Bump The Lamp
Idea Archeology

Advertising is Not Voodoo

Mister squishy

Because the universe speaks to us through coincidence, or because of the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon [also known as the frequency illusion] - whichever you prefer - I had a few Squishy encounters of late. 

I just read DFW's brilliant, remarkably disturbing, short[ish] horror story and comment on corporate culture Mister Squishy, and lo and behold it was recently adapted as a stage play

You should read the story for its merits as a story [it's available in the collection Oblivion] but for those in advertising, marketing and market research, it's remarkable for a whole different set of reasons.

It was published in 2000 but set in 1995 which obviously gives it a sheen of false prescience, but even so, his laser like analysis of market research, marketing and its future - its now - is amazing. 

On Targeting

"The 18-39 Male demographic, the single most prized and fictile demotarget in high-end marketing."

On Data

"The whole problem and project of descriptive statistics was discriminating between what made a difference and what did not."

On Advertising

"One of the first things a Field Researcher accepts is that the product is never going to have as important a place in a TFG’s minds as it did in the Client’s. Advertising is not voodoo.

The Client could ultimately hope only to create the impression of a connection or resonance between the brand and what was important to consumers. And what was important to consumers was, always and invariably, themselves. What they conceived themselves to be.

The Focus Groups made little difference in the long run—the only true test was real sales, in Schmidt’s personal opinion."

On Herd Behavior  

And if you wondered why your kid was wearing them of course the majority of the answer was simply that other kids were wearing them, for of course kids as a demographic market today were notoriously herdlike and their individual choices in consumption were overwhelmingly influenced by other kids’ consumption-choices and so on in a fadlike pattern that spread like wildfire and usually then abruptly and mysteriously vanished or changed into something else.

This was the most simple and obvious example of the sort of complex system of large groups’ intragroup preferences influencing one another and building exponentially on one another, much more like a nuclear chain reaction or an epidemiological transmission grid than a simple case of each individual consumer deciding privately for himself what he wanted and then going out and judiciously spending his disposable income on it.


And it goes on, in gloriously observed detail, about how we often start out in agencies full of passion, hoping to move clients and agencies to do the rights things, to be honest to consumers and drive brands to do better things for the world, but eventually we realize that companies are structured to only care about money; and how that affects people, and their relationships, as they run ever faster on that hedonic treadmill, hoping to get to the next level, to get a raise, but always with the sneaking suspicion that life is a hoax and worse that every human interaction is self-serving, political or mercenary because that's what business ultimately wants to teach us. 

As I said, it's a horror story. 

And finally, on what all that data of the web would do to advertising and market research:

But where most agencies still saw the coming www primarily as just a new, fifth venue* for high-impact ads, part of your more forward-looking type vision for the coming era involved finding ways to exploit cybercommerce’s staggering research potential as well.

Undisplayed little tracking codes could be designed to tag and follow each consumer’s w3 interests and spending patterns. 

Britton said that Focus Groups could be assembled abstractly via consumers’ known patterns—as in e.g. who showed an interest? who bought the product or related products and from which cybervendor via which link thing?—

that not only would there be no voir dire and no archaic per diem expenses but even the unnecessary variable of consumers even knowing they were part of any sort of market test was excised, since a consumer’s subjective awareness of his identity as a test subject instead of as a true desire-driven consumer had always been one of the distortions that market research swept under the rug because they had no way of quantifying subjective-identity-awareness.

Focus Groups would go the way of the dodo and bison and art deco.


Which isn't exactly what happened, but the market research industry itself tells itself that it has, despite knowing that it hasn't