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The Lost Art of Persuasion: Why Advertisers (Wrongly) Think Persuasion is Unimportant

The Lost Art of Persuasion: Why Advertisers (Wrongly) Think Persuasion is Unimportant

Been reading this book by Byron Sharp (“How Brands Grow”, Oxford University Press). It’s generally an outstanding book and I’ll blog in the future about the truths that it offers which should dramatically change advertising (though I’m not certain anyone will seriously listen).

But despite a brilliant start, this book falls flat on its face when discussing persuasion. Sharp (et. al.) try to tell us that in the world of “new advertising” persuasion is unimportant.

I’m only picking on Sharp here because he’s quite vocal about it. But Sharp is not alone. The most up-to-date advertising theorists will tell you that persuasion is impossible and a concept relegated to the dark ages of advertising (like the 1970′s).

This is bunk. For long established brands (like Duracell batteries or Dial soap) it may be the right thing for advertising to do the hard work reminding us a brand exists so that we purchase the brand a bit more often. But with products that are new, a brand that needs to evolve quickly, or a brand that’s being built, your advertising may live or die on its ability to persuade.

In campaign after campaign, our numbers show that the action driven by persuasion is so big that it’s measurable without too many sophisticated statistical techniques.

So what happened? Most of the campaigns How Brands Grow evaluates are campaigns designed to remind — campaigns where persuasion is unimportant and ineffective.

What’s more interesting is that in my attempt to dig back through Ehrenberg’s work (part of Sharp’s base of research) I only find work which says you can’t persuade people to adopt a brand. I fully agree. I can’t be persuaded to “buy Apple.” But I can be persuaded to buy a smartphone which happens to be Apple brand because of the something different about that phone.

There is a great distinction between brand and product missing in the ad biz. I don’t head out to “buy an Apple” then decide, after arriving at the store, whether I want a watch, a laptop, or a phone. I head out to buy a new smartphone and amid choosing the phone I end up also choosing which brand to buy. If there is persuasive enough argument for me to buy the phone which happens to have Brand A on it, I will probably end up buying it. And it could be I don’t. But with good persuasive advertising, more often than not I will buy it.

Sharp rightly notes that many branded attempts to persuade rely on minor advantages that don’t offer any significant value. Persuasion is worthless as an approach in these situations. Brand advertisers need to look honestly at the insignificance of what they’re saying.

But also, on this topic this work might be self-predictive. In those campaigns where persuasion would be important, the only campaigns tested are those from traditional agencies. Once past the 1970′s agencies lost their ability to persuade. Guess what happens when we test poorly executed persuasion advertising for its ability to persuade? It not very effective.

Agencies think too narrowly about persuasion. In the discussions I’ve had around persuasion, usually agencies are driven in that direction by client demands — clients who think “persuade” is “logic the customer to buying.”

This is quite frustrating. Persuasion requires a rich mix of ideas. Jaques Ellul noted that a factual walk through of a car motor doesn’t leave behind the facts, but the emotion of “I like that motor.” When persuasive ads are effective, they lead viewers to “I want to get one of those.”

Yet in agency land, what I’ve found is that there’s brand advertising. And, beyond that there’s only features (as a couple of b-grade agency folks once told me). Uh oh. That’s an insanely limited view of the world. The operating definition of “persuasion” must not be using words and logical arguments.

Having sold products and services for a few decades (as well as through ads), that’s nowhere near a good sense of salesmanship. Persuasion happens through a robust communication with the consumer’s heart and mind to create conviction that “I’d like to have one of those.”

Where good persuasive advertising makes it mark is by digging into revealing the whole value of buying the product. And that is a mix of emotion, features, benefits, facts, situations, connections and a lot more.

Many agencies think they’ve evolved beyond anything so pedestrian as persuasion. For the past hundred years agencies have rushed to reject the past. Steroids have been added to this mix in the past decade. Taking a lesson from the Ted videocasts, the agency that gets the most attention is the one who promises to change everything.

Unfortunately, while promising massive change in advertising style may help agencies get new business, it’s mass marketing with traditional media that makes brands grow (as Sharp’s book clearly shows). So the agencies who attempt the most change are also the agencies serving their clients the most poorly.

Agencies aren’t designed for persuasion. When we demand persuasion, it makes our work much harder. We have to dig deeper than the superficial to find real meaning for consumers. We have to reject branding that is little more than ivory tower sociology and find, instead, truths that lead to consumer action.

There are not writers who understand persuasion. There are not directors for TV ads who understand persuasion. There aren’t many creative directors who understand persuasion. (I was fortunate to find one who had created Super Bowl ads for Ford and Goodyear at JWT in Detroit. He retained a brilliant sense of the whole value.)

Net out, I kept my agency small because we couldn’t just “hire” people who could make this highly difficult for of advertising. Most agencies make money hiring art/portfolio school grads and turning them loose. Yet this also creates some solid bitterness among clients who tire of having to deal with freshly minted art school grads who claim they know better how to run a billion dollar businesses.

The Upside: In the right situation, clients thrive with persuasion. Persuasion takes place when we communicate consumer truths that have compelling value. And, it’s even stronger when we put all of our communication tools behind the attempt to persuade – words, images, sounds, textures, ideas, logic, emotions, personality, music, and more.

I have been, here, too hard on How Brands Grow. Overall the book is brilliant and is having a tremendous positive impact on the marketing business. Perhaps what we should take from the persuasion commends is that effective persuasion is so rare among ad agencies that advertisers usually give up trying.

It’s too bad.

©2011 – Doug Garnett, All Rights Reserved.
Updated ©2022

Categories:   Advertising, Communication, Human Tech, Innovation, Media, Research & Attribution


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