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  • Bob Hoffman


One of the interesting questions about advertising that I have tried to explore from time to time is whether we should think of it more as art or science.

With the growth in the use of technology, mathematics, metrics, and data it appears that certain aspects of advertising are becoming more scientific. However, I am not convinced that advertising as a whole is any more scientific.

From a practical standpoint, there is one factor that differentiates art from science. In science, there is an “arrow of progress.” Science points in a direction and gets progressively more specific and effectual.

If you buy a new car, it is more likely to last longer, be safer, work more reliably, and be more efficient than it was fifty years ago. If you have high blood pressure today, you are more likely to be successfully treated for it than you would have been fifty years ago. If you have a personal computer, it can do more things, more effectively, more quickly and more reliably than it did fifty...wait a minute...we didn’t have personal computers fifty years ago. The point is, science provides us with technological progress by degrees that builds on itself and improves stuff. Art, on the other hand, does not have an arrow of progress. It’s not supposed to. Art is about human interpretation – emotions and aesthetics – not ongoing improvements. You want to improve on Mona Lisa? Good luck.

There is no way to talk about whether the work of Picasso represents “progress” from DaVinci. You may prefer one to the other, but to speak about progress is meaningless. Similarly, is there an arrow of progress from Beethoven to James Brown? Or Shakespeare to Updike? One may certainly have influenced the other, and styles certainly change, but talking about improvement is moot.

That doesn’t mean art isn’t inventive or innovative. Or that older forms don’t influence newer forms. It just means that art moves unsystematically and, unlike science, we don’t judge new art based on having improved upon old art. 

So the question of whether advertising should be considered more science than art rests on answering this question: Is there an arrow of progress? In other words, is advertising more effective and more successful at its objectives than it used to be?

Exploring the literature of advertising over the past ten years, one would have to conclude that advertising is less effective, not more. The literature is rife with assertions and research that conclude that advertising’s effectiveness seems to have diminished over time.

There are certain aspects of advertising that claim to utilize scientific principles more effectively – media planning, programmatic buying – but there isn’t much in the way of conclusive evidence to support the idea that advertising as a whole has gotten more effective.

In fact, despite all the hoo-hah over the precision targeting of online advertising, behavioral targeting seems to be only marginally more effective than no targeting at all. It is not clear that when the marginal positive effect of behavioral targeting appears, it is even due to the effects of advertising. It may well be that the reason behavioral targeting sometimes appears to be more effective is that the people whose purchasing is being reported on have been so carefully pinpointed that they are the most likely people for buying the product, regardless of advertising.

Economists call this the “selection effect.” The selection effect posits that the appearance of more effective advertising can be a mirage that is caused by the targeting of people who were already more likely to buy, click, or download your product.

But even if we stipulate that certain aspects of advertising have become more scientific, I would still contend that the overarching goal of advertising – the creation of successful brands – is no nearer to a scientific practice than it was when I entered the advertising business thousands of years ago.

From what I can see, despite all the technological advances we have applied and all the words that have been written, we have uncovered no new generally accepted principles about the nature of brand building or consumer behavior. Most marketers are still thrashing around in the dark trying to either build a brand or maintain one.

Regardless of the growing veneer of scientific processes, there seems to be no arrow of progress that has helped us create more successful advertising.

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