The Lost Art of Persuasion: Why Advertisers (Wrongly) Think Persuasion is Unimportant

Been reading this book by Byron Sharp (“How Brands Grow”, Oxford University Press). It’s generally an outstanding book and I’ll blog in the future about the truths that it offers which should dramatically change advertising (though I’m not certain anyone will seriously listen).

But despite a brilliant start, this book falls flat on its face when discussing persuasion. Sharp (et. al.) try to tell us that in the world of “new advertising” persuasion is unimportant.

Sharp is not alone. There is a movement among the most up-to-date advertising theorists who will tell you that persuasion is out of vogue and is a concept relegated to the dark ages of advertising (like the 1970’s).

This is bunk. While brands need to leave the right emotional connections behind, advertising is broadly devoted to only one of two outcomes: persuading or merely reminding.

For long established brands (like Duracell batteries or Dial soap) it may be enough for advertising to merely remind us a brand exists in order to cause us to purchase the brand a bit more often. But if you have a product that’s new, a brand that needs to evolve quickly, or a brand that’s being built, your advertising should be entirely devoted to persuasion.

In campaign after campaign, our numbers show that the action driven by persuasion is so big that it’s measurable without too many sophisticated statistical techniques.

So what happened? How could a researcher as perceptive as Sharp come this conclusion? Most of the campaigns he evaluates are reminder campaigns where the advertisers lacks any product or brand values that are significant enough to use for persuasion. And Sharp rightly notes that many branded attempts to persuade rely on minor advantages that don’t offer any significant value. These brands don’t honestly look at the insignificance of what they’re saying.

But also, on this topic his work might be self-predictive. In those campaigns where persuasion would be important, he’s testing campaigns from traditional agencies. And once we got past the 1970’s most agencies lost their ability to persuade. So what do you find when you test poorly executed persuasion advertising?

Seems that we learn that agencies who don’t know how to persuade aren’t able to make campaigns that persuade. No kidding. So what’s going on with agencies and persuasion?

Agencies think too narrowly of persuasion. Read deeply into Sharp’s book and what you’ll see is that the operating definition of “persuasion” is the attempt to persuade using ONLY words and logical arguments.

Yikes. That’s a pretty limited sense of salesmanship. Persuasion happens through a robust communication with the consumer’s heart and mind to create conviction that is far stronger than mere emotional “liking”.

Many agencies think they’ve evolved beyond anything so pedestrian as persuasion. For the past hundred years agencies have rushed to reject the past. Steroids have been added to this mix in the past decade. Taking a lesson from the Ted videocasts, the agency that gets the most attention is the one who promises to change everything.

Unfortunately, while promising massive change in advertising style may help agencies get new business, it’s mass marketing with traditional media that makes brands grow (as Sharp’s book clearly shows). So the agencies who attempt the most change are also the agencies serving their clients the most poorly.

Agencies aren’t designed for persuasion. When we demand persuasion, it makes our work much harder. We have to dig deeper than the superficial to find real meaning for consumers. We have to reject branding that is little more than ivory tower sociology and find, instead, truths that lead to consumer action.

But the ad biz isn’t structured to work this hard. Agencies make big money hiring art school or portfolio school grads and turning them loose while charging lots of money for their time. (Many, many clients tell me they are tired of having to deal with freshly minted art school grads who claim to know how they should run their billion dollar businesses.)

The Upside: Clients thrive with persuasion. Persuasion takes place when we communicate consumer truths that have compelling value. And, it’s even stronger when we put all of our communication tools behind the attempt to persuade – words, images, sounds, textures, ideas, logic, emotions, personality, music, and more.

When we do this, persuasion works. Although I always love honing our measurements with deeper analysis, with direct response television persuasion’s impact is big enough that I don’t need clever analysis to get see the sales results it delivers. And it delivers those both with direct sales AND a much more massive retail impact.

But I have been, here, too hard on Mr. Sharp. His book is fundamentally brilliant. Perhaps what we should take from his persuasion research is that effective persuasion is so rare that advertisers usually give up searching.

It’s too bad. And, I’d love to team with him for a serious look at persuasion. Because I think we’d both find surprisingly useful truths.

Copyright 2011 – Doug Garnett, All Rights Reserved.

About Doug Garnett
Doug Garnett is an expert introducing innovative consumer products and services to market while driving higher return on innovation investment. His career has been spent in innovation and he is the president of Protonik, LLC - an innovation consultancy focused on marketing and innovation. Prior to founding Protonik, he was founder and CEO of ad agency Atomic Direct.

9 Responses to The Lost Art of Persuasion: Why Advertisers (Wrongly) Think Persuasion is Unimportant

  1. I’m in total agreement, Doug. I’d like to share a couple anecdotes about agency-think.

    I’ve had a chance to watch researchers, client-side marketers and agency people behind the one-way mirror during focus groups. Young or old, researchers diligently seek “truths that lead to consumer action.” Usually mid-career, client-side folks stress out about consumer acceptance and brand cannibalism – stuff that affects sales. The agency sends children who snicker at consumers’ unhip clothing instead of noting the colors, textures and shapes that appeal to their target audience.

    My non-marketing friends all love Leo Burnett’s Mayhem ads for Allstate. They can recite them word-for-word. I asked, “Has anybody switched to Allstate?” Everybody shook their head, “No.” One was flabbergasted I would ask such a questions. He spit back, “That’s not the point. The point is to entertain me.” Unfortunately the agencies agree; Mayhem won Best of Show at the ADDYs.

    • Doug Garnett says:

      It’s sad, isn’t it? Fundamental communication truths says that Mayhem is a poor approach. But, it sure scores high on the “likeability” tests.

      What agencies forget is that while it’s important to “like” the people we buy products from, “likeability” of their advertising is not connected with likelihood of action. There’s tremendous proof, in fact, that if the product’s good enough and the ads are clear enough, people will buy products despite the ads.

      Fortunately, I have found clients who know this, share your frustrations and are beginning to demand more from their agencies.

      Thanks for the thoughts!

      …Doug Garnett

  2. Ted Grigg says:

    This is well written and cogent. I only wonder how these ideas about the purpose of advertising survive.

    It’s as if I had walked into my first agency job in the 70’s listening again to all of that pseudo intellectual rambling about likability scores and name recognition. We knew these things were important, but hardly as important as sales.

    Instead of testing campaigns for their cost efficiency and ability to yield ROI, we reverted into the narrow concept that awareness building and positioning alone always delivered incremental sales. The strategy somehow became more important than the objective. Striving for awareness and likability only reflect a strategy for achieving the objective. Clarity between the goal and the objective blurred.

    Selling in today’s environment will languish with this type of narrow thinking.

    After several recessions and the dominance of direct response on the Internet since the 70’s, you would think that accountability for sales would win the day. I think it has. And the type of nonsense your article exposes only chases clients away.

  3. Pingback: Humanity, Humility, Statistics & Brands. Thoughts About “How Brands Grow” by Byron Sharp « Doug Garnett's Blog

  4. Byron Sharp says:


    Please don’t bundle me in with some woolly thinking, and non-commercial, ad agency people. You know we are both outside that camp.

    What my book “How Brands Grow” says about persuasion is, to quote:
    “it happens less than advertising textbooks and models would have us believe”.
    “it is misplaced to conclude that advertising that affects intentions or attitude works better”

    Put simply the persuasion mechanism does not explain how the vast majority of advertising works (to generate sales).

    “How Brands Grow” presents 4 main ways that brand advertising works. Persuasion, via rational and emotional means, is one of them.

    But the main way advertising generates sales is by refreshing and building memory structures that make the brand easier to see and buy, in all the different situations and moods that buying takes place. It’s too much of a simplification to call this ‘merely reminding’.

    My conclusion is based largely on studying how people actually buy, and what they say (know and feel about brands). Millions of observations, before and after the 1970s.

    We both agree that because many marketers have incorrect views on how advertising does work they write briefs that miss the point, and set themselves on a path less likely to produce sales effective advertising.

    Professor Byron Sharp

    PS I recommend Ehrenberg, A. S. C., Barnard, N., Kennedy, R., & Bloom, H. (2002). Brand advertising as creative publicity. Journal of Advertising Research, 42(4), 7-18.

    • Doug Garnett says:

      Byron –

      Thanks for your comments. My apologies for any implication about “wooly thinking”. Your book offers such fresh and clear insight it is humbling to think I might have lumped you there. It was an inadequacy in writing that transition in my post.

      The two areas where I had concerns in the weight of your comments were persuasion and differentiation. I see now where those disclaimers lay.

      But, my reading of the book left me concerned that in recommending it, too many would miss your disclaimers and hear far too loudly your broader pronouncements. We, sadly, live in a field where superficial reading is the norm and where too many merely sip at learning in those areas where they need to drink deeply.

      As such, books often leave behind mis-perceptions that we practitioners have to fight through before helping our clients achieve their goals. So I clearly hear your observations and think we both have very similar perceptions about advertising. In my future post, I will balance my discussion more clearly.

      I think we also bring different emphasis from our quite varied experiences. In my unique specialty, we only rarely work with areas where the products and brands are well enough established that we have the luxury (? not really, it’s all hard work) of focusing on the subtleties of building memory structures. If we match advertising with creating a home, we are in the role of architects laying out core structures where the mass of advertising work takes place within those structures strengthening their value.

      As such, I find that traditional agencies only rarely have the necessary abilities to lay out structure where none exists. And it’s my experience that building those structures requires far more differentiation and persuasion than in many other areas of advertising. One key error for traditional agencies here is the error you note: attempting to make important things which are fundamentally insignificant to consumers. Fundamental structures must be built from big things – not small differentiations.

      Thanks, for your comments and the article reference.

      …Doug Garnett

  5. This article strongly matches my own experience at advertising agencies as a freelance copywriter. I find myself talking about proven techniques and strategies just to have a art director say, “it’s not clever enough.” Or they stare at me with blank eyes and tell me to search the stock photo database for something “cool.”

    Ad agencies have been taken over by those who misunderstand what is effective in getting a prospect to BUY. They believe that cool images and clever concepts does the trick. At best it will just get someone to glance at your ad. But in the end sells nothing.

    My experience also points to the fact that for most products and companies, branding doesn’t really do much. A medium-sized business that lacks millions to spend on brand building will get little by spending thousands on a new logo. Their customers just won’t care that much. Salesmanship works much better…

    • Doug Garnett says:

      Always glad to hear I’m not the only one seeking to find reality amidst agency hype. 🙂

      I’d interpret the mid-size/small size company issue with brand slightly differently. These companies desperately need the brand – because a good brand reduces the marketing resources required to move product through the channel. But, what agencies call “brand advertising” only works – when it IS effective – slowly so that its returns are only realized on very long time horizons – like 5 to 10 years.

      Mid-size and small-size companies can’t afford that time horizon because of their FINANCIALS (wish more advertising people would learn how to analyze campaigns according to business fundamentals).

      For these companies, they need agencies who balance the need for short-term sales with the ultimate goal of building a brand. That means these agencies need the business savvy to do this type of planning. My agency does that very successfully with our direct response television specialty – because DRTV deliver direct sales and a larger, very strong level of immediate retail sales. Just so, this can be done through direct mail, certain types of internet work, as well as print and other traditional advertising … if you know what you’re doing.

      Clients need agencies to consider every project (like your logo example) within the context of the small/mid-size company’s desperate need for revenue in order to keep the doors open.

      Sadly, most agencies lack the business savvy to do this. And, so, clients are left in the clutches of art school graduates whose only approach to advertising is “make it cooler” – not “make it deliver near term results”.

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