term thing, such as market share over a year. Evaluation of advertising effectiveness is a complex topic that has to acknowledge that advertising is not just one thing trying to achieve one thing, but many different kinds of things, that are intended to achieve many different kinds of objectives.

Thomas: There is clearly something to advertising and doing it, I cannot imagine large organisations would still routinely do it for no reason, do you have any statistics on the success or failure of advertising?

Chris: Nope. Even in the age of social media metrics, John Wannamaker’s adage still holds — half the money spent on advertising is wasted, but no one knows which half. There are some statistics [I can’t remember the source] that show that the brand with the higher market share, spend more on adverts (The Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA) website www.ipa.co.uk might have some figures like that).

Thomas: The Yellow Pages printed business directory distributed to all homes and businesses in the U.K., is now about an eighth of the thickness it was 15 years ago. Modern webpages in 2020 routinely have:

  1. A default notification at the top of the webpage asking me if I would like to received updates when the website updates.
  2. A small advert pops-up in the middle of the screen, hidding the content of the webpage, telling me that I have an ad-blocker/antivirus software installed (which is blocking the loading of adverts within the webpage), and would I mind turning if off…
  3. Another notification which pops-up trying to get me to subscribe to an email newsletter.
  4. Another asking if I want to accept the use of cookies.
  5. Then when I check my email, I am pushed with a vertical banner down the right-hand side of the webpage, which once again is trying to put things in front of my eyes, which I never want or asked for.

All this requires about 4 or 5 extra clicks in order to just get access to the original content I was trying to get in the 1st place. Do you have anything to say about advertising on the internet?

Chris: I’m an old cynic, and I think there is a lot of fraud and wasted money on internet adverts. The seductive thing for advertisers is that they seem to be able to calculate return on investment (ROI).

What you’re talking about though is a badly designed webpage, a lot of money is spent on search engine optimisation (SEO) on Google, and other search engines, and the ones that appear highest in searches, tend to be the more user-friendly ones.

Thomas: I have tried advertising for my small business in the past, to get new business, but it is not something I would do again. The return on investment was almost 0%, even though the advert was put in front of people who have a direct need for my services. Why does advertising work some times and some times not? I have a saying ‘If you say nothing, nobody knows anything. If you say something, there is a chance somebody will know’. If, as I feel, advertising does not work well, what are the alternatives to not advertising? is advertising a ‘hit and hope’ exercise nowadays?

Chris: It all depends. For small businesses, social media advertising on local websites can often be useful, because users can recommend it and comment on Facebook, and navigate to the business Facebook page. But every business situation is different.

Thomas: Do you have anything to say on position and advertisements, like what people do in different positional circumstances? So for instance, I may have just used wi-fi in a café, and then 10 minutes later, I get a message on my smartphone from them saying ‘Thanks for visiting, please do come again’ (and I have no idea about how they even were able to send me a message. Or I may see a question being asked like ‘Does stress cause cancer’ on a bus stop A1 portrait billboard, and find myself some hours later thinking about that question. Or I may see an advert on TV, which has completely skipped my attention (gone unnoticed). Or Apple may launch a new iPhone using TV advertising, posters in billboards, and through word of mouth, then the next day there is a long line of people which extends out of the shopping centre, waiting for the Apple shop to open, to buy the new iPhone.

Chris: These are all rather different examples so I can’t really generalise about them. The tracking is obviously a concern regarding privacy, and switching off the Bluetooth and position trackers on your phone, is a good idea. In general, advertisers on the internet take advantage of consumers’ naïveté about internet security and privacy, we should all really wise-up (including me).

Thomas: Today in 2020 we are seeing big organisations on the internet like Facebook and political campaigns gather vast amounts of clever and maybe unethical data about how we interact online and what we do. The Facebook and Cambridge Analytica data scandal, was a major political scandal in early 2018 when it was revealed that Cambridge Analytica had harvested the personal data of millions of people’s Facebook profiles, without their consent and used it for political purposes. The information now available and actively farmed, is complex and detailed. The information now used by big organisations is always advancing, however, the end result, for example, delivering a better positioned and timed advert online has not changed. The way people and large organisations go about getting data and then serving it, still delivers the same end result, an: advert, usually which people do not want and take no notice of. Do you have anything to say on this?

Chris: The Cambridge Analytica thing, as I understand, it was about illegal data sharing in order to map individual profiles and to send propagandising posts and adverts that reinforces existing prejudices. This has proved an extremely successful propaganda technique, that worked very well in the Trump election and in Brexit campaigns.

Thomas: We are now seeing large highly commercial public billboards banned and made illegal in countries such as: Hawaii which was the first state to ban billboards in the 1920s, Vermont (U.S.A.) in 1968, Maine (U.S.A.) in the early 1980s, and Alaska (U.S.A.) (by state referendum) in 1998. What are your thoughts on this?

Chris: São Paulo in Brazil famously banned OOH (out-of-home) advertising altogether and the result looks odd, but seems to have been quite well received. The visual pollution is quite annoying and local authorities do need to legislate to preserve the visual integrity of urban spaces.

Thomas: In city centres in the U.K., as of 2020, we are now seeing more and more electronic A1 portrait billboards, inside retail spaces, on shop fronts and in public places. BT (British Telecom) has also introduced a double-sided electronic A1 portrait billboard in high-streets (called InLink, to replace under-used pay phones). The InLink units provide free wi-fi over a 100-metre range, have ports to allow people to charge their mobile phones and can be used to make free phone calls to any number, as well as 999. My feeling is that electronic adverts are an improvement over static printed ones, at least from an advertising design and promotional point of view. The messages are always changing, they can be customised and contain dynamic information (like weather information). It should also take less time to update with new adverts than printed adverts. What are your thoughts about this new electronic advertising?

Chris: They can be fun. British Airways did a great campaign a few years ago, that had little children looking with wonder at planes every time one flew overhead — these interludes interrupted the usual adverts, when the place had gone, the other advert returned. It was an extraordinary link-up of flight data with the advert. Out-of-home (OOH) advertising has been revolutionised by technology in recent years making it far more striking — of course the best ones then get talked about offline and on social media, which is the litmus test for any great advertising. The best adverts have always wanted to be talked about, and now social media have made that word-of-mouth into a commentary on brands, that has a potential audience reach of billions, in a short space of time.

Street photograph of a close-up shot of the new kiosk A1 InLink advertising units, with London buses, cars and road behind it
Figure 2. Each InLink provides ultrafast, free public wi-fi, phone calls, device charging and a tablet for access to city services, maps and directions.

Thomas: On advertising education courses and more commercial advertising driven graphic design courses at educational establishments, there is a heavy emphasis on lateral ideas and concepts, once you get a good idea, it is an almost be-all and end-all route to success (like it will fix every problem). However, communication researchers, information designers and usability specialists know there is more to the system that the advert operates in, than this good idea fix all belief, positioning of the advert is crucial (is positioning even the designer’s concern and job?) and issues of usability and branding are also as crucial and the (fix all) good idea.

Chris: It is axiomatic in advertising that strategy comes first, creative development comes second. If the creative execution doesn’t deliver a carefully thought-through advertising strategy, the advert probably won’t do much for the client. However, now public relations (PR) has become part-and-parcel of advertising, in the sense that every advert becomes a potential vehicle for social media sharing, consumer comments, trade press articles, and so on, so a great creative idea, can sometimes be an end-in-itself, if it is likely to generate excitement and therefore generate secondary publicity, that simply gets the brand into the public domain. The meerkats in the U.K. CompareTheMarket.com adverts, are a good example of lateral thinking that has been commercially successful.

Thomas: In 2007 throughout England, it became illegal to smoke in public places (like in bars, pubs, restaurants, and cafés). I would like to expand a bit more on this and how it relates to advertising and public awareness. I actually cannot remember seeing any TV adverts telling me that this new law was coming into force, I remember seeing 1 advert on the side of a double-decker bus for a split second, telling me that it was going to be illegal to smoke in public places after July 2007. No one telephoned me to say things are changing, no one informed me at my place of work or where I was living, to say that a new law was coming into force. So on the face of it, I was exposed to very little advertising, yet, come July 2007 everyone throughout England just stopped smoking in public places immediately! It was like overnight, this amazing great transformation happened, yet no one really told me anything… And yet, this ban smoking law was successful beyond belief, all achieved by almost no advertising (graphic communication) mostly by word of mouth. To be honest it was a communication design success phenomenon rarely ever seen, which involved very little direct advertising. No one now smokes in public buildings in England…

Chris: Yes, I don’t know either. It is often said that advertising doesn’t give people new ideas, but merely exploits and expands the ideas and trends that were already bubbling around consumer culture, so perhaps there was really a big public appetite for smoke free public spaces, even though much of the media comment had been dominated by publicans and other lobbyists being negative about it. It was an idea that already had a ready reception.

Thomas: What does the future of advertising hold?

More of the same:

  • The infusion of promotional interests into mediated news, information and entertainment.
  • The slow decline in audience reach of analogue mass media, in competition from digital media.
  • The convergence of all media channels and advertising categories on the internet.
  • The disintermediation of supply and distribution chains, so that we buy more and more stuff via our phone or laptop for next day delivery.
  • The conflicted public attitudes to marketing and advertising for example, we despise and fear it, but we love it all because it’s fun and flattering to be seduced.

Also, we are so vastly entertained and diverted by marketing and advertising, it all makes life a little more interesting, it has always been a branch of entertainment and is becoming more so.

Thank you Chris, thanks for taking the time to speak to me, Thomas.

References

Hackley, C. (2013). Marketing in context: Setting the scene. Palgrave Macmillan.

Packard, V. (1957). The Hidden Persuaders. Longmans, Green and Co.

Morehead, A. & Penman, R. (2001). Federal government information campaigns: A critical review. Communication Research Institute.

Sless, D. (2004). Designing public documents. Information Design Journal 12(1), p24–35. John Benjamins.

About the interviewee

Chris Hackley is Professor of Marketing at the School of Management, Royal Holloway University of London, U.K. Chris was the first Chair in Marketing to be appointed at Royal Holloway University of London, in 2004. Prior to that, he was head of the Marketing Subject Group at the University of Birmingham, U.K. His PhD from Strathclyde University (Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business), Scotland, focused on the creative development process in top advertising agencies. He teaches and researches in advertising, marketing, and consumer cultural policy. Chris has published his work in some 200 books, research articles, features, reports, conference papers and presentations. Chris is a regular contributor to print and broadcast media on marketing and consumer policy topics, with more than 100 media appearances and mentions.

Email: Chris.Hackley@rhul.ac.uk.

View Chris’s webpage on the Royal Holloway, University of London website.

View Chris on LinkedIn.

About the interviewer

Thomas Bohm studied graphic communication design at college (BTEC, Leicester College, U.K.) and university (BA, Norwich University of the Arts, U.K.). Runs User Design, Illustration and Typesetting, a graphic communication design, illustration, text editing and production service. He helps book publishers, organisations and businesses, design and communicate better with their users, focusing on graphic communication design that works well for all involved. Designs books, websites, publications, and more. Occasionally does self-initiated research, writing and publishing. Has published papers in Baseline, Slanted, Boxes and Arrows, Typography.Guru, Information Design Journal and Usability Geek, and won international design awards. Fellow of the Communication Research Institute.

Email: info@userdesignillustrationandtypesetting.com.

Copyright/reuse

All writing copyright © Chris Hackley and Thomas Bohm. Copyright means you have to get permission from us to reuse the writing in any way or in any media. Figure 1 and 2 were allowed to be reporduced, thanks to permission given from BT. Copyright means you have to get permission from BT to reuse the 2 photographs in any way or in any media.

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