For those of you whose command of physics has grown a little rusty through disuse, let me remind you that Newton's third law is formally stated as: "For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction." Helpful illustrations of this law in action invariably include the recoil experienced when cannon are fired.I don’t think it’s exactly what Sir Isaac had in mind, but I’ve long known that there’s a communications equivalent of the third law – and one we’re unwise to ignore.
Most books about communications – and, until recently, almost all books about advertising – seem to believe that you can fire off a communication and experience no recoil whatsoever. "Drink Bertram’s Beer," you proclaim; and this instruction wings its way, without let or hindrance, into the minds of millions – where it not only rests unchallenged but is obediently followed. If that were true, every right-thinking person would need to get out of advertising immediately and start doing something respectable such as flogging payday loans.
Long ago, I invented a communications version of the old "have you stopped beating your wife?" conundrum. You say to your friends: "I have a theory. I believe that all people, when presented with a proposition, feel the need to challenge it."
And some of your friends will say: "I’m not sure I agree with that." At which point you say: "Aha! You see! Gotcha!" And some of your friends will say: "Yes, I suppose that’s true." At which point you say: "Aha! But not this one, apparently? Gotcha!"
Trick or not, there is certainly a lot of truth in the belief that, faced with a proposition, most people do feel an urge to question it, to challenge it – and, in some cases, to fight back against it.
As I’ve revealed elsewhere, the one phrase in the whole world that I dread more than any other is: "I can’t wait for you to meet Giles."
Long before I hear another word, I can feel my personal recoil beginning to wind itself up.
It seems that Giles’ mother comes from a famous New England literary family and his father is a distinguished immunologist. Giles himself was educated on three continents, has degrees in both business and the history of art, played chess and rugby for his university, speaks fluent French with a slight Provençal accent and – though in no way conventionally handsome – is strikingly attractive.
I have never met Giles and have heard nothing but good things about him. Yet already I hate him. The more extreme and unequivocal an opinion, the greater the likelihood of an equal and opposite counter opinion.
Before the dawn of the internet, the advertising world could pretend that this wasn’t the case. We could transmit outrageous claims and promises; and since they were greeted by silence, we happily assumed they’d been passively accepted. They hadn’t. Focus groups should have helped. When told that a revolutionary new biological detergent was kindness itself to fine fabrics, a Newtonian mother was quick to demand: "So what made that hole in Sophy’s knickers, then?"
Today, we have absolutely no excuse for failing to recognise that advertising, like physics, has its own third law. The reactions to our actions may not always be equal, but they will certainly be opposite. I direct you to a million cantankerous Tweets and blogs.
Is ‘legal, decent, honest and truthful’ tautologous?
No. You can be legal and indecent, truthful and illegal, legal and dishonest… and so on. In any case, with a trade as wily as advertising, you can’t be too careful.
And what about the man who attracted more than $500,000 by running just one advertisement in a great many newspapers? It simply read: "Now is your last chance to send $100 to PO box 12233."
What would the Advertising Standards Authority and the Code of Advertising Practice have said and what action could they have taken?
As the ad never ran again, it was their last chance. And so one of the world’s most disgraceful and duplicitous ads was also unarguably legal, decent, honest and truthful.
Perhaps yet another adjective is needed? Suggestions, please.
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