Advertising: The Scientific Artform?

Market research companies can use both scientific and artistic approaches to find solutions for their clients
29 April 2022

Interview with 

Orlando Wood, System1


2 hemispheres of the brain


Orlando Wood, chief innovation officer of market research company System1 and honorary fellow of The Institute of Practitioners in Advertising might be the person to answer that question. There are such a range of ads out there from cinematic spectacles to annoying popups. James Tytko started by asking him what separates the best advertising from the rest...

Orlando - The advertising we're talking about has to do a few things: it has to capture people's attention, it has to be interesting and entertaining, and it has to lodge things in your memory so that brand comes to mind first before any other. That sort of brand building advertising has to capture our - what I describe as - broad beam attention. And that means, usually, advertising that involves the living, it involves characters, perhaps the use of music, the use of humour. All of these things are of interest to, as some psychologists would describe it, the right hemisphere of the brain; the half of the brain that presents the world to us.

James - I'm really interested on the way you characterize the right brain there. Can you go a bit deeper on that maybe, and especially how it's distinguished from perhaps the left hemisphere of the brain.

Orlando - All my work here rests on the brilliant research of a philosopher/psychiatrist/neuroscientist called Iain McGilchrist, who talks about the two hemispheres of the brain and describes not that they do different things, but more that they do things differently; they have different takes on the world. The right brain, as he describes it, presents the world to us with this kind of broad and vigilant attention for the left hemisphere then to look at more closely, bring a narrow beam attention to look at the detail, to manipulate what we see, to control it, to make use of it, if you like. According to Iain McGilchrist, the right hemisphere is open to contradiction, open to novelty, It can see that two opposing thoughts could be true at the same time which means it understands metaphor, it understands humour, and it understands and appreciates music in a way that the left hemisphere feels is very difficult. It can't really do that so well. It has other ways of looking at things: it likes to categorise, break things down into smaller parts. What I describe in my work, looking at advertising styles and how they've changed actually in the last 15-20 years, is that, as in culture I believe, things have moved to a very left brain dominant view: more literal, more transactional, more rigid, really. And advertising has become very mechanistic: you see words on the screen, very rhythmic soundtracks, you don't see lived time. You don't see dialogue, you don't hear music so much. You don't see characters like you used to, jingles disappeared a long time ago. And it's to do with these habits of thinking, I believe, and how culture has shifted towards a more left brain dominant view.

James - Can you tell me a bit about what advertising was before whatever inciting incident it might have been?

Orlando - It all started in the late 50's and early 60's with people like Bill Bernbach, DDB, in New York...

James - Bill Bernbach, pioneer of the creative revolution in advertising in the 1950s and '60s, famously said, 'Advertising is fundamentally persuasion and persuasion happens to be not a science, but an art.' Before Bernbach, advertising was formulaic. It wasn't particularly eye catching, it wasn't provocative; it was safe. That all changed thanks to Bill Bernbach and DDB.

Orlando - Listeners might remember some of the VW ads: the 'Think Small' campaign. And of course, in the States, where everything was about thinking big, they dared to say think small and they put a little Beetle up in the top left hand corner.

James - Through the unification of concept, colour and language, DDB were able to turn the VW Beetle, a small, ugly and to its particular detriment in post-war America, German car, into a cultural icon. Its size and the way it looked became part of its appeal, its attractiveness. This was reflected in the advertisements in magazines: the small image of the Beetle, in black and white, is dwarfed by the blankness of the rest of the page it occupies. Teenagers were ripping the ad out of the publications it was printed in and pinning it up on bedroom walls.

Orlando - Because, Bill Bernbach, he believed in a kind of humanity over pomposity. He believed that things should be done differently, that nobody's perfect and nobody's going to believe you if you claim to be, which I think set the tone and tone of voice for many campaigns in the following years. And it worked very well.

James - And how do we get back to that style of advertising, that boldness?

Orlando - I work for a company called System1 that tests advertising, emotional response to advertising, and gives advertisers a sense of how successful it's going to be because emotion orientates our attention, puts things into long term memory, and helps to create the kind of advertising that people actually enjoy watching rather than this mechanistic rather brutal stuff which people tend to want to avoid. We test emotional response to advertising, we help people to create better work. We help. And that is one way in which we can get to great work, of course, in the way that we measure it. There is a kind of advertising which has become particularly widespread, I'd say, in the last 15 years or so with our ability to target people. And that's today known as performance or activation advertising, sometimes called response advertising. That really seeks to nudge people towards a particular brand that people might be interested in in the buying moment. So, I may well be in the market for a sofa right now and get an ad which very product centric in which may lead me towards that website or downloading that app or whatever else. That's a different style of advertising actually and the work I've done in this area suggests that the two different types work quite differently and that the kinds of effects that advertisers are likely to see are going to be quite different too.


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