A view from Dave Trott: Why are we advertising?
A view from Dave Trott

Why are we advertising?

When I started in this business, all briefs had a section on them headed: WHY ARE WE ADVERTISING?

We don’t have this on briefs any more, it’s seen as too obvious to even ask.

“What do you mean, ‘Why are we advertising?’ We want people to buy more of what we make, stupid question.”

Well, yes and no – of course we want people to buy, but what part does advertising play in making that happen?

That’s the real question, before we even start to do any ads.

See my problem is, everyone’s got an answer, no one’s got a question.

So how do we know we’ve got the right answer if we don’t know what the question is?

And yet that was the original purpose of the planning department, to ask the questions no-one else was asking.

To think about the purpose of spending money on advertising BEFORE we spent it.

G K Chesterton distinguishes between Lower-Order and Higher-Order thinking.

He illustrates the difference with a story about an old-fashioned gas streetlight.

A large group of men have gathered round to pull it down.

An old man approaches and says: “Friends, before we destroy this lamp, let us think about the reason it was built. Let us consider the value of light itself.”

But he’s not saying what the mob wants to hear, so they just ignore him.

Then the mob pulls the streetlight over and breaks it into pieces.

Some men wanted to smash it because they wanted the iron.

Some men wanted to smash it because they hated the gas company.

Some men thought the light was an intrusion on privacy, some men hated the design.

Some men thought it was old-fashioned. Everyone had a different reason.

So the lamp is destroyed and the different groups argue about their reasons in the dark.

But in the dark they can’t see who they’re arguing with, and gradually they see maybe the old man had a point, maybe there was a reason for light after all.

But now the lamp is destroyed, and now they don’t have any light to discuss it by.

The mob was using Lower-Order thinking: we know what we want, let’s just do it.

The old man was using Higher-Order thinking: let’s investigate the reasons before we act.

Higher-Order thinking is superior, but usually avoided because it’s more difficult.

This is called Chesterton’s Fence.

Someone sees a fence in a field and, seeing no reason for it, decides to tear it down.

Chesterton states that unless you know why the fence was built, you must not tear it down.

You are not capable of addressing a situation until you understand why it exists.

So we should not be advertising until we understand what problem advertising can solve.

How can advertising address a problem without knowing what the problem is?

But it’s painfully obvious we don’t do this, most of us are just blindly groping around.

Recently I heard some ad professionals discussing another agency’s advertising.

They didn’t understand the point of an ad, they couldn’t remember the brand, they certainly didn’t know why anyone would buy the product.

Eventually they ended up at the usual conclusion: “Well I guess we’re talking about it, so it must be working.”

Do we seriously think that is an acceptable answer to: WHY ARE WE ADVERTISING?

Of course not, but we’ve stopped even asking what the purpose of advertising is.

And when we stop asking questions, we stop thinking.

We just go on autopilot and do our job in the same repetitive, predictable way.

And so, as Geri Seiberling says: “Marketers have simply become tools of their tools.”

Dave Trott is the author of The Power of Ignorance, Creative Blindness and How to Cure It, Creative Mischief, Predatory Thinking and One Plus One Equals Three