History Lessons from Advertising

“We may gather up a beautiful collection of words, arrange them in charming style with a handsome picture to top off, and print this final product in the best medium in the world. If the advertisement does not help to make more sales, we had better throw it away. It has been an interesting experiment – and nothing more.”

- The Thompson Blue Book on Advertising (J. Walter Thompson Co., 1906)

Ours is not a new problem. We use sophisticated technology on the most exciting and effective medium of the internet but we should never forget that the challenge to present a relevant and engaging message to our viewers is an age old problem. Whatever our objective, history does have something to teach us. And advertising – more specifically – can show us how to engage and influence a potential customer efficiently and quickly.

Consider an example taken from 1915 for Listerine.

Print Ad for Listerine, 1915

We are immediately drawn to the core values of the message: aspiration, health, youthfulness and bold confidence. All of this conveyed in a very short time to the reader by the choice of pictures (summer holidays, use of an attractive model), product placement of the bottle, modern bold typeface in the main heading, value proposition for personal hygiene.

Move forward to the 1950’s with higher production values, we see the dominance of visual presentation. Consider this ad for America Airlines from 1951 (Duke University Advertising Collection).

Print Ad for American Airlines, 1951

We are immediately transported in full colour to identify with this extended family; an echo of the emerging post-war, wealthy, mobile population. The product (the airline) takes a back stage to the scene unfolding before you, relying entirely on the emotions of family values, unity and bonding presented in bold, affluent colour. A single, small, familiar corporate logo presented in the bottom left almost as an afterthought is entirely deferential to the core message. This campaign makes a strong emotional connection to the viewer when thoughts of distant family are front-of-mind during the festive season when the campaign was run.

This emotional attachment to message and imagery continues to be an effective motivator today, connecting to primitive parts of our brain to puncture the veil of noise that surrounds us. We now recognise these emotional, motivating forces as having been hard-wired in us after millennia of evolution. Below, an upsetting and explicit image of imminent danger to a child is used effectively to communicate the dangers of smoking (Chilean Corporation Against Cancer, from DesignModo).

The reaction of the viewer to such a visual offensive is often quick and primal. Something Seth Godin, marketing guru, calls ‘the lizard brain’ (blog post). Prompted by this scene of danger, our “response” has already fired in our primitive lizard brain by the time the rest of our refined, accumulated intellect has figured out this is an ad attempting to alter our perception and what a reasonable response should be.

And so we come to the web. With all its promise and sophistication, our customers are still motivated by the same emotions and psychology that has dominated buying behaviour for centuries. Our challenge is to use this rich experience and build it into our marketing, branding and online promotions.

Technology is the enabler, not the destination.

Testing Ideas

Since the early 1990’s, the study of web pages and how they are used has grown into an established industry and profession. Early names like Jakob Nielsen have led research and published findings that, when brought together, gives the modern usability expert a solid framework on which to build engaging web pages. As Nielsen asserted when arguing for greater standardisation of web design,

“Jakob’s Law of the Internet User Experience: users spend most of their time on other websites.”

(Jakob Nielsen, Useit.com, 2004)

Your online business, website or service – whatever your objective – is governed by the same rules as advertising. To engage your customer or user necessarily means being an expert in psychology and web usability. Beware of doing things against the convention unless you have a very good reason to swim against the tide. This may sound counter-intuitive in this crowded online world where we are all desperate to be noticed. High-performance online is not about dispensing with convention and focusing entirely on artistic originality. It’s more about being creative within the boundaries given to us by human psychology. In the online world, viewers are lazy and will punish you for making their lives complicated no matter how original, funny or artistic you think you are. So in the half-a-second you are afforded to grab someone’s attention, it is best not to ask them to think.

We are fortunate to work in an environment that lends itself to experimentation. Whether it is machine learning or manually testing a hunch, our business is about using the tools to find – quickly – what works best. At every opportunity we should embrace experimentation but always ensure we can quickly measure and react to failures and successes. This theme will surface regularly in the context of advertising, marketing, product management, user/ customer journeys.

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