Lost, In Time

Recently, I helped a friend compile his notes for a talk he was giving on the history of advertising.

I was particularly struck by how we seem to keep forgetting the lessons that history has taught us. Every new medium, whether radio, television, or digital, is considered to be vastly different from its predecessors, a reason to throw out everything we’ve established and start over again.

What results is a procession of some of the industries most famed figures reiterating the discoveries of their predecessors, dating back almost one hundred and twenty years.

For example, David Ogilvy’s fondness for research echoes the sentiment of Claude C. Hopkins, who had used testing to elevate the company he worked for to such degree that he became incredibly rich some fifty years earlier.

One could make the argument that Hopkins is the greatest copywriter of all time, as he may well have been the originator of using common facts - such as the industry standard conditions in which beer was brewed - to distinguish a brand from its competition, to make it distinct in the eyes of the public.

A public which has no knowledge of the industry’s inner workings, so to them any fact would be interesting.

This is a tactic that Ogilvy himself would use on accounts such as Shell and KLM Royal Dutch Airlines. When a business says something first, it becomes a part of their identity - as Al Ries and Jack Trout later put it as part of their famed 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing, “the most powerful concept in marketing is owning a word in the prospect’s mind”.

The same lesson learned and disseminated, over and over again, across multiple generations of advertising.

And this particular lesson is far from the only casualty in this cycle.

In 1964, Marshall McLuhan wrote in his book Understanding Media, “if it works, it’s obsolete.” This sentiment was shortly thereafter echoed by Helmut Krone, when he said, “if you can look at something and say “I like it”, it isn’t new.” And again by Dave Trott almost 50 years after McLuhan in 2013, who wrote “try something new. It’s unpredictable so it’s uncomfortable. Then it becomes predictable, so it’s comfortable.”

One of Bill Bernbach’s most famed quotes is, “if your advertising goes unnoticed, everything else is academic.” Ogilvy agreed with the sentiment of his contemporary, a bit more dramatically: “you can’t save souls in an empty church.”

Now look at today: we’re barraged by all sorts of work that isn’t good enough to earn your attention, so instead it tries to steal your attention, encouraged and emboldened to do so by digital platforms, whether that be annoying ad snippets in front of YouTube videos or completely irrelevant sponsored posts appearing in your social media feeds.

No matter how long these lessons have been around, we keep forgetting them.

With every new development, every new medium, we become so hyper-focused on the now that we ignore all of these things that have been the basis of this industry, that have demonstrably gotten results for over a hundred years.

That may be the greatest tragedy of all.