How scientific is marketing?
SEK has finally started to watch “Mad Men” and has some interesting thoughts about the show and Don Draper as a literary character here. The review touches on an issue that I don’t touch on much while blogging about the show here, but was actually the focus of my piece in The American Prospect on the show—the way the show depicts advertising as an industry. When I wrote about it, I was noting the way that the 60s were very inspirational in terms of imagining new possibilities, and this had a strong effect on the way that advertising worked. What SEK touches on is how the show depicts the transition of advertising as something that became more scientific-feeling, where the agency relied on market research to find out where the consumer was at and meet him there.
In the subsequent years, the story of the near omnipotence of advertising has really attached itself to the American psyche. Liberals and conservatives both speak fluent anxiety about the feeling of loss of will and control in the face of the marketplace that, we believe, instills desires in us, and has to be kept out of our heads through force. The walls we erect are different. Liberals implore you to throw out your TV, flip off the radio, and to reject anything that seems to reek of the corporate marketplace. (Alas, the corporate marketplace has grown adept at mimicking signals that appeal to this mindset—places like Whole Foods come to mind.) That some of these things might give you pleasure is considered evidence of their inherent evil, and all the more reason to toss them out. Conservatives erect the family as a protective device—Father Knows Best, and will keep the bogeyman out with a mixture of piety and submission rituals. That advertising is so all-powerful is taken as a matter of faith by liberals and conservatives alike. Ask any feminist blogger who writes about a sexist ad campaign, and she will tell you that the comment threads under those have 100% certainty of someone—from the right or the left—denying that the sexism is something the feminist should worry about. Why? Because the world-weary commenter will say, “They do it because it works to sell (fill in object for sale),” as if this somehow means the conversation is over. (Of course, even if sexism sells, I fail to see why that makes it any less sexism, which is why that comment has always puzzled me.) The marketplace is so all-powerful that even acknowledging its existence outside of talking about that power is considered dangerous, like uttering the word “cancer” used to be.
The use of market research by advertisers is extremely important to this image of them as having this intoxicating power to create desire where none existed, even over the thoughtful. They have numbers that show them how to get to you! No wonder they have so much power! What’s interesting to me is that the public seems to perceive marketing as scientific to the degree that no guesswork or whimsy is assumed to be part of the work of creating advertising. Or that personal prejudice or preference on the part of the marketers or the clients might have as much to do with advertisements as the market research. On “Mad Men”, we get to see carefully researched campaigns thrown in the trash because clients are persnickety or because the ad men feel the research lacks depth, but we’ve convinced ourselves that this kind of thing has disappeared. Or we had convinced ourselves—I think nowadays, with more people creating content (albeit usually just creative content for its own sake) and trying to push it, people are beginning to see that it’s more guesswork than you’d think.
Not that I don’t think research is a major part of advertising. But people have to interpret that research, and often they probably just do the campaigns they want and use the research to rationalize it. And part of that is that research tools can only do so much, as least in their present form. Asking people what they want doesn’t produce the most reliable data, for instance, and even if you can get reliable data, it’s not a science turning that into creative content. But I think a lot of the time, people underestimate how much of advertising ends up being a matter of the marketers doing something that they find personally appealing, and hoping that their own affection for it will translate to a larger audience—something that anyone doing something creative does at the end of the day, whether they’re considered real artists or not.
The reason this is on my mind is that there’s been a lot of discussion here and there about how more and more TV ads are using indie rock in their ads. The use of rock music in advertising has always been a point of contention, and I think the reason it gets so ugly and people get so bent out of shape about it is that we still believe that advertisers pick these songs because they have some scientifically demonstrable emotional pull that will make us helpless to resist the charms of the product. We want the experience of being emotionally manipulated, but we want it to be free of ulterior motives, which is as close to a definition of “art” as you get in our capitalist society. Of course, to make that argument work, we have to stifle our understanding that making art in our society is a market, and moreover, this isn’t a new thing, but has been true since technology to replicate any piece of work for mass audiences has been in place, i.e. it’s been true since the printing press. You could argue that it was true before, but for our purposes, the model of popular art marketplaces was set with that invention, and everything else has been a variation on the theme—people make art because they want to, but also to make money, and that popularity means more money. And so if you buy into a piece of art, you are being emotionally manipulated so someone else can make money.
To be fair, advertising is different, because you’re being emotionally manipulated strictly so someone else can make money. Most artists work for more reasons than to make money, so it feels right to buy in, even as we intellectually know that most of the money spent goes to distributors that could be selling widgets, for all they care. But if you think about it closely, this means that any objections you have to rock music in advertising fall apart, since the piece in question was made for artistic reasons (most of the time), and they made money by selling it after the fact to the advertisers. Thinking about it this way, it’s not a lot different than other distribution methods, which is why I’m far from the only person who has made peace with this trend.
But the scientific fallacy is the other reason I can’t get bent about songs I like advertising products. I doubt very seriously that some indie rock song pops up in an ad because that song has been scientifically proven to overcome my objections to the product. I’m pretty damn sure that these songs end up in these ads because advertising is still very much about the guesswork. The marketer picked the song because he a) liked it and thought others would based on this and b) he thought it would be nice to use his power to kick some money over to an artist he likes. Thinking about the second reason gives me a subversive thrill and further undermines any objections I might have. Take the money and run, rock musicians!
Thinking of marketers as making their choices strictly from research and not from a combination of taste and guesswork appeals for the main reason that it gives us a comfortingly bright line between art and commerce, as well. Looking at the similarities between the process of making art and making an ad makes it hard to tell the difference between the two; sometimes they even bleed into each other. When you’re watching a music video, are you looking at a discrete piece of art or an advertisement? The only honest answer is “both”, and that’s uncomfortable. We push the video into the realm of art because it’s part of the larger process of an artist testing their ideas against the world, unless of course we’re a curmudgeon that hates music videos, in which case we dismiss them as advertising.
Not to say that I think market research is useless or anything, but from what I understand, most of it is actually aimed at manipulating a product and its packaging more than really addressing the content of TV and print ads. The focus on media advertising tends to distract from the more mundane and often effective ways you’re being manipulated by the product itself, from the salty/fatty/sweet taste of junk foods to the studied simplicity of packaging around products that have hippiefied yuppies as their target audience. And even there, the lines between emotional manipulation and authentic experience collapse—if I’m pleased by the aesthetics of a cute pair of shoes, does that make me a victim of their product design, or an appreciator? It’s very hard to know where the line is sometimes.