Archive for the 'Advertising' Category

Vacuum cleaners generating hot air

Apparently, British inventor James Dyson has argued that more people should study engineering and fewer “French lesbian poetry”.    Assuming he is correctly quoted, there are a couple of things one could say in response.

First, all Mr Dyson need do is pay engineers more than the going market rates, and he will attract more people  into the profession.   Likewise, he could give students scholarships to study engineering.   He, unlike most of the rest of us, has it in his direct personal power to achieve this goal.   I think it ill-behooves someone who moved his manufacturing operations off-shore to bemoan any lack of home-grown talents.

Second, no matter how wonderful the engineering technology or novelty of the latest, jet-propelled, wind-turbine-bladed vacuum cleaner, the technology will not sell itself.   For that, even the vacuum cleaners of the famous Mr Dyson need marketing and advertising.  And, marketing needs people who can understand and predict customer attitudes and behaviours, people who have studied psychology and sociology and anthropology and economics.  Marketing needs people who can analyze data, increasingly in large quantities and in real-time, people who have studied mathematics and statistics and computer science and econometrics.  Marketing needs people who can strategize, people who have studied game theory and military strategy and political science and history, and can emphathize with customers and competitors.   As Australian advertising man Philip Adams once noted, Marxists and ex-Marxists are often the best marketing strategists, because they think dialectically about the long term.

And advertising needs people who can manipulate images, people who have usually studied art or art history or graphic design or architecture.  Advertising needs people who can take photos and use movie cameras and direct films, people who have studied photography and cinematography and lighting and film and theatre studies and acting.  Advertising needs people who can write jingles and advertising scores, and play the music required, people who have studied music and song and musical instruments.   Advertising needs people who can build sets, acquire props, and obtain costumes, people who are good with their hands or who have studied fashion.   And, finally, advertising needs people who can write ad copy and scripts – often people have studied history and journalism and languages and literature and poetry – even, at times, I would guess, the poetry of French lesbians.

One reason Britain is a such a world leader in marketing and advertising, despite the long-term decline and poor management of its manufacturing industry,  is because of its many leading art colleges and universities teaching the humanities and social sciences.  The name of Dyson would not be known to households across the country and beyond without the contributions of many, many professionals who did not study engineering.

 

UPDATE (2012-12-01):  And if you are still wondering why more people studying engineering would not be sufficient for business success, consider this from Grant McCracken:

Culture is the sea in which business swims. We can’t do good innovation without it. We can’t do good marketing without it. And we can’t build a good corporate culture without it.”

 




Footnotes of Mad Men

For those of you enchanted with Mad Men, this site, The Footnotes of Mad Men, provides superb annotation and tangential comments.




A good woman in Africa

Marbury reports on the reaction of US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton to a question asked by a university student in Kinshasa about her husband’s opinion on some issue.  She appears to have taken umbrage at being asked for Bill’s opinion, as if she would have  no opinions of her own. 

If the questioner were an Australian journalist (Norman Gunston, say*), then she would have been correct to take offence. But the questioner was Congolese, and the question could have been asked sincerely.  Perhaps no aspect of African culture is more distinct from contemporary, post-Protestant, western culture than the relationship between individuals and families.  In traditional African society, individuals would not normally have their own opinions; rather, they would defer to the group opinion of the extended family to which they belong.  These family opinions are reached in different ways, in some cases by discussion among the adults until a consensus emerges, in other cases by diktak by the most powerful family member (who may not necessarily be the eldest male).   The means of reaching shared opinions differ from one society to another, from one family to another, and even, within a single family, from one occasion to another.  In short, the locus of decision-making is not an individual but a group.  Traditional Catholic culture has more in common with this idea than our post-Protestant western culture because in Catholic belief, it is the Church, as a whole, that mediates communications between Man and God, and which is the recipient of Christian grace.  Protestants allowed each person to speak to God him or herself directly, thus promoting (or perhaps examplifying or accompanying) the trend to individualism that has been a feature of western life these last two centuries or so.

This fact of African life has implications for anyone doing market research or opinion polling in Africa, since the standard method used for random variation of respondents within households in sample surveys (the so-called Kish Grid) does not work.  People speaking to sample surveyers, if they are willing to speak, want to give their family’s opinion not their own (if indeed, the concept of “their own opinion” makes any sense to them), and usually they want the designated household spokesperson to do the speaking. Depending on the specific culture, this designated person might be the eldest male, or it might be the youngest child, or the person with the most formal education.   I know this from my own experience doing market research surveys in Southern Africa, and I wrote about this experience for an anthropology journal.   Similarly, there are important implications for anyone designing and executing marketing campaigns or public health information campaigns in Africa, and perhaps elsewhere in the world (eg, Latin America).

On balance, I think Mrs Clinton should probably not have taken personal offence at the question.  But the fact that she did take umbrage points to the very profound cultural difference at play here.

Footnote:
* At a US press conference given to announce a movie about Watergate, Norman Gunston asked if the film would have any 18.5 minute gaps in it, as Nixon’s secret Oval Office tapes did, and whether former President Nixon would receive complimentary tickets to the film.

Reference:

P. J. McBurney [1988]: On transferring statistical techniques across cultures: the Kish Grid. Current Anthropology, 29 (2): 323-5.

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A salute to Flo Skelly

Watching Season 2 of Mad Men with its arc of the rise of a female copywriter (Peggy Olsen, played by Elisabeth Moss), I was reminded of that real pioneer woman in advertising, Florence Skelly, who died in 1998.  I never had the good fortune to work with her, but I have worked with lots of people who did.  The stories about her were legion.    I recall especially hearing about a series of detailed presentations she gave in the mid-1990s on the attitudes and aspirations of teenagers — those in what we would now call late GenX and early GenY — a group she seemed to know better than any other researcher around.   The irony was that she herself was at the cusp of her eighth decade!

Interestingly, season 1 of Mad Men had a couple of scenes involving market researchers, but the one woman was a PhD psychologist with a Central European accent, apparently unable to be creative and clearly instantiating a different (albeit then-common) archetype to Flo Skelly.

On Mad Men,  a reminder that Ta-Nehisi Coates, mashing Karl Rove, last October captured the demographic of the typical viewer with great precision:

Even if I’ve never met you, I know you all. You guys are that dude at the country club with the beautiful date, holding a martini and a cigarette, standing against the wall and making snide comments about all the CSI-viewers who pass by. And you’re also a Muslim. Can’t forget Muslim.

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Brand immortality

Catching up with films I missed when they first appeared, I have just watched that action-spy thriller of the almost-over Cold War, Little Nikita, which first appeared in 1988.   The story was fairly predictable, and the most exciting moment for me occurred at minute 77, when two of the protagonists, trying to flee San Diego for Mexico, turned a corner on which was located a NYNEX Business Center.   These were a nationwide chain of 80 retail computer hardward and services outlets most of which NYNEX bought from IBM in 1986 (according to rumour, after a handshake over an inter-CEO game of golf), and then sold in 1991 to Computerland.    When NYNEX owned them, they comprised the third-largest non-franchise network of retail computer outlets in the US. 

One of the seven Baby Bells (aka RBOCs) created by the break up of the Bell System in 1984, NYNEX was the only one to pursue an adult career as an IT services company, at one point earning sufficient revenues from software and related services they were in the Top-10 largest US software companies.    For all the synergies, however, telecommunications and software development are sufficiently different businesses, and/or NYNEX senior managers cared insufficiently for these differences, that NYNEX never appeared to take seriously their role as a software company.   Having cured itself of its untypical desire to be a leading software house by re-selling most of its purchases in this sector, NYNEX, a few mergers later, has now become Verizon.

It is nice to think that, in centuries to come, the NYNEX Business Centers brand will live on in the moving pictures.

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Complexity of communications

Recently, I posted about probability theory, and mentioned its modern founder, Andrei Kolmogorov.  In addition to formalizing probability theory,  Kolmogorov also defined an influential approach to assessing the complexity of something.  

He reasoned that a more complex object should be harder to create or to re-create than a simpler object, and so you could “measure” the degree of complexity of an object by looking at the simplest computer program needed to generate it.  Thus, in the most famous example used by complexity scientists, the 1915 painting called “Black Square” of Kazimir Malevich, is allegedly very simple, since we could recreate it with a very simply computer program – Paint the colour black on every pixel until the surface is covered, say. 

But Kolmogorov’s approach ignores entirely the context of the actions needed to create the object.   Just because an action is simple or easily described, does not make it easy to do, or even easy to decide to do.   Art objects, like most human artefacts, are created with deliberate intent by specific creators, as anthropologist Alfred Gell argued in his theory of art.  To understand a work of art (or indeed any human artefact) we need to assess its effects on the audience in the light of its creator’s intented effects, which means we need to consider the intentions, explicit or implicit, of its creators.  To understand these intentions in turn requires us to consider the context of its creation, what a philosopher of language might call its felicity conditions

Malevich’s Black Sqare can’t be understood, in any sense, without understanding why no artist before him created such a painting.  There is no physical or technical reason that Rembrandt, say, or Turner, could not have painted a canvas consisting only of one colour, black.  But they did not, and could not have, and could not even have imagined doing so. (Perhaps only the 18th-century Welsh painter Thomas Jones could have imagined doing so, with his subtle paintings of near-monochrome Neapolitan walls.) It is not a coincidence that Malevich’s painting appeared in the historical moment when it did, and not anytime before nor anyplace else.   For instance, Malevich worked at a time when educated people were fascinated with notions of a fourth or even further dimensions, and Malevich himself actively tried to represent these other dimensions in his art.  To imagine that such a painting could be adequately described without reference to any art-historical background, or socio-political context, or the history of ideas is to confuse the syntax of the painting with its semantics and pragmatics.  We understand nothing about the painting if all we understand is that every pixel is colored black.

We have been here before.  The mathematical theory of communications of Claude Shannon and Warren Weaver has been very influential in the design of the physical layers of telecommunications and computer communications networks.   But this theory explicitly ignores the semantics – the meanings – of messages. (To be fair to Shannon and Weaver they do tell us explicitly early on that they will be ignoring the semantics of messages.)    Their theory is therefore of no use to anyone interested in communications at layers above the physical transmission of signals, that is, anyone interested in understanding or using communication to communicate with other people or machines.

References:

M. Dabrowski [1992]: “Malevich and Mondrian:  nonobjective form as the expression of the “absolute”. ” pp. 145-168, in: G. H. Roman and V. H. Marquardt (Editors): The Avant-Garde Frontier:  Russia Meets the West, 1910-1930. Gainesville, FL, USA: University Press of Florida.

Alfred Gell [1998]: Art and Agency:  An Anthropological Theory.  Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press.

L. D. Henderson [1983]: The Fourth Dimension and Non-Euclidean Geometry in Modern Art. Princeton, NJ, USA: Princeton University Press.

Claude E. Shannon and Warren Weaver [1963]: The Mathematical Theory of Communication. Chicago, IL, USA:  University of Illinois Press.

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How to manage creatives (not)

Managing creative talent is always difficult, but locking artists in battery farms seems somewhat extreme.

Kuntjil Cooper: Minyma Kutjara

Kuntjil Cooper: Minyma Kutjara




Three men in a bar

A year ago, the UK Guardian newspapers ran a short article deconstructing a British TV advertisement for Strongbow beer. Watch the advert below, and then read the article. The BNP is the British National Party, a neo-fascist political party.

 

But what is interesting is the complex set of both politically correct and prejudiced rulings from which this ad, as well as the current Guinness one, evolved. Four blokes in a pub? No. Looks like a hooligan gang. Two blokes? No, no, no! Not that there’s anything wrong with it, but Strongbow’s not that sort of pint. One bloke? No. A loser. Probably got a book. Gotta be three blokes. Two blokes and a girl? Bloke and two girls? Too much implication of ménage à trois. Three girls? No. Too much implication of knickers round ankles at two in the morning in the town square, doubled over and urinating into a gutter. When it comes to women and pints, Al Murray’s glass of white wine for the ladies holds unironically true in adland. No, it has to be three blokes, blokes who like doing it with women so long as the “it” isn’t social drinking. Three white blokes? No. A bit BNP nowadays. Two white blokes and a bear in a pork pie hat? Too retro. Three black blokes? Now steady on. Two black blokes and a white bloke? Not being funny or nothing, but what would the white bloke be doing there?

So, it’s settled then – two white blokes and a black bloke, going down the pub to get completely and utterly, well and truly “refreshed”.

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The future is bright, the future is sepia!

The results of a competition to produce vintage advertisement for modern products can be found here.   The best entry is an advertisement for Mr Nokia’s Patent Mobile Telephonic Communicator and Typographic Messenger with Box-Brownie J-PEG Maker and MP3 Gramophone, circa 1900, which plays on the slogan of British mobile operator, Orange, now part of France Telecom.




The network is the consumer

Different Network Topologies Economists use the term network good to refer to a product or service where one user’s utility depends, at least partly, on the utility received by other users. A fax machine is an example, since being the sole owner of fax is of little value to anyone; only when others in your business network also own fax machines does owning one provide value to you. Thus, a rational consumer would determine his or her preferences for such a good only AFTER learning the preferences of others.   This runs counter to the standard model of decisions in economic decision theory, where consumers come to a purchase decision with their preferences pre-installed; for network goods, the preferences of rational consumers are formed instead in the course of the decision process itself, not determined beforehand.   Preferences are emergent phenomena, in the jargon of complex systems.

What I find interesting as a marketer is that ALL products and services have a network-good component. Even so-called commodities, such as natural resources or telecommunications bandwidth, can be subject to fashion and peer-group pressure in their demand.  You can’t get fired for buying IBM, was the old saying.   Sellers of so-called commodities such as coal or bauxite know that the buyers make their decisions, at least in part, on the basis of what other large buyers are deciding.  Lest any mainstream economist reading this disparage such consumer behaviour, note that in an environment of great uncertainty or instability, it can be perfectly rational to follow the crowd when making purchase decisions, since a group may have access to information that any one buyer does not know.  If you are buying coal from Australia for your steel plant in Japan, and you learn that your competitors are switching to buying coal from Brazil, then there could be good reasons for this; as they are your competitors, it may be difficult for you to discover what these good reasons are, and so imitation may be your most rational strategic response.

For any product and service with a network component, even the humblest, there are deep implications for marketing strategies and tactics.  For example, advertising may not merely provide information to potential consumers about the product and its features.  It can also assist potential consumers to infer the likely preferences of other consumers, and so to determine their own preferences. If an advertisement appeals to people like me, or people to whom I aspire to be like, then I can infer from this that those other people are likely to prefer the product being advertized, and thus I can determine my own preferences for it. Similarly, if the advertisement appeals to people I don’t aspire to be like, then I can infer from this that I won’t be subject to peer pressure or fashion trends, and can determine my preferences accordingly.

For several decades, the prevailing social paradigm to describe modern, western society has been that of The Information Society, and so, for example, advertising has been seen by many people primarily as a form of information transmission.  But, in my opinion, we in the west are entering an era where a different prevailing paradigm is appropriate, perhaps best called The Joint-Action Society;  advertising then is also assisting consumers to co-ordinate their preferences and their decisions.    I’ll talk more about the Joint-Action Society in a future post.

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