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.