For almost as long as there has been a marketing industry, there’s been a split between the scientists and the artists. The scientists see marketing as a planned activity with known inputs and outputs, measurable all along the way. The artists see marketing as being a mix of creativity and magic. At the moment, with a combination of a risk-averse economy and the rise of measurable digital activity, the scientists are in the ascendant.
The trouble is that both sides of the split are pretty much right and wrong in equal measure. Here’s why…
First of all, because of the placebo effect. In medicine it’s well known that sometimes the act of receiving and taking a drug can be enough to be able to have a positive effect on patients. That might be because just, by the law of averages, starting a course of treatment coincided with the natural processes by which someone’s own body overcame a condition; sometimes the thought of being made better by a treatment is enough to make someone better; it’s not hugely well understood, but double-blind testing as part of the assessment of the efficacy of a new drug is crucial to be able to understand if it in itself has any beneficial effect.
When it comes to marketing activity, it’s next to impossible to do such double-blind testing. Imagine, if you will, a particularly creative advertising campaign – say a Mariachi band playing 1980s pop hits advertising a tortilla snack. Play that ad to half the population, and double-blind with something like an advert that has a 30-second still caption that says nothing but “Buy Doritos”. That would sort of give you an idea of whether the advert was having a positive impact on the desired outcomes (selling more corn chips). And it isn’t going to happen – because there is no value to anyone in the supply chain of marketing for it to happen.
But even if you could double-blind in some way, there’s another strange effect that also flies in the face of both the scientists and the artists: the sleeper effect.
This is described as one of many strange fallacies and misconceptions that we humans have in our brilliant yet troubled minds in Rolf Dobelli’s book The Art of Thinking Clearly. During the Second World War every one of the major nations produced propaganda to instil a sense of patriotic duty in the population. Research in the US that took place to understand the impact of such material found disappointing results – they didn’t seem to make a great deal of difference as people saw them as what they were – government-produced propaganda.
However two months later a much more profound impact was found – those who had watched the nationalistic movies expressed a significantly greater support for the war.
What was happening? Well, it’s not entirely clear, but it seems to be related to how our memory isn’t an accurate snapshot of reality in the past, but a constantly evolving thing that means that probably only about 50% of things we can recall are things that actually happened that way. In the context of war propaganda, people would reframe the pro-war content into a new context of where it was sourced; the views were held, but they weren’t associated to the hollow material of the War Department.
This sleeper effect is fascinating from a mass marketing perspective: that whilst advertising and other techniques may well work, they might take significantly longer to have an impact that most campaigns timeframes would account for, and any sort of research getting people to say whether they’d seen a particular campaign after such a period of time would be unlikely to accurately reflect the reality… “Did you see this advert?” is a question that we are surprisingly unable to answer (even if we think we could absolutely).
Does all this mean that marketing and advertising is without value? Absolutely not. But can we accurately tie cause, effect and correlation together for a specific set of activities and outcomes like the marketing scientists would want? Again, almost certainly not.