‘Voyager 1, I presume?’

For all of history, humans could only look up at the night’s sky and imagine what the planets of our solar system looked like.

Even with the world’s most powerful optical telescopes, Jupiter and Saturn looked like faint smudges.

It felt like all we would ever know of our celestial neighbourhood until NASA proposed a ‘Grand Tour’ of the outer planets of our solar system. This vision became the Voyager program.

The best scientists in the world were assembled to create two state-of-the-art robotic probe to explore Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2. They didn’t how they would achieve this, but they applied their collective ingenuity and nurtured both into existence.

The probes had the most advanced on-board computers. The most powerful communications uplinks. The sharpest cameras. A nuclear reactor to power its systems. This would be science’s greatest triumph, reflecting the genius of our species as it hurtles through space. It would be our eyes, letting us see further than we ever had before.

Then America’s most famous scientist, Carl Sagan, had an idea.

Instead of attaching a simple plaque, as they had to Pioneer 10, they would attach to Voyager a message in a bottle.

Frank Drake, working with Sagan, suggested they could fit more information on a record, which would have to be cut in gold to withstand the hostile environment of outer space.

Sagan’s team curated an LP representing the best of our species — on one side, music from around the world from Beethoven to Azerbaijani folk and greetings from people in 55 different languages, on the other, encoded photographs depicting our planet, peoples and species. Etched on its cover was an image of man, woman and a pulsar map locating the probe’s origin.

In the captivating documentary, The Farthest, Frank Drake reflected,

“The people who actually did the science part of Voyager are always jealous and mad because the golden record gets more attention than all the wonderful things they did exploring the outer planets of the solar system … Because the aura that surrounds anything to do with extra-terrestrial life, any effort to contact extra-terrestrial life, is more fascinating than knowing the chemical make-up of a mineral on Mars.”

Drake’s comment sounded a lot like debates in advertising and media today. Too often, we get wrapped up in the white glow of the latest technology, medium or platform.

We get carried away with data and granular targeting. Or we get excited about a new way to generate some PR or a high-tech stunt to grab some attention. We believe connecting with people in compelling ways means being the first or the best to use the newest format or gadget, or using an existing format in a novel way. But it rarely endures.

The reality is people need a reason to care about brands.

  • A Havas global survey found people wouldn’t care if 75% of brands disappeared overnight because most are meaningless.
  • The Ehrenberg-Bass Institute found only 16% of ads are noticed and attributed to the right brand.
  • Binet & Field calculated that rational campaigns are half as likely to be as profitable as emotional campaigns over the long-term.
  • Original creativity that generates brand ‘fame’ is the most effective form of advertising because they are more emotionally stimulating and influence our culture.
  • A growing focus on short-term campaigns, which rely more on the use of technology and PR to grab attention, is undermining the long-term effectiveness of advertising.

It’s not that we shouldn’t experiment with the potential of new technologies and media to connect with people — this, too, is part of being human — but communications will never be distinctive nor memorable if not built on a compelling insight and an original creative idea that is emotional and meaningful whether that is a new message or a valuable brand experience or service.

Media are a means to communicate, connect and explore. Media can shape how we receive messages and they can affect the experience of receiving them, as does Voyager’s golden disc.

In truth, we rarely remember how a message reaches us. But we remember how it made us feel.

On August 25th 2012, we became an interstellar species.

On this day, 3 billion miles away, Voyager 1 left our solar system and continued its trajectory towards the far side of the Oort cloud, which it will reach in 40,000 years — halfway to our nearest star.

Thanks to the golden record, we don’t think about the technology hurtling through space, we think about Voyager as an extension of ourselves carrying our message in a bottle in the hope that, one day, it’s found.

In eight years, Voyager’s plutonium reactor will run out of fuel. Its systems will slowly shut down. We will lose contact with it. Voyager and its golden record will continue its odyssey as our silent emissary.

Voyager is just a piece of hardware, yet the message it carries transforms it into something else. It’s part of each of us. It connects us with something enigmatic, profound, even sublime. It has made us see ourselves differently.

It reveals a powerful truth about ourselves, our insatiable curiosity and imagination, and moves us, emotionally and behaviourally.

This is what great advertising does.

None of the above?

Is advertising an art or science?

This question comes up again and again in adland.

The question is rhetorical. It’s designed to elicit the same answer: it’s both.

The purpose of the question, within the marketing canon, is to create a platform for a practitioner or agency to set out their stall, whichever point the opposition they happen to occupy.

It’s an important question. But a tired one in how it’s framed. It presupposes a brutal binary tension that I think beleaguers as much as animates the industry.

What is a better way to think about it?

Bear with me.

An answer I find particularly inspiring and powerful comes via the French philosopher, Gilles Deleuze.

Three regimes of knowledge

In a sense, Deleuze’s mission as a philosopher was to find a way out of the impasse from, on one hand, the limitations of rationalist thinking, and on the other, from the rabbit’s warren of post-modern relativism on the other.

Part of his mission was to rebuild a model of reality, or at least, how we come to know ‘reality’ from the bottom up (in the context of late capitalism). So he looked at what we could call regimes, or structures, of knowledge.

Interestingly, Deleuze identified three regimes of knowledge, or approaches human beings have created to describe and explain reality. They are:

  • Percepts & affects: the creative arts are about creating novel combinations of senses and feelings
  • Quantities: The sciences create theories based on fixed points of reference (e.g. data) and the relationships between them through their measurement
  • Concepts: Philosophy clarifies thought and ideas through method and by providing analytical frameworks, demarcating boundaries, or not.

These three approaches are fundamentally different, incompatible and equal in status. But while incompatible, they can and do combine in infinite ways. Take music for example, we know how we can be moved emotionally by music, but musical theory and composition is also mathematical – time and noise is in some way quantified to achieve an emotional impact.

The mushroom of knowledge

Building from this, Deleuze wants us to think like a mushroom.

Knowledge has often been likened to a tree. A body of knowledge begins with a seed, which grows strong roots, to support a powerful trunk which carries the weight of its canopy of branches. It’s a very linear and harmonious vision of knowledge – from basic organising principles, or axioms, bodies of knowledge grow, and grow, incrementally building upon itself one piece at a time in, all branches traceable back to its roots.

But Deleuze contested this – it’s just too tidy. He likened knowledge to a rhizome. A rhizome is an organism, like a mushroom, that exists mostly beneath the ground. As with mushrooms, rhizome organisms are decentralised, they spread out in all directions as a nodal network, searching for the right conditions – the right mix of elements – to form and erupt through the surface.

The three forms of knowledge (and power) spread out below the surface, hidden until they break through the surface in clumps, giving rise to what we can call, paradigms, dominant ideas, values, institutions, etc.

Given the right physical, social, cultural, historical, economic, artistic, etc. ingredients, different thought knowledge structures emerge – in turn, giving form to styles, organisations, societies, cultures, etc. The three knowledge structures intertwine in different ways to create (inherently contradictory and unstable) regimes that, in a sense, develop a life of their own. (Stay tuned for musings on ‘bodies without organs’ in further posts, I’m sure.)

In a very real sense, political theorists Chabal & Daloz pioneered the concept of the ‘rhizome state’ to describe the nature of post-independence politics in sub-Saharan Africa. It was a challenge to the more limited theories of political development of the time.

What’s this got to do with advertising?

Deleuze’s ideas are also of huge relevance to many more areas, including advertising.

How? A couple of thoughts come to mind.

First of all, it blasts open the trite either/or question I started out with. Obviously, we now have three elements, not two – we’re confronted with asking ourselves, to what extent is it art, science, philosophy? The answer could involve one or all of them.

Secondly, the viewpoint accepts that there are irreconcilable tensions among the three elements. In any major ad campaign, concepts, data and creative expressions vibrate against each other generating heat. The law of entropy tells us systems tend towards disintegration, so they must be managed – here, the different elements come into play to manage the contradictions and entropy inherent in the campaign. This is why campaigns need to be managed, and why planners, I believe, are essential – they are the conceptualists standing alongside the artists and scientists (if marketers, researchers and media people are scientists).

Thirdly, the idea invites us to think carefully about the conditions in which all this emerges – culture.

OK, back to earth.

What I’m saying is Deleuze’s scheme strikes me as being much more helpful in thinking about what planning is actually about.

The role necessitates a mindset which sees feelings, numbers and ideas as raw material that can be combined in novel ways to generate heat through compression or tension.

It also overcomes the stupid, trite, self-serving false opposition that marketers use to justify their own limitations of thought and practice – is advertising science or art? – and gives some framework to break out beyond it.*

Advertising is both art and science and more. So let’s stop limiting ourselves and develop a framework fit for this world.

*I appreciate this is very abstract. Give me time, I’ll boil it down eventually.