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Mad Men are taking over the world. And that’s no bad thing

Inspired by the new American hit TV show, Rory Sutherland — The Spectator’s own ‘Wiki Man’ — says that the capture of the Brown government and almost everything else by advertisers and marketers could be a great leap forward. Persuasion is better than legislation

9 April 2008

12:00 AM

9 April 2008

12:00 AM

Inspired by the new American hit TV show, Rory Sutherland — The Spectator’s own ‘Wiki Man’ — says that the capture of the Brown government and almost everything else by advertisers and marketers could be a great leap forward. Persuasion is better than legislation

As an adman myself, I am always delighted when I see one of my colleagues off to work in No. 10, or to advise a political party — even though I’m a little worried that, after working with Sir Martin Sorrell for a few years, David Muir may find it hard to cope with Gordon Brown’s relatively chilled management style and his breezy, hands-off approach to delegation.

I’m also happy to see the arrival in No. 10 of Stephen Carter, and to see that PR Week has somehow become a Downing Street journal of record. Regardless of my personal politics, I would like to see far more marketing thinking close to the seat of power — an opinion you’ll find brilliantly argued in John Quelch and Katherine Jocz’s superb new book Greater Good — How Good Marketing makes for Better Democracy.

My only fear about all this? Politicians seem all too liable to misuse the talents of people from marketing or PR — so while they may be happy to employ marketers to burnish their personal images, to identify key groups of swing voters or to come up with an eye-catching initiative in response to a front cover on the Daily Mail, it never seems to occur to them that marketing thinking can also be useful in solving some of the more important challenges facing a government or a society.

Even worse is when the image-making and policy-making become confused or conflated — so that government develops policy with one ear always on public opinion, causing government activity to come in successive and unconnected waves and destroying any impression of sincerity.

So let’s just hope these undoubtedly immense talents can bring their influence to bear on bigger questions than just re-election or poll-watching — and to ask how many contemporary social problems could be better solved by persuasion than by legislation or vast expenditure on infrastructure.

Why is it that it is considered unacceptable for admen to address these problems — while lawyers and consultants are given a free rein? For a historical answer, try BBC4 (Sundays, 10 p.m.) and the imported American series Mad Men. It is set on Madison Avenue in 1960 and written by Matthew Weiner, a former writer and producer of The Sopranos. Informally modelled on the real-life agency Batten, Barton, Durstine and Osborn (a name described by one wag as ‘the sound made by a heavy trunk falling down a flight of stairs’), the fictional Sterling Cooper agency provides much of the time-warp humour of Life on Mars — the unthinking sexist remarks, prodigious boozing, smoking and lechery being authentic and funny at the same time.

It is also in this era that we first encounter the adman as a staple character in film; sometimes likeable (Mr Blandings Builds his Dream House; North by Northwest) and sometimes not (the account man is perhaps the least sympathetic of the 12 Angry Men).

Suave as the adman of this time seems, he was in fact under attack — by the million or so people who had read (or at least bought) Vance Packard’s 1957 book The Hidden Persuaders, a bestseller which, among other things, created widespread fear over the issue of subliminal advertising. (This subconscious technique was for decades thought to be highly effective based on a one-off experiment in a cinema whose results were later found to be fake.)

Even if the deviousness was nothing like that claimed by Packard, postwar marketing could be a cunning and cynical business. White-coated doctors plugged the health-giving properties of cigarettes; cars were equipped with larger fins or vast, mastoid bumper overriders despite the lethal effect these had on hapless pedestrians; burger chains unable to afford the cost of making their beef patties larger simply made the buns smaller — a ploy which seemed to have an identical effect on sales. My employer’s founder, David Ogilvy, widely seen as among the most principled of agency heads, once experimented with the use of hypnotism in television advertisements.

Shaken by the growing suspicion, the advertising world panicked. In an over-reaction, they abandoned subtlety (or subterfuge) and retreated to a kind of highly overt approach to selling. Gone were the middle-European accents and the Freudian theories; gone were the lab rats. In their place came a transparent device called the ‘Unique Selling Proposition’ or USP — a single point of difference that distinguished your product from its competitors, something a brand’s advertising would reiterate to the point of tedium.

This retreat from psychology to fake rationality had a long-term impact which affects us today. From it comes the widely held conviction that the use of non-rational persuasion to solve problems is somehow underhand. If not unethical, it was at any rate seen as a poor substitute for attempts to solve problems by other means — such as legislation, engineering or technology.

Why this prejudice? After all, often it simply makes better economic sense to spend money altering perception than altering reality. If it’s cheaper to persuade people that cloth seats are cool than to fit leather seats to your ’58 Oldsmobile, you change minds, not seats.

And what’s wrong with that? Why is it fine to change someone’s driving habits by building a new road, and not by, say, using advertising (or a text message) to persuade them to drive to London an hour later? Indeed, if we asked marketers to address traffic problems instead of engineers, they may ask whether we really have a transport problem in Britain at all. Isn’t it actually a timing problem? If we could persuade just 15 per cent of commuters to travel to work an hour later, would we need any more roads or trains? Yet the government’s entire advertising expenditure is only £150 million per year — to put this in proportion, this is about the cost of widening six miles of the M1. (It is, incidentally, only 5 per cent of the government’s overall annual expenditure on consultants.)

It seems to me that given the material abundance we have now, many of our more persistent problems (of society, of government, of business and the environment) might be more readily solved if we tried recourse to imaginative persuasion rather than, say, legislation.

By the look of things, economists are reaching the same conclusion. This once dismal science is now producing perhaps the most interesting non-fiction written anywhere. Rather than developing economic models which assume that all human beings behave like anally retentive, hyper-rational nerds (i.e. like economists), writers such as Tyler Cowen, Dan Ariely, Steven E. Landsburg and Nassim Nicholas Taleb have fruitfully learned from social scientists and students of human bias. A similar approach has been followed by a group of Sorbonne economists, who have formed (see Wikipedia if you don’t believe me) the Post-Autistic Economics Movement.

Here are three examples of problem-solving driven by understanding people, not processes.

1) How do you persuade younger people to invest in pensions? Legislation might be one crude approach. Actually, a social scientist found a better answer. When asked to pledge an amount from their current salary, most people would commit nothing or only a trivial amount. Their current earnings were already committed. When asked what percentage of any future pay-rises they were willing to commit to a pension, however, there was a complete transformation — ‘around 20 per cent’ seemed to be the answer. By developing this approach, pension contributions in this group could be raised by over 200 per cent.

2) The Italian police find that giving
people 12 points on their driving licence to begin with and then subtracting points for motoring offences creates far more fear of endorsement than the UK approach — where points are added.

3) Why was £6 billion found to speed up the train journey from London to Paris by 40 minutes or so, but no one can find £5 million to equip the trains with WiFi — a decision that would add five productive hours to a return journey rather than just one? A typical case where the problem is defined by civil engineers and solved — surprise — with a lot of civil engineering.

There is another compelling reason why politicians suddenly need to hear from marketers, and it concerns another name from the 1960s — Marshall McLuhan (someone, incidentally, who owes much of his fame to his discovery by the San Francisco adman Howard Luck Gossage).

McLuhan believed that the nature of the media which a society used would determine the nature of that society (the actual content of those media being almost irrelevant). So Protestantism, he thought, was the direct and inevitable result of the introduction of moveable type — and would have occurred as a natural consequence no matter what was printed on the new presses.

McLuhan’s belief forces us to ask what the likely effect of the new interactive (or ‘hot’ to use McLuhan’s phrase) media will be. On society. On democracy. On the provision of public and private services. Already the findings are quite surprising.

Strangely, people’s behaviour in the digital world may well confirm what the Canadian sage himself believed. Human behaviour is sometimes more influenced by the medium in which a transaction takes place than by the content of the transaction itself. One simple example: teenagers have never given much to charity — a rule that holds true until you give them the choice of donating to charity by text message, at which point they become quite generous. Conventional wisdom would suggest this is silly — either you wish to give to charity or you don’t; the medium shouldn’t matter more than the content. But it does.

In the same vein, why, when the only means of booking was the telephone, did low-cost airlines mostly attract a downmarket clientele, yet pull in upmarket passengers once it was possible to book flights online? Want a more extreme case still? A colleague of mine registered to pay the congestion charge by text message even though he doesn’t own a car.

What this implies is that there exist extraordinary possibilities to change human behaviour — entirely voluntarily, I might add — just by allowing people to transact in new ways. Is it better to improve transport by building more roads or by warning people of traffic jams? I don’t know. What I do know is that we have seen more media invented in the last 15 years than in the previous 150. It seems likely that the social changes will be big.

Just as I finish writing this, I hear from the web that Mark Penn has just resigned as chief strategist of Hillary Clinton’s campaign. The row is over whether she should give up a focus on ‘experience’ and start to reveal ‘tenderness’. It seems a rather pointless row to me. Once you are so desperate for an old-style USP that you need to sum up your whole campaign in a single noun, it seems to me you’ve already lost.

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