Advertising Principles - Evidence-based principles


From Persuasive Advertising by J. Scott Armstrong (Palgrave Macmillan 2010)

“ . . . the most dangerous word in all of advertising [is] originality.… Here,

misty, distant, and infinitely desirable, is the copywriter’s Holy Grail. Unfortunately

it has ruined more advertisers than it has ever made . . .” Rosser Reeves (1961)


The persuasion principles provide only one of the elements in the creative process, albeit an important one. The application of the principles requires much creativity.

Based on my reading of the experimental evidence, I have concluded that common approaches to creativity are detrimental. These include meetings, retreats, rewards for “creative thinking,” team building exercises, and urging people to be creative and to “think outside the box.” Not to mention the use of charismatic leaders. These approaches drew distain from creative advertisers in the past. Bill Bernbach summarized it well when he said: “Today, everybody is talking ‘Creativity,’ and frankly, that’s got me worried … I fear all the sins we may commit in the name of creativity.”

If you are concerned about creativity, do not look at current practice in other organizations. Most organizations use procedures that thwart creativity. My own industry is one of the leaders in this effort. If someone has evidence on a useful new technique or principle, we ask two or three experts in the area to vote on whether the researcher should be allowed to publish his evidence. Given that these reviewers are involved with the old approach, at least one will invariably vote no (for experimental evidence, see Mahoney 1977). In other words, we censor new approaches. We call it peer review and the original justification was that there is only so much space in journals. That argument has been eliminated by the Internet. But the system remains as a way to punish researchers who might stray and discover something new and useful.

This chapter provides advice on methods for identifying creative people and for nurturing their creativity. The research findings are counter-intuitive.

Find Creative People

Most organizations strive to hire team players who get along well with others. Is this wise where you are looking for creativity in an advertising environment? Here are some traits from studies of creative researchers in psychology and related areas (Jackson & Rushton 1987, p. 143-146):

Less-creative researchers

More-creative researchers

• fun-loving

• compulsive

• sociable

• dominant

• meek

• aggressive

• supportive

• anxious

• extraverted

• ambitious

• aesthetically sensitive

• independent


A review of research on creativity led to the conclusions that creative people describe themselves as original, emotional, enthusiastic, argumentative, assertive, independent, self-confident, rebellious, and impulsive. People who are not creative describe themselves as gentle, patient, peaceable, contented, and concerned with others. Creative people also tend to be uninterested in facts for their own sake. They lack interest in the details of life that most people think about (e.g., the weather, sports, TV, politics). On the other hand, creative people have a wide range of research interests and can combine ideas from different disciplines (Martindale 1989).

After reviewing research studies on the topic, Ng (2001) concluded that “‘nice people’ are not creative and creative people are not ‘nice’.” For example, in one study a personality test was administered to 58 individuals in the creative departments of prominent UK advertising agencies and small design groups—presumably jobs that require creativity. The results were compared with those of 70 managers in mainstream UK corporations taking the same test — jobs that presumably needed lesser degrees of creativity. The people in the “creativity jobs” scored much higher on neuroticism, hostility, and depression (Gelade 1997).

David Ogilvy was widely regarded as a genius in advertising, and I agree. The story goes that he wondered if it was true. After all, he had flunked out of Oxford. So he decided to find out exactly how smart he was, expecting to learn that his IQ was approximately 145. However, he reported that he scored 96 (Business Strategy Review 2005). It is difficult to believe Ogilvy’s story; after all, he had been admitted to Oxford. I suspect that he was trying to make a point that people should be judged based on performance, not on IQ. Very high intelligence does not play an important role in creativity. Even among research scientists, the evidence suggests that IQs beyond 120 do not play an important role in creativity.

After summarizing decades of research on personnel selection, Meehl (1956) advised that when deciding whom to hire, one should make a decision before meeting a candidate. Another half century of research supported Meehl’s advice (Grove et al. 2000). This advice leads one to focus on information about a candidate’s ability to perform the job. When you meet a person, you are distracted by features that might be irrelevant to the job, such as height, accent, looks, weight, and gender. Thus, some orchestras have applicants play behind a curtain when auditioning, a procedure that has enabled more women to get these jobs.

Because of their difficult personalities, it would seem to be especially important to make hiring decisions prior to meeting candidates when trying to hire creative people. One recommendation is to have them submit portfolios or other material evidence of creativity prior to a personal appearance. One might also consider having an administrator screen out irrelevant resume information such as religion, race, age, gender, and nationality.

If the work must be done in a group, one should consider the type of group. For example, might it be useful to have a diversified team working on a Glossary Link campaign? A Glossary Link meta-analysis of the performance on a variety of tasks compared groups that were formed to have “task-related” diversity with those formed to emphasize “bio-demographic” diversity. Task diversity groups were superior on quality and productivity (based on 15 and 9 experimental comparisons, respectively). Bio-demographic diversity did not aid performance; in fact, there was a slight negative relationship (Horwitz & Horwitz 2007). In summary, look for people who bring different skills and different knowledge, rather than looking for bio-demographic diversity. Note how this policy conflicts with policies in large organizations. For example, my industry celebrates bio-demographic diversity, which decreases creativity, and goes out of its way to punish diversity of ideas, such as in approaches to research and learning.[2]

Idea diversity can also be gained by soliciting advertising ideas from various stakeholders, such as customers, suppliers, or employees. I expect that much could be gained by developing procedures for listening to these people and deciding what actions might help.

Generate Creative Ideas

Many creative discoveries result primarily from the efforts of one person. Anecdotal evidence abounds. For example, Farnsworth invented the television, while RCA was unable to do so. Major companies have rejected inventions by such individuals as Steve Jobs, Chester Carlson, and Bill Bowerman (which led to Apple, Xerox and Nike, respectively). Great books, paintings, music, and architecture are created by individuals, not by committees. David Ogilvy said, Commercials should never be created in a committee… advertising seems to sell most when it is written by a solitary individual.”

When people get together in groups, creativity is suppressed. My guess is that the lifespan of a creative idea in a traditional group meeting is about a minute. Imagine how creative Benjamin Franklin would have been had he worked in one of today’s large organizations.

Group productivity also drops because of “social loafing.” People in groups tend to slack off, especially when they expect their co-workers to perform well. A meta-analysis of 78 social-loafing studies supported this belief (Karau & Williams 1993).

Dave Barry, the humorist, was serious when he wrote in 1998: “If you had to identify, in one word, the reason why the human race has not achieved, and never will achieve its full potential, that word would be ‘meetings.’”

Many well-respected advertisers, including George Lois, have had little love for meetings. Shirley Polykoff, a noted advertiser at Foote, Cone and Belding, wrote that in the 1950s, “big agencies … specialized in weekly staff meetings of monumental monotony.”

If you cannot eliminate meetings, limit the number of people who attend them. In the 1960s, Bill Bernbach formed teams consisting only of a copywriter and an art director. In the early 2000s, it was common for advertising agencies in London to hire two-person teams. [3] And, keep meetings short. Some firms use stand-up meetings as a way to keep them brief.

While meetings with clients are necessary, they frequently thwart creativity. Bill Bernbach told the Avis CEO, Bob Townsend, “You must promise to run everything we write, without changing a bloody comma … we don’t like to see it get all mucked up in committees. When good advertising goes up there, it gets uncreated.” But when Townsend saw the “We Try Harder” campaign, he thought it was awful and considered canceling it (Glatzer 1970). Fortunately for him and for Avis, he didn’t. Avis was still using the slogan as of 2009.

An alternative to in-person meetings is to allow people, especially those in creative jobs, to work independently, while remaining able to benefit from the suggestions of others. Memos and the Internet can provide efficient meeting substitutes. In some cases, face-to-face meetings are necessary—when negotiating, for example. However, when creativity and problem solving is important, face-to-face meetings are typically detrimental, as shown by evidence that I summarized (Armstrong 2006).

Here is a study on creativity in product development. A survey was conducted of 155 firms in the U.S. optics industry, with a follow-up survey on 73 of these firms. Because some firms were located near each other, they had more face-to-face communication. Other firms were more geographically distant; therefore, they relied primarily on e-mail communication. Those who relied less on face-to-face meetings had more creative new products and faster development times. However, the authors also noted the importance of developing strong personal ties; for example, initial face-to-face meetings can play a useful role (Ganesan, Malter & Rindfleisch 2005).

Problem statements

Solving a problem simply means representing it so as to

make the solution transparent. Herbert A. Simon, 1961

The phrasing of a problem will narrow the search for solutions. To get around this, write the problem statement in alternative ways and ask others to independently do the same. A problem phrased as, “How can we convince people to stop smoking?” will generate one set of solutions (e.g., tell smokers about the dangers of smoking). Phrasing the problem as, “What could be done to get people to stop smoking?” broadens the issue and generates other possibilities such as persuading nonsmokers to ask smokers not to smoke, or persuading legislatures to pass laws against smoking in public places. In effect, I am advocating “problem-storming.”

Brainstorming, Glossary Link Brainwriting, and Electronic Brainwriting

The presence of other people typically hampers creativity. Some members of a group might be reluctant to contribute because others might pass judgment on their ideas. In 1940, Alex Osborn, the “O” at the BBD&O advertising agency, addressed these issues using a procedure called “brainstorming,” a structured method of generating ideas by reducing evaluation. Evaluations of the ideas should occur at a later time using different procedures, and perhaps even different people.

To use brainstorming, you must first gain agreement from the group to try the technique for a fixed time period. Do not brainstorm for long periods. Ten minutes is usually sufficient for a given problem.

To make brainstorming work, you need a trained “facilitator,” who focuses only on the group process. Without a facilitator, groups are unable to adhere to the brainstorming process, as an experiment by Offner, Kramer and Winter (1996) showed. The facilitator:

a) does not introduce ideas, He concentrates only on helping the group follow the rules,

b) records ideas,

c) encourages a large number of ideas,

d) reminds the group not to evaluate ideas, either favorably or unfavorably, and

e) encourages unusual ideas.

Research on brainstorming has shown that facilitators and participants get better at brainstorming as they gain experience with this formal process.

To ensure that ideas are not lost, one person should be appointed to act solely as a recorder. The recording process should not be visible, however. When recording is done publicly, participants slow down to wait for the recorder to post the ideas, thus interrupting the flow of ideas (Offner et al. 1996).

Research on brainstorming has been conducted since the late 1950s. The findings show that when a brainstorming session is run with facilitators who follow the above guidelines, it generates many more creative ideas than does a traditional meeting with the same number of man-hours. While the procedure requires training and the use of at least one facilitator, the benefits, in terms of useful ideas, can be enormous.

The original brainstorming procedure focused on avoiding negative feedback. Further research led to the conclusion that positive feedback was also harmful (e.g., “That’s a great idea”). In fact, it is even more damaging than negative feedback because it leads groups to conclude that their job was finished (Connolly, Jessup & Valacich 1990).

Interestingly, few firms actually use brainstorming as described here and as tested in research studies. My career has led to experience with many organizations over nearly half a century, yet I have never been in a brainstorming group run by anyone in these organizations. Many people, my students for example, tell me that they have been involved in brainstorming sessions; however, when I ask them to describe the process, it is clear that they are describing traditional meetings. David Kelly, founder of IDEO, a well-respected consulting company that helps clients develop new products, also found that companies seldom use brainstorming. Part of the success of IDEO is because they help companies to properly use brainstorming (Sutton & Hargadon 1996).

Brainstorming reduces group pressures, but it does not eliminate them. An even more effective way to reduce pressure is to use “brainwriting.” In brainwriting, people individually and anonymously write ideas. The ideas are then put into a master list.

Brainwriting can be done when people are at different locations; or it can be done within a meeting by taking short “timeouts” and asking people to individually write as many ideas as they can on the topic for about 6 to 10 minutes. To reduce evaluation concerns, participants should not sign their list. The ideas are then combined into a master list.

Over 20 studies have shown that brainwriting is substantially more effective than brainstorming (Gallupe et al. 1991). In addition to reducing group pressure, less time is spent on listening (Diehl & Stroebe 1987). Thus, it is much less time-consuming especially with large groups. Large groups can participate in brainwriting.

Organizations with a frequent need for creativity should consider electronic brainwriting. With this process, creative people enter their ideas on a computer program. When all participants have finished, the ideas are listed anonymously on a screen. Consider the advantages: Because everybody is writing simultaneously, it takes less time; because of the anonymous nature, everybody is equal; it can be held with group members in remote locations; people can work on it when it is convenient; people can sleep on ideas; and there is a complete record of the ideas generated.

Lab experiments have shown that, for s given level of man-hours, electronic brainwriting groups can produce many more “high-quality ideas” than properly conducted brainstorming groups. Furthermore, the subjects were more satisfied with electronic brainwriting (Gallupe et al. 1992; Valacich et al. 1994). Another study, describing lab experiments, concluded: “Across five studies involving more than 800 people, productivity advantages have ranged from 25 percent to 50 percent for four-person groups and to nearly 200 percent for twelve-person groups” (Gallupe & Cooper 1993).

Electronic brainwriting is gaining popularity. By the late 1900s, several million people in over 1,500 organizations around the world had used electronic brainwriting (Briggs, Nunamaker & Sprague 1998).

A related approach to brainwriting is called “gallery writing.” This can be done manually or electronically. In the manual mode, group members silently write unsigned suggestions about the discussion topic on flip charts. They then post the pages on the walls. Others write comments on the suggestions. This approach is effective and is well liked by participants (Aiken and Vanjani 2003).

It helps to set high goals for the number of ideas to be generated. This conclusion is based upon the substantial literature on goal setting (Locke & Latham 2002). It was tested directly for generating ideas for advertising: groups of subjects were asked to generate one, three, five, or eight ideas for advertising a hypothetical brand of beer. A panel of four advertising professionals rated the ideas. The group given the goal of generating 8 ideas actually generated 25; furthermore, the percentage of good ideas did not wane as the quantity of ideas increased. The group given the lowest goal generated only one idea (Bergh, Reid & Schorin 1983).

The use of analogies can aid the search for creative solutions. Listing similar problems and describing possible solutions can stimulate ideas for solving a current problem. For example, if the task is to advertise automobiles, one might think about how other forms of transportation (trains or ships) were successfully advertised. To avoid suppressing creativity, examine these after, not before, developing your initial ideas.

Groups can enhance creativity with the above-mentioned structured procedures. An alternative is to use virtual groups. In these, participants communicate using e-mail, reports, and letters, but do not meet face-to-face. Thus, they are not influenced by factors, such as a person’s height or looks, body language, facial expressions, tone, or other factors that might cause them to be careful about suggesting ideas that differ from the ideas that are prevalent in the group. As a result, virtual groups can use inputs from many people. I summarize evidence on the value of alternatives to face-to-face meetings in Armstrong (2006).

The “second-solution” technique offers another approach to generating ideas. A facilitator asks the group members what the best solution would be if they were prohibited from using their first solution. This technique aids implementation because the group’s energy is devoted to finding alternatives rather than defending the current solution. In a problem involving a change in employee work procedures, the solutions were of better quality when groups were instructed to find a second solution after they had initially solved the problem. The second solutions were obtained in approximately two-thirds of the time needed to find the first solutions, and the groups generally preferred their second solutions to the first ones (Maier & Hoffman 1960).

Despite their popularity, I advise against the use of focus groups. As shown by a lab experiment, it is more cost efficient to generate ideas by using individual non-directive interviews (Fern 1982). Focus group are also prone to misuse in that many people interpret the results of focus group sessions as evidence or as forecasts.

Build on Ideas

“I have learned that any fool can write a bad ad, but it takes

a real genius to keep his hands off a good one.” Leo Burnett, 1950s

Consider what happens when a group member has an idea that differs from the beliefs of the other members. Initially, the others will try to bring the deviant member into line by reasoning with that person. If they are unsuccessful, they frequently ostracize the deviant person. This phenomenon is easy to demonstrate. There are studies in social psychology that demonstrate the enormous strength of this effect – such as the famous Johnny Rocco study by Schachter (1951) – but I imagine many readers have experienced this phenomenon.

One way to address this problem of rejecting new ideas is to use the “build” technique. Instead of discussing the negative aspects of an idea, focus on how to clarify or improve it. This enables the group to nurture ideas that differ, and helps group members to avoid the feeling that new and creative ideas are to be avoided. This technique requires a discussion leader to keep the group on track.

Maier (1963), which is still one of the best books on how to run groups, provided the following suggestions for groups (which I have modified). These suggestions are especially relevant for group leaders for face-to-face meetings, but they can also be modified for virtual groups:

Be problem-centered. Keep all discussions problem-centered and avoid looking for excuses or seeking to blame others for a problem. Avoid negative statements.

Record suggestions. Keep track of all suggestions for solving a problem so that each may be explored fully at some point.

Explore. Explore multiple suggestions for addressing an issue. Ask probing questions, such as “Are there alternatives to using emotion to convince people?” “Do we have enough information about what the customers want?” “Are we mistaken in the assumptions about the target market?”, “Is there a way to combine suggestions to generate an even better ad?” or “Is there any relevant research on the issue?”

Protect people. Protect individuals from personal attacks and criticism. Ensure that their ideas are thoughtfully considered.

Protect alternative viewpoints. Innovations come from different viewpoints; nurture rather than ignore such viewpoints. Maier and Solem (1952) illustrate this by using this problem: “A man bought a horse for $60 and sold it for $70. Then he bought it back again for $80 and again sold it for $90. How much money did he make in the horse business?” The correct answer is $20; yet 55% of his subjects got it wrong. As expected, group discussion helped, especially when leaders were trained to consider alternative views. In these groups, only 16% of the groups got the wrong answer versus 28% in the leaderless groups. I have found that correct answers can be obtained in nearly all groups if group members each solve the problem separately before the group discusses the solutions. This protection of alternative viewpoints is especially important for problems where only a single person in the group has the right answer.

Understand and resolve differences. Understand differences of opinions within the group and attempt to resolve them.

These are useful guidelines, backed up with evidence. However, to my knowledge, they are rarely used in organizations.

Despite the improved creativity and productivity that comes from structured meetings, many people prefer unstructured meetings. They feel more satisfied and believe that they have produced more ideas by using an unstructured free-flowing format. However, this satisfaction has often been shown to be inversely related to the number of useful ideas that were generated (e.g., Connolly et al. 1990; Paulus et al. 1993; Valacich et al. 1994).

Exhibit D provides a summary listing of the processes for creativity in advertising:


Exhibit D: Developing and Nurturing Creativity: A Checklist



Find creative people:

__ judge their work, not them (avoid bio-demographic information)

__ decide whom to hire before meeting a candidate.

Generate creative ideas by using

__ many individuals, working independently.

__ multiple problem statements.

__ brainwriting.

__ analogies.

__ second-solution technique

Build on ideas before evaluation with:

__ virtual teams

__ structured meetings.

[1] One of my favorite book titles is for a biography of a charismatic leader in the “creative” Hollywood film industry: Don’t Say Yes Until I Finish Talking.

[2] We claim it is not possible to assess learning so we ask people to tell us whether they are happy with courses. This approach, once prevalent in medicine, has been discarded. They now assess whether medical procedures actually contribute to better health.

[3] White, Erin (2004), “To make your pitch at U.K. ad agencies, you’ll need a partner,” Wall Street Journal.


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