Drugi jezik na kojem je dostupan ovaj članak: Bosnian
Author: Janez Rakušček, Executive Creative Director Luna\TBWA Ljubljana
Translated into English by: Hannah Maurer
You probably all know the famous anecdote about Orson Welles’ radio drama The War of the Worlds, which speaks to the power of the mass media. The drama told the story of a Martian attack and was recorded as a series of breaking news reports. It was broadcast on Sunday, 30 October, 1938 by Columbia Broadcasting Systems (CBS) and caused out-and-out panic as people called the authorities and fled their homes in fear. Panic just took over.
It’s an excellent story ruined only by not being true. Welles’ drama was in the CBS program for that evening, but didn’t cause any panic to speak of. Most listeners (and there weren’t many, its audience share was 2%) knew perfectly well it was a radio drama.
Almost no one went into hiding or tried to flee in panic. There were a few angry calls to the radio station. The myth started to form a few days later, when magazines, led by the famed New York Times, launched an attack on the medium of radio for its irresponsibility and negligence, largely because it was a strong competitor in the war for advertising money.
They wanted to blacken a medium of communication that was gaining in strength, so they inflated the stories of panic. CBS decided that spreading the story of The War of the Worlds was helpful, because it confirmed radio’s influence over its audience. Orson Welles used it to build his reputation. That’s how the myth came about. Many of us still believe it, maybe because it’s used at universities in media studies.
Even in the worlds of marketing and communications we show an undeserved faith in untested, even fantastic myths and legends about what works and what doesn’t in advertising. This is why it’s so interesting and deserves closer attention when the profession turns self-critical. The careless reader may have difficulty distinguishing between an intellectually rigorous, empirical and factually based theory and a bombastic “this changes everything” flash-in-the-pan that predicts the dawning of a new age but is essentially just a pitch for a (the author’s) nostrum of effective communication.
In the history of critical thinking about communication (whatever that might amount to) there’s been a lot more of the latter, practically magical formulae that remind us of the wonderworking illusions of the middle ages, than of any serious discussion based on principles of enlightened methodology.
In The Anatomy of Humbug: How to Think Differently About Advertising*, renowned expert in communications strategy Paul Fedwick offers acute insights into a range of marketing and advertising theories. He takes us on a stroll through the theory and practice of persuasive advertising from the end of the 19th to the start of the 21st century. A particularly fascinating discovery is the degree to which modern marketing and communications rely on a set of terms more than a century old without analysing the context they were created in. Concepts, like consumer benefit, USP, the proposition, attention, “reason why”… are a part of the thought climate about how communication operates.
Today we often use them as if they were self-evident and so accept the theories that created them (which we are generally unaware of). In his book, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, John Maynard Keynes presents this trap in economic terms as “Practical men who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.” It comes as no surprise in reflecting on communicational theory that we find a lot of material that would not withstand even minimal critique.
Paul Feldwick wittily sorts contemporary thought on advertising into three paradigms. The first is the enlightenment narrative, which goes something like this: “Our predecessors were dancing in the dark, but today, thanks to numbers and science, everything is clear.” If you think the enlightenment narrative is a product of the digital age, you are sorely mistaken, because it first appeared in a 1923 book, Scientific Advertising, by the famous copywriter Claude Hopkins.
The second paradigm is the golden age narrative: everything used to be better, easier, more beautiful, more creative, etc. The first thing that stands out about this narrative is how diametrically opposed it is to the first one, which raises questions about them both. It’s also distinctly defensive, even depressive. Nostalgic pasts always seem more beautiful than they really were because, well, that’s just part of human nature. If we could hear people from the time, we might see a different picture. In Madison Avenue, U.S.A, published in 1958, Martin Mayer was already talking about the working hours at agencies “long to the point of brutishness.”
The third self-reflective narrative is Year Zero: nothing is the same as before, society is radically different, consumers are radically different, everything is totally new. This story is like the first one, except for bringing in external forces that have changed everything. A characteristic of the story is that change is happening now, right now, and if you miss it you’ll be buried forever in the junkyard of (advertising) history. This discourse includes a multitude of things, from sensationalist work manuals to real academic articles published in reputable journals. What they all share is careless and thoughtless generalisations and conclusions based on rare phenomenon.
They aren’t bothered at all by contrary explanations of the phenomena or facts. It has all gone so far that this singular Year Zero moment has lasted for over 20 years now (yes, most of the watershed theories appeared with the New Millenium, itself no coincidence).
Marketing and communications discourses are full of myths and legends like the story of Welles’ War of the Worlds. Even the best recognised and appreciated theories (e.g. Kotler) pale when compared to empirical data on what works, what doesn’t, and how we truly function as people. If (like me) you are in preventive self-isolation and not leaving your house, maybe you have a little more time for reading. If you do, choose carefully. It can be difficult to orient ourselves in the flood of bombastic new findings, which is why you should stick to one simple rule: the more sensational a book’s title, the less credible the theory it’s selling is likely to be.
*Troubador Publishing, 2018