23 July 2015 by Richard Parsons

Heart vs Head – How Did We Get Here?

heart_VS_head2Since the beginning of time it seems advertising has been split into two camps: the salesmen versus the artists.

“If the history of advertising has one overriding theme, it is this constant tug of war between two schools: the creatives, who believe art inspires consumers to buy; and the pragmatists, who sell based on facts and come armed with reams of research”, says Mark Tungate his book, Ad Land.

I like to think of this as a split between US and European mentalities, but of course, it’s not quite as simple as that.

Broadly speaking, US advertising grew from the back of a horse-drawn cart schlepping from town to town, driven by a silver-tongued fly-by-night selling miracle cures to the gullible. It was hard sell all the way, product-driven and manipulative. The messaging was brash and blunt.

In 1869, George P. Rowell was already publishing the first media directory, giving ad space information on 5,000 newspapers to prospective advertisers across the continent. Advertising was “dramatized salesmanship”, aided by snappy copywriting and backed up rigorous market research pioneered by the likes of J Walter Thompson.

There didn’t seem to be much room, or need, for fancy-pants creativity in an era when products seemed to sell themselves. Rosser Reeves, of the Ted Bates Agency, coined the phrase ‘Unique Selling Proposition’, reflecting his belief in the no-frills school of advertising. Creativity merely detracted from the core message, he believed.

With the launch of radio, and in the absence of any public service broadcasting, commercials were an accepted reality right from the start. Dramas sponsored by soap powder companies became long-running ‘soap operas’. Ads were all about selling products.

Sophistication was added in the form of increasingly “scientific” market research – Ernest Dichter’s “depth interviews” in the late 1930s, for example, and the study of psychological motivation. If agencies could only find the key to unlock the consumer’s brain, went the argument, manufacturers could sell them anything.

Young & Rubicam incorporated George Gallup’s market research into its operation with the mantra “ideas founded on facts.” Even the British David Ogilvy, who infiltrated the US scene, thought advertising was simply a salesman wearing a fancy cravat.

In Europe, by contrast, advertising had a much closer connection to art. Colourful, highly-stylised posters by artists such as Cheret, Toulouse-Lautrec and Mucha advertised Parisian nightspots and plays starring Sarah Bernhardt.

Respected portraitist Millais painted a boy blowing bubbles and allowed the image to be used to sell Pears Soap – the first product also to win celebrity endorsement in the form of Lillie Langtry, mistress of the Prince of Wales, in the 1860s.

Art helped consumer brands lodge in the public imagination, from Cadbury’s to Pears, Bisto to Johnnie Walker Black Label. In short, advertising was more embedded in culture and more associated with creativity – written and artistic – than in the US.

Maybe it was the UK’s tradition of ad-free public service broadcasting (the BBC was founded in 1922) that made us less susceptible to the full-on frontal sales assault. The commercial channel, ITV, was for a long time seen as something rather grubby among the middle classes. The British found selling rather tawdry. A more subtle approach was required.

As Martin Boase, of Boase Massimi Pollitt summarised: “American advertising is traditionally overt, but the British don’t like being sold to.”

So, I’d like to ask you this. Does most B2B advertising take its lead from the European or American school of thinking? Does globalisation necessarily lead to a salesmen’s approach to marketing versus the artists? Comments welcome.