A view from Dave Trott: We are committing a category error
A view from Dave Trott

A view from Dave Trott: We are committing a category error

The philosopher Gilbert Ryle talks about the basic problem in human understanding.

He calls it the Category Error.
"When things of one kind are presented as if they belong to another."
He blames this confusion on semantics.
He gives two examples to explain what he means.
In the first, imagine a student at Oxford being visited by her aunt.
The aunt asks to see the university.
The student shows her around the campus and the various buildings.
At the end of the tour, the aunt looks confused.
She says "I’ve seen the science building, the history building, the language building, the classics building, and the arts building. But where’s the university?"
Gilbert Ryle says the aunt is making a category error.
Confusing the physical with the conceptual.
He gives another example.


A little boy is taken to see the army march by.
He watches the parade, but looks confused.
He says "I’ve seen the soldiers, the officers, the generals, the tanks, the guns, and the supply wagons. But where’s the army?"
Gilbert Ryle says the little boy is making a category error.
Confusing a concrete entity with an abstraction.
Humans do this a lot.
As I work in advertising, that’s where I see most of it.
The category error in confusing the various parts of what we do.
The input with the out-take.
The detail with the big picture.
The intention with the result.
Relevance with visibility.
Anecdote with data.
Subjective with objective.
Emotion with reason.
Comfort with effectiveness.
Understand that none of these are wrong in themselves.
All that’s wrong is the confusion.
Any objective is valid, as long as we are honest about prioritising that objective.
And we can only be honest if we are clear about it.
And what it will cost.
To do that we have to get the category right.
The main category mistake in advertising is as follows.
Last year around £18.3 billion was spent on all forms of advertising and marketing in the UK.
Of that, 4% was remembered positively.
7% was remembered negatively.
89% wasn’t noticed or remembered.
So 89% of advertising is a waste of money.
I would think that’s the biggest problem.
If we agree on that, I have a question.,
Why is the most important sentence on a brief never written on a brief?
I’ve never seen it written on a brief.
And neither have you.
The most important sentence on any brief is:
THIS ADVERTISING MUST GET NOTICED AND REMEMBERED.
None of us have ever seen a brief with that sentence at the top.
We assume all advertising will get noticed.
So all our attention is put on the various sales messages, the brand images, the emotional triggers, the propensity to purchase, the strategic consistency, the consumer insight, the integrated offering, and so on and so on.
Because we automatically assume people will be paying attention.
So we concentrate our whole attention on the details.
When the facts are, no one will even notice the ads.
So we concentrate on the wrong thing.
Which is why 89% of advertising isn’t noticed or remembered.
We’re discussing something as if it was something else.
We believe if we get the details right the ads will be noticeable and memorable and effective.
We are confusing one set of things with a different set of things.

We are committing a category error.

Topics