John Locke said we were born ‘table rasa’.
In other words a blank sheet of paper.
We know absolutely nothing, we have to learn everything from the beginning.
But we can’t learn everything.
So we learn what applies to us.
Then we think that is everything.
I thought the advertising debate about product versus brand was about a decade old.
But I’ve just seen a piece of film from the 1950s that proves it’s about 60 years old.
Apparently Rosser Reeves, who ran Ted Bates, was the father of the USP.
The unique selling proposition.
You find, or manufacture, something different about your product.
A reason consumers should buy it rather than your competitor’s product.
Then make that the basis of all your advertising.
So far so good.
That makes perfect sense.
Demonstrate a reason to purchase and build a brand around that.
The problem was, this being the fifties, the advertising was pretty dire.
Just repeat the USP again and again.
Until it becomes like a bad Eurovision song you can’t get out of your head.
So the thinking was good.
But the execution was bad.
The other side of the coin was Norman B. Norman, who ran NCK.
He was the father of ‘emotional’ advertising.
Never mind what the product actually did.
Find out what the consumer wanted, and sell it back to them.
This was the start of Planning (or ‘motivational research’ as it was called then) looking for ‘insights’.
On the film, Norman B. Norman gave 3 examples.
Ajax Laundry Detergent claimed to wash whiter than other detergents.
The problem was everyone was saying the same thing.
So, rather than find a better way of saying it, Norman B. Norman looked for a consumer insight.
He said, “Of course the housewife wants a whiter wash. But what she really wants is no laundry at all. She’d like someone to make the problem disappear.”
This lead to an advertising campaign for Ajax where a white knight galloped along the road on a charger.
He tapped the dirty washing with his lance and magically transformed it into piles of clean, pressed laundry.
His contention was that women would associate their fantasy with Ajax, and buy the brand.
Another example he gave was for Handi-Wrap cling film.
The product benefit was, it kept food fresh, conveniently.
But Norman B. Norman found this dull and unmotivating.
The consumer insight he found was “What’s a woman really wants is her husband’s approval. She doesn’t want him to open his lunch at work and find it dry as a bone. She doesn’t want him to be disappointed in her.”
So the brief became ‘a husband’s approbation’.
And the execution became a Dracula-like character called ‘The Spoiler’.
He shrivelled-up the husband’s food unless it was wrapped in Handi-Wrap.
The third example he gave was for Ajax Floor Cleaner.
This was apparently the most powerful modern cleaning powder.
But Norman B. Norman decided that was too dull.
So he looked for a consumer insight.
And again found that women would really rather not clean floors at all.
They secretly wished they could get it all get done as if by magic.
So the advertising vehicle became a wizard who tangoed through the kitchen with the housewife.
Everywhere they danced the kitchen was magically sparkling bright.
I remember when advertising was done by people like Norman B, Norman.
And I disagree with pretty much everything he stands for.
For a start, I don’t think women are that stupid.
I think promising the impossible is patronising and demeaning.
Secondly, I think he’s taking research and misinterpreting it.
It’s like cutting the back legs off a grasshopper.
Then shouting at it and noticing it doesn’t jump.
And taking this to prove that grasshoppers hear through their legs.
Because cutting them off makes them go deaf.
That’s how not to use research.
But just because one agency does it badly, that shouldn’t invalidate an entire discipline.
Norman B. Norman is the ‘brand’ route done badly.
Rosser Reeves is the ‘product’ route done badly.
But what’s really wrong is thinking there’s one magic formula in all cases.
There isn’t now.
There never was.
We still have to think.
We can’t just kneejerk into a quick fix.
Because the deeper truth is, the answer will always be in one of two places.
Either in the product.
Or in the consumer.
And we have to be prepared to use our brains to see which solution is right.
Then, most importantly, we have to brilliantly bring it to life.
Which neither Rosser Reeves nor Norman B. Norman had the brains to see.