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.


Is ‘insight’ meaningless yet?

It’s only ever a matter of time until good words go bad.

Their original precision of meaning gives way, through use, to banality and emptiness.

Great words have form at the start, then they become floppy.

A recent Garticle made this very point about ’empowerment’.

No sooner am I in the door of adland than I’m reading and hearing about the fate of ‘insight’. We’d heard a lot about ‘insight’ during the course. We talked a lot about ‘insight’, too.

‘What’s the insight?’ we asked ourselves as we muddled through misapprehension. Over time, words become bludgeons.

The Taoists knew this thousands of years ago, well before the likes of Derrida:

“The Tao that can be told
is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named
is not the eternal Name.”

In the opening words of Taoism’s most important text, Lao Tzu put a health warning on them – the written words can often take us away from the Real thing.

Soon, I’ll be expected to discover insights into people and markets and products.

So here’s an idea: I exchange ‘insight’ for ‘the Thing’.

‘So what’s the Thing, here?’ ‘What’s the Thing we need to know about this audience?’

Or, ‘The Thing I discovered about people who use Tinder in the dole queue is …’.

Why? It’s the most banal, vague yet useful word I could think of.

But, actually, for another reason I’ve been toying with for a good while.

‘The Thing’ is an idea edified by Jacques Lacan and carried on by acolytes like Slavoj Zizek (most popularly) and Alain Badiou (more betterly). There are various interpretations, but the one I mean is something like the ultimately unknowable object (an abstract object, idea, or state) that is the trigger of an individual’s deep drives.

As Wikipedia puts it:

Lacan’s concept of “objet petit a” is the object of desire, although this object is not that towards which desire tends, but rather the cause of desire. Desire is not a relation to an object but a relation to a lack (manque).

In other words, The Thing (which became ‘objet petit a‘ in Lacan’s later writings) is the driver of people’s desire for an aspect of their life that they current’t don’t have and which is always unattainable – something they lack. This phantasmic unattainability – the ‘lack’ at the heart of all desire, because true expectations always disappoint – is the engine of new desires. Ad infinitum.

Crispin Porter’s approach to creative planning is to find the ‘social tension’ lurking within or without a client brief and then to use that animus to drive an idea that gets people talking about it, influences culture, and does the business.

A social tension, rather than an idle observation or a correlation based on data or anecdote, is actionable because tension itself feels to us, at a deep level, like something unresolved. And if there’s one thing about (most) people, it’s that we desperately need things resolved to feel good about ourselves (until next time).

But ‘social tension’ can sound lofty, and ‘insight’ has, apparently, become meaningless.

‘The Thing’ wades in the same waters as the ‘social tension’, but the word itself sounds so superficial, unremarkable, underestimated.

So maybe I’ll start using a most unremarkable word – ‘thing’ – instead of ‘insight’ and see how I get on.