Trying to choose the 12 best books about advertising might seem like a simple question, yet trying to answer it reminds me how many different discourses there are, and how rarely they pay attention to each other.
My own modest collection of books relating to advertising ranges across the following categories and beyond: academic books and text books, of varying usefulness, but mostly heavy going; popular works by famous admen (and yes, I’m afraid these are all men), which are fascinating and important but unscientific and often self-deluding; practical books, from every decade since the 1920s, on ‘how to advertise’; histories and biographies; attacks on the immorality of advertising; defences against same; and quite a long sequence of actual case histories, valuable, though they never quite tell the real story of how a particular campaign came to be.
Nearly all have something interesting in them. Some books have been hugely influential, but are in my view seriously misleading; others contain valuable insights, but are either impossible to get hold of today, or are virtually unreadable.
Finally, I agree with James Webb Young that the best books about advertising are often not about advertising at all, being about psychology, or communications theory, or almost anything else.
I have nevertheless chosen 12 books, coming from four different angles, and all I hope still obtainable without too much trouble. My claim is that, if you knew nothing about advertising, but were to read all 12 books carefully and critically, cross referencing and comparing them, you would have a broader understanding of advertising than most people in or out of the business. You would also have plenty of ideas for further reading.
Three works about advertising’s history
Martin Mayer – Madison Avenue USA (1955)
Stephen Fox – The Mirror Makers (1984)
Vance Packard – The Hidden Persuaders (1957)
Perhaps the best way to start making sense of advertising is through its narratives, its larger than life characters, its energy and inventiveness and controversy. Mayer was a brilliant journalist who studied the US advertising scene at a crucial time, when much of what we now take for granted was new and controversial - when TV advertising was newer than the internet is now.
His conclusions about how advertising works, and about the industry itself, have never been surpassed and are as relevant today as they were then. Fox covers the same ground, and much more, as history, and brings to life many of the great advertising men - and the too often forgotten women - including those who never wrote their own book. And I couldn’t leave out Packard. You will make up your own mind about his forthright attack on advertising when you have read the other books on this list. But his book is important because it was itself influential (Reeves largely formulated his theories in response to it), and because it signals a fundamental issue about how ads work.
Three influential works by great admen of the past
Claude Hopkins – Scientific Advertising (1923)
Rosser Reeves – Reality in Advertising (1961)
David Ogilvy – Ogilvy on Advertising (1983)
These are probably the most widely read books ever about advertising so they are essential to an understanding of advertising’s history and culture. They are each highly readable, make advertising seem simple, and give some idea of how their hugely successful authors inspired confidence in their clients. Just don’t mistake them for science, or even for an accurate depiction of what their authors actually did.
Read critically in the light of the history books and the modern theories, you can learn a lot from them as long as you don’t swallow them whole. Ogilvy also includes generous appreciations of other influential figures (who didn’t write books) such as Bill Bernbach and Stanley Resor.
Three contemporary books about advertising theory, which are both sound and readable
Byron Sharp – How Brands Grow (2010)
Les Binet and Peter Field – Marketing in the Era of Accountability (2007)
Stephen King - A Master Class on Brand Planning (2007)
Sharp sums up decades of empirical research studies by Andrew Ehrenberg and his followers which challenge conventional wisdom about marketing, proposing a theory of advertising which is very simple yet probably more right than wrong.
Binet and Field analysed thirty years of effectiveness studies and their conclusions partly support and partly complement Sharp. King was one of the founders of account planning: his collected papers develop a view of advertising which balances the ‘informational/propositional’ theories of Hopkins or Reeves.
Three books about advertising that aren’t about advertising (and will lead you to others if you’re interested)
Timothy Wilson – Strangers to Ourselves (2002)
Daniel Kahnemann – Thinking Fast and Slow (2011)
Paul Watzlawick and others – Pragmatics of Human Communication (1967)
The past twenty-five years have seen major developments in psychology and neuroscience, easily accessible because scientists like Wilson and Kahnemann write so well.
They provide evidence that our decisions are not, as Hopkins and Reeves pretended, conscious weighings-up of factual evidence, but are largely driven by emotions, subconscious processes and non-verbal communication.
Watzlawick’s seminal work in communication theory (much more entertaining than its dry title suggests!) shifts our attention away from the content of communication to the role it plays in relationships: a radical thought with profound consequences for advertising.
There are many other books with a claim to inclusion, and it’s tempting to hedge my bets by mentioning more - but I will restrict myself to two. James Webb Young’s How to Become an Advertising Man only just got squeezed out because it’s so hard to find nowadays.
But there is an excellent summary and commentary on Young’s book in More Bullmore by Jeremy Bullmore, which is the one extra bun I would like for my baker’s dozen.
Not only will it probably tell you everything really important in the other 12 books, but it will introduce you to someone who has worked his whole life in advertising and remains both witty and wise - factors that transcend any amount of academic theory or dogmatic bluster.
Paul Feldwick, on behalf of Credos
What do you think of the above list? Have any of your favourite advertising books been missed out? Tell us your choices in the comment section below.